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Race at the seaside: What shapes British seaside culture?

Updated Monday, 23rd July 2012

Daniel Burdsey explains why British seaside towns are markedly less multicultural compared with other urban areas in the nation.

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Laurie Taylor:
We never went to Blackpool except to see the lights and then, of course, we spent the whole time going up and down the Golden Mile in a Crosville coach and so we never actually set foot on what my mum probably regarded as contaminated ground.

Instead, we went to Lytham St Anne's, it was only a few miles down the coast but it catered more for 'nice people' - for our sort of people.

Class seemed to play a pretty big part in all our family seaside decisions, because we went to - we went to Paignton rather than Torquay; Bridlington rather than Scarborough; Colwyn Bay rather than Rhyl and Port Erin, all the way over to the Isle of Man, Port Erin rather than Douglas. I suppose we were trying to avoid this sort of happy vulgarity:

[Musical extract]

Ices, Ices, Winkles, Whelks and Crabs, The Two Ronnies' gentle rather loving parody of the working class seaside holiday. But it's not class at the seaside which is going to concern us now, but colour.

A new research paper called Strangers on the Shore in the journal Cultural Sociology looks in detail at the whiteness of the British seaside - not just the lack of black faces among the residents and visitors but also the whiteness of seaside popular culture.

And its author is Daniel Burdsey, who's senior lecturer at - well, where else - the Chelsea School of Sport at the University of Brighton and he's with me now.

Daniel, that Two Ronnies little bit of music suggest that really the British seaside is a place of pleasure, fun and escape but here you are taking another perspective, what set you off on this one?

Daniel Burdsey:
Sure, well my interest in this area I guess was a sort of a collision of a variety of research interests. The first one being an interest in the relation between race, space and place and particularly the way in which race and multiculture is lived and experienced in non-urban locations.

I'm also a sociologist of sport and leisure cultures, so I've always had this interest in popular culture and entertainment and amusements. But I guess it's also a classic case of the influence of the sociological imagination. I was born in a seaside town, I still live in a seaside town and I work in another seaside town - so these things are very [close] to me.

Laurie Taylor:
You walk around and think this place - how white this place is. Tell me a little tiny bit about the sort of demographic factors which have produced this whiteness. I actually have some figures here, I'm just looking at Brighton, I looked it up because I knew you were from there, and ethnicity - this is a 2001 census: White 94.2%, Black or Black British 0.76% - it is, as you say, a very white place, isn't it?

Daniel Burdsey:
Sure, seaside locations remain overwhelmingly white places. [There's] a number of reasons for this, I think. Traditionally minority ethnic communities have lived in urban locations of the bigger towns and cities and we can trace that back to the mass migrations of the 1950s and '60s to places of industry.

Laurie Taylor:
And in many cases, of course, they're coming in and arriving and joining families who already are living in urban locations, aren't they, because of the work?

Daniel Burdsey:
Absolutely, absolutely. And more peripheral coastal locations tend to have relatively immobile populations who tend to live for generations without perhaps moving in or out.

There's also an over-representation of older populations which does tend to contribute to a whiter demographic in these places. Sign welcoming visitors to Brighton and Hove Welcome to Brighton for everyone?

Laurie Taylor:
And you'd want to say, I think, that at the coast or in seaside towns there's an association somehow between being in a seaside town, being by the sea, and what people who are perhaps white feel about national identity - this place is somehow 'for' them?

Daniel Burdsey:
Yes, I think you're right. I think the seaside is still embedded in aspects of the national psyche and survey evidence suggests that people do still closely associate the seaside with aspects of national identity.

I think there's a geographical issue here: the coast or the seaside is literally a place on the edge, the edge of the nation, it's a finite border and so it's habitually associated with notions of invasion and defence - both the white cliffs of Dover are the...

Laurie Taylor:
And it fits nicely. It just suddenly came to me this, that [I think] Paul Theroux wrote about the number of sort of Brits who go and drive their cars to the edge of the country and sit there staring out to sea, which he said, really they are imaginatively seeing themselves as the old imperialist, they see themselves, like their ancestors, sailing away. Possibly, that's a bit fanciful but anyway...

