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Skegvegas taught me how to put on a show

Northampton bluesman Eric Whitehouse shares his memories of seaside holidays and what a summer in Skegvegas taught him about showbusiness…

Recently, my lovely Annie and I took a nostalgic limp down Memory Lane to revisit, for a few days, a fondly remembered institution: the ‘British Seaside Holiday’. Although Annie is younger than me,we were both brought up in the era before the Spanish exodus, when ordinary people took their holidays in Britain; consequently we both had sepia views of East Coast venues lurking in the misty recesses of our minds. I conjured up my map of available resorts and, from my experience, it went like this:

Clacton – Londoners.
Southwold – Posh londoners.
Gt Yarmouth – Northampton on Sea.
Cromer – Weston Favell, authors, actors and TV people.
Skegness – THE NORTH.

By far the most attractive of these was, of course, Skeggy or ‘Skegvegas’ as it is ironically known to its residents these days. The neon lights on the clocktower beckoned to me and a wave of nostalgia and a bracing breeze blew me back to my first encounter with this strange enchanted land long ago, in the hazy smog of my youth.

To be precise, it was in the summers of 1968, 1969, and 1970, when me and my good friend and bandmate, Loz, would head off for the bright lights every time we had a few days to spare. At first, we would travel in Loz’s old Morris Oxford, pumping the brakes furiously, and latterly in the band’s Transit van. Our accommodation was, of course, our transport. We were chancing our arm at finding places to play and earn a few bob. We entered the talent contest on the front – four times – and invariably came second. We were beaten every time, either by a guy who played ‘Stranger on the Shore’ or a child. The clarinetist turned out to be the council’s entertainment officer.

We repaired to the public bar of the Pier Hotel for a liquid lunch. It was a large, dark room purveying the wares of the Mansfield Brewery and inhabited by aged couples on holiday from Sheffield, South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Notts and Leicestershire. The men were steel workers, miners and factory workers. They wore waistcoats, cloth caps and smoked Woodbines. The women had perms and, sometimes, headscarfs. When we played, a clicking rhythm rose from the audience as men played ‘the bones’ under the table. Sometimes the boneists would dance in a Tangoey fashion. Me and Loz would start by his sliding up to the piano and gently coaxing a melody from it, gradually increasing in volume until it had caught the attention of some of the room, at which point, I would leap up with my banjo and regale the assembled proletariat with a George Formby song. They were working class, middle aged, family people; we were young, wild long hairs, living a dream, but playing the old songs and they loved us. We became a regular turn at lunchtime ( a welshman called…er, Taffy had the evening gig) and we learnt the art of ‘bottling’ – sending the hat round.

The Pier was inhabited by a regular crowd of characters who took up one corner of the bar and who had found their way to this mecca of entertainment via the well worn paths of marital breakdown, financial disaster and trouble with the law. They were showmen, fairground casuals, hustlers and gamblers. They were all capable of a ‘good turn’ and were alcoholics to a man. The VP wine bottle was under the table and the only charge for admission to the company was your admission fee – the price of a pint. Ted looked like Clark Gable with a red nose and did a stunt faking classy runs on the piano a la Max Wall, and climaxed by prat falling off the end. Bez could fall asleep anywhere, leaving a strategically placed cap for contributions from sympathetic holidaymakers. Big Barry (not ‘Baz’) ran a scheme aimed at defrauding the Egg Marketing Board which involved putting lots of trays of eggs in car boots. Peripheral members of the gang were invoved in buying, selling, betting and card sharpery.

clock tower

Tommy Smart was bloody ugly. He was crosseyed, hare lipped, and wore a bowler hat with no brim. It was completely natural that he became our drummer and bottle man. We infested not only The Pier, but also the British Legion Club further along the front, and Hildred’s, The Lion, The Ship and others. The Ship had beautiful art deco appointments, dating from the 30s. There was a dive bar called The Chuckwagon, which operated late night drinking by virtue of having a late night supper license, demanding the purchase of a grotty cheese and onion roll. We were Kings of Skeggy at this time, giving us the right to terrorise poor, timid John Wall, The Chuckwagon’s resident organist into thinking we were going to take his job !

Really, we were just passing through, but during this time our playing and presentation improved and we learnt how to work an audience and command maximum attention.
As a young man, looking for adventure and love, I can say that 60’s ‘Skeggy’ scored pretty good on the first count and helped transform me from a rank amateur performer into a prety good trooper in a short amount of time, without the need to sober up for a minute. The first count?…Oh,… it got me a date with Jasmine, a waitress from Horncastle (but she didn’t turn up).

Twenty first century Skeggy hasn’t changed that much, although Hildred’s is now a shopping arcade (called…erm…Hildred’s) and the other pubs are now bare with machines, flashing lights and all that. The British Legion is still there and there are a couple of small music bars. The people are still working class, mostly white and middle aged. It is the capital of England for mobility scooters and there are at least six large shops specialising in these. The pavements are eroded and dangerous. Skegness is so bracing and, one day, the wind was so strong we had to set ourselves against it, but Skeggy is constantly what it always has been to me: a place that made me smile. I love the working class camaraderie and people who hail you with “ay up, our kid”. I love that which has not changed, and that makes me old and proud. Oh, and we stayed at Butlins and loved every minute of it – both of us!

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