Sunday 9 February 2020

A visit to Eerie-on-Sea


If there is anyone who still hasn't read Malamander, they really need to. Thomas Taylor's glorious middle-grade novel is set in the dreary seaside town of Eerie-on-Sea, which is the site of some seriously sinister goings-on. This week I was lucky enough to visit Eerie-on-Sea and meet up with Thomas, just back from his US book tour. The pretext was fossil-hunting, for which Eerie (AKA Eastbourne on the Sussex coast) is a fine spot — but not my usual spot, so I was very glad of Thomas's guidance. We spent a happy day trudging over pebbles and clambering over rocks in the February wind, wielding a hammer and staring at the ground.

Ravilious, Eastbourne. Far from the old-lday,
swirly carpet look I was dreading
Eastbourne was surprisingly pleasant, but I did get to see its Eerie side a little. I arrived Monday afternoon and immediately set off towards the fossiliferous end of the beach. Soon it was raining, a cold, grey mizzle that was slowly soaking me. As I rarely take much in the way of spare anything when travelling, I headed back towards the radiators to dry out my clothes. It was an Eerie-ish start. Every cafe I passed was closed. Even the cafes Google claimed were open were closed. The wind blew, the rain rained, the seagulls swooped like pteradactyls on the look-out for chips. I saw a sign for 'winter gardens' and thought that, at least, should be open in winter. But it was dilapidated and shut, the paint peeling off the once-ornate fretwork. I ended up in a chain coffee shop reading and wondering if there would be anywhere to get some dinner.

Beachy Head: not Eerie at all
The next day was brighter. After fossil-hunting, Thomas directed me to the pier (in the book) and the Victorian tea rooms (morphed into a fish-and-chip shop in the book) and a burnt-out hotel, also in the book. I walked back to the pier, which didn't disappoint, and saw a man next to the No Fishing sign throwing back a large flat fish. I asked him why he didn't want it, and he said it was too big for his frying pan. The Victorian tea rooms had an air of aspiring to run-down gentility. I suppose it could actually once have been genteel and was now run-down, but it didn't quite look genuine. I failed to have tea there as they had a £5 card limit and I had no cash and didn't want two cakes. They seemed quite glad I left;  my bedraggled, wind-blown appearance and large rucksack full of rocks were far from genteel. The burnt-out hotel was, well, burnt-out.
Edge of a large ammonite

I didn't see any monsters or find any villains. I saw a fox and two hares and a raven. But it got me thinking about the places books are based on and how as writers we build the place anew but embodying the essence of it more purely than the real place does. When, as readers, we visit the places that have been borrowed or transformed like this, they have an edge of instability. Think of the Venice of Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza novels or Michelle Lovric's Drowned Child, the Oxford of His Dark Materials, and the London of a hundred different books — all places transformed but recognisable. As you walk around there is a sort of shimmering of the Other City just beneath the surface or around the corner. You half expect to see it, but know you won't. It's too good at hiding, but somehow feels more real than the public face.

Places are enriched by this transformation, given new depth and allure. I had never been to Eastbourne before and my expectations were based on Eerie-on-Sea. Although the town didn't match it, I could see it there, in the broken winter gardens, the bored seagulls, the driving rain and the closed cafes. There's a kind of intimacy created by visiting somewhere that has been written about by someone who really knows the place, can see into its heart and knows its darker side. I felt I knew its secrets, that this face it presents to the world, if we scratched the surface, would reveal its villains and monsters and adventures. What lurks beneath the swirly carpets?

Thank you, again, Thomas, for a great day. Can't wait for Malamander book 2 in May!

Anne Rooney
Out now, Lonely Planet:


Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely piece and pictures!

Enid Richemont said...

Oh must read MALAMANDER. London at present is reflecting Pratchett's/Gaiman's BAD OMENS, with a howling gale, rain, and just now, a clap of thunder. Expecting the Horsemen to arrive any minute now.

Andrew Preston said...
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