Very interestingly though, after having analysed the demographic facts of this, you turned to the ways in which really the social attractions of seaside towns [are], if you like,[...] white attractions.

Daniel Burdsey:
Yes, I identified a number of themes within the seaside amusements and entertainments and other aspects of popular culture and the things I identified, firstly, was the way in which these amusements and entertainments promote and exoticised and/or orientalist representation of the ethnic or racial other;

The way in which representations of white bodies are juxtaposed against black ones;

And finally the way in which seaside amusements and entertainments engage in ideas of exploring and conquering sort of non-Western primitive landscapes, whether that be the jungle or the wild west or ancient Egypt.

Laurie Taylor:
So a lot of these old amusements, these arcades, these museums, these galleries or whatever, in many cases black faces are absent, but if they're present they're present in a rather stereotypical fashion?

Daniel Burdsey:
Absolutely. I mean there's strong historical reference to this, you can trace this back...

Laurie Taylor:
But I suppose many people listening would say well it's a lot of old kitsch and it's stuck there and no doubt it has some of these resonances, I mean would you want to say however, if people came to look at this they would feel themselves sort of absent or would they feel themselves offended by it?

Daniel Burdsey:
I think the bottom line is that most people engaging in seaside leisure, entertainments, amusements perhaps don't appreciate the signifying attributes of these things. It is a place for fantasy, of fun, adventure, escapism but I think just because they don't perhaps have these sort of functioning connotations for people we shouldn't ignore the sort of....

Laurie Taylor:
Are we talking about attraction or repulsion? That black people decide that they don't want to go to places like this because they feel of them as white, or do you feel that the sort of white people there are actively hostile?

When you've looked at these towns are there other aspects of those towns and the way they behave, the political decisions they make, which suggests to you that really there is some ideology lurking behind these representations?

Daniel Burdsey:
I think that might be a tenuous link.

I think the issue around the way in which these environments are racialised from the sort of subsequent research is more about the sort of control and dominance of social space with certain parts of seafronts, towns, being seen as sort of safer spaces and others not.

But what was clear I think which came out of this and some of the subsequent research is that what is often seen as innocent tradition for some people can actually have quite racialised and excluding connotations for other groups.

Laurie Taylor:
But you would want to say that when arguments break out about asylum seeking and immigration that [...] more emphasis is likely to be placed on them in seaside towns?

Daniel Burdsey:
Well, I think this is related to the sort of changing demographics of migration and also issues around the dispersal of asylum seekers, refugees and people of a regular migration status. The policies may be hammered out in government but it is in seaside towns where the actual implications are being felt by ...

Laurie Taylor:
And you reference actually specific campaigns insulting, for example, against temporary housing and people who are asylum seekers.

Daniel Burdsey:
That's right.

Laurie Taylor:
Just a last question. What is happening now - I mean there are changes occurring now, you already refer to the fact that there are sort of ethnic minority groups who've often gravitated to the seaside, you've talked about sort of Italians and others who've found a place in the seaside town quite naturally, but there is a shift, a change, going on now, isn't there?

Daniel Burdsey:
Very much so and I think this is characteristic of what's happening in the UK more generally.

What we're seeing is diversity appearing in more and more sort of peripheral places. So what's been labelled in the literature as new spaces of multiculture or new gateways to immigration are being found in rural and coastal spaces.

And with the seaside I think the key dynamics are increasing migration, also people who may have migrated in the '50s and '60s from the Caribbean or the Indian subcontinent to the bigger cities are now retiring to the seaside, and also an increasingly youthful population of minority ethnic people who were born at the seaside.

Laurie Taylor:
Good, thank you so much. It would be interesting, wouldn't it, to hear from - to hear from people who have - from black people, from others, other minority groups, who spend time at the seaside and felt, if you like, the type of - the type of not discrimination, we want to call it, what would we want to call it, perhaps the sort of the type of distance which is maintained by those who live at the seaside to those sorts of outsiders. Daniel Burdsey thank you very much.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4 on Novermber 16th, 2011.


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