If you’re from the North West or even south-west Scotland, Blackpool will probably be a regular feature of your youth: unless your parents voted Tory and habitually took you somewhere posher; either of which are rare in the north but do occasionally happen. For me, though, Fleetwood, Cleveleys and Knott End had yet more significance: my parents owned a caravan in Pilling, from when I was five to when I was gone fourteen. These were the most accessible resorts, along with Grange-over-Sands, Hambleton, and occasionally Carnforth or Morecambe.
As a young boy with no agency of my own, I experienced the region with little or no geography; it was always a jumble of different scenes witnessed in montage from the back of a car I couldn’t drive. Only towards the end. of my time in Pilling did I once or twice venture out a long way on my bike: in this way bikes, gave me my first tastes of freedom; cars in comparison, have always been about control and management.
Once or twice I cycled out from Pilling, north through the village proper, then along the coastal path to Knott End. I had that much direction, just about; but even that was vague. I knew to head north; find the sea; head west. The Fylde coast’s flatness and squareness would do the rest for me. And so I bumbled alongside what I now know to be Pilling Sands but at the time could have been something to do with Morecambe’s wide, wide beaches and sandbanks. It never occurred to my parents to teach me the geography; it never occurred to me, tethered as I was to them, to learn it.
It still surprises me that so many of my memories of that time are devoid of notions of relative place. Just that montage, playing in no particular order: Four Lane Ends; Glasson Dock and Conder Green; the Knott End ferry; the weirdly 70s-posh caravan site Cala Gran; the Golden Ball pub at Snatchems, marooned at high tide; Fleetwood’s now demolished pier, with Jollies’ Bar next to and part of it, the fort down on the sand made out of tarred telegraph poles, and the pier’s buildings which contained most of the arcade games of my youth.
These things now exist to me (some of them no longer exist any other way) as a bookish narrative, rather than a topographical geography. A book I can never begin to write, yet full of dim reminiscences of the rusted playground at the caravan park, muddy fields full of cows (which would low at night as I bedded down near my grandparents as they watched the little portable telly), storms on tin roofs, a washroom with weirdly hypnotic coin mechanisms, ice cream and wet weekends.
It’s a book whose pages open, not to reveal words for others to read, but rather to let burst forth – blue-black upon black – the scrappy, flannel forms of half a dozen bats, that once flitted above me and my dad’s heads. We both stood in the semi-dark behind a pub in Pilling: him smoking a cigarette and trying to point out the tiny, flying forms to me; me in turn telling him in my eager child’s voice that I was certain I could hear some of them them squeak.