Your average Brit, I have noticed, behaves radically differently while on holiday in contrast to when he or she is at home. It seems almost impossible that the Tourist sitting in front of me, clad in shorts, ill-fitting T-shirt and a miasma of sweat and suntan lotion, is the same shirt and tie-wearing white collar worker that lives next door to you. Having had the oppurtunity to observe a number of them at close hand over the years, I have reached the conclusion that at some point between (say) Ashby-de-la-Zouch and Moriconium (perhaps somewhere halfway along the A31), the Householder submits to a wholly perplexing transformation and becomes a Tourist.
What marks the Tourist out, to me, is his slavishness to convention. He thinks that because he is On Holiday, he must do those things which are done while On Holiday. It’s the urge that makes holidaymakers walk along the prom in the rain, swaddled in weatherproof gear and struggling to hold their hoods in place while battling into the gales at a forty-five degree angle. The reason why they sit in deckchairs eating 99s when the south coast is seeing its wettest March in decades. It’s the primal instinct which compels entire families to disgorge from their people-carriers in beach carparks, laden down with windbreakers, lilos, beach umbrellas, silly straw hats, those huge inflatable rings much-favoured by small children, beach-balls, garish swimming shorts, buckets, spades, suncream, sunglasses and myriad other impedimenta. It’s why they eat fish and chips.
Those of you with good memories may recall my mentioning having worked in a chippy. By which I do not mean your average punningly-named neighbourhood fish and chip shop. I mean that for three years I was a manager at a 300-cover fish and chip restaurant located directly on the beach, with an attached takeaway outlet. I have, believe me, seen the Tourist’s mania for battered fish and chips at close hand, in all its gory, white-fleshed detail. It scares me. The chippy was located on the pier approach. Next door there was a ghastly chain pub serving generic pub food; accross the plaza a kind of surfer-themed burger joint; at the end of the pier a fairly unremarkable seafood restaurant; two hundred yards down the beach an entirely remarkable seafood restaurant. Along with stalls selling bugers, hot-dogs, ice-creams and so on and so forth. However, only at the chippy would there be a queue of more than a hundred people waiting to be seated. On a regular basis, a waiter would have to be sent to the back of the queue to inform the people waiting there that it would take at least an hour to get to the front of the queue, let alone be seated. Yet still they would queue, so great is the imperative that while At the Seaside, one should eat fish and chips. I still have nightmares about one August bank holiday. I spent the entirety of my three thirteen-hour shifts behind the frying range, mechanically dunking fillets of cod into rice flour, then batter, then hot oil. The till reports at the end of Monday revealed that we had served more than five thousand meals that weekend. Five thousand. Admittedly, Jesus managed the same over the course of a single evening using only two small fish (we used about a ton, all told), but I still think it’s pretty impressive.
The link between being At the Seaside and fish and chips is a remarkably strong one. In fact, one can use it as something of a tell when dining in a pub within five miles of the coast: chain pubs will serve normal pub food, indistinguishable from all the other pubs in the estate- a Harvester is a Harvester is a Harvester, be it situated on the beach or in the middle of Birmingham. Freehouses, however, will most likely style themselves as “specialising in seafood”. In many cases, this equates to a prawn cocktail (defrosted, water-sodden shelled prawns in a mix of cheap ketchup and mayo, lounging forlornly on yellowing iceberg) among the starters and then scampi and battered cod amongs the mains. Some self-consciously “traditional” places might have a pint of prawns on the menu, but it’s often rather uninspiring. I am fortunate that the Bear is not such a pub: the Head Chef is actually really good with seafood, and our weekend specials can vary from homely traditional classics like whisky-potted shrimp to elaborate Thai-influenced dishes with strangely named fish and red curry paste. I’ve learnt a great deal over the past year. Coming from a background in patisserie and viande mainly, I confessed during my interview that I knew dick about fish, and now I occasionally contribute the odd seafood special myself. I have a particular weakness for pork and fish together, so my suggestions have been things like garlicky king prawns with chorizo, salt cod and saucisson sec, trout wrapped in bacon.
However, the Tourist generally does not find such gastronomic triumphs tempting. (Besides, it is particularly heartbreaking to send a dish like these and have the customer request tartare sauce.) No, sir, after a long day working very hard at relaxing, with truculent young children in tow who would rather be playing X-box or MySpace with fellow prepubescent hoodies, he knows exactly what he wants: he wants cod, he wants it in batter, and he wants it served with chips, mushy peas and a wedge of lemon. This, of course, gets pretty damn vexing. Unfortunately, visitors to Twynham are generally unaware that far from being a touristic hotspot, the town is actually just a place where old people come to collect their pensions until they die. There literally is fuck all to do here: we’ve got a big church, a rather underwhelming ruined castle and a market on Mondays which sells bird-houses, enormous knickers and knock-off country and western CDs. And that’s it. As a result, prospective day-trippers discover that by about two o’clock they have seen and done everything that there is to be seen and done in town. The children are moody and hungry, you’re in desperate need of a pint, and oh look, that pub has a wonderful large courtyard where we can sit outside. (Twynham is also remarkably child-unfriendly. There isn’t a pub anywhere with an actual garden or play area for children. The Bear’s courtyard is about the only place in town where kids can run around, let off steam and piss everyone in the vicinity off.) So, just as lunch service is winding down and I’m thinking about sitting down with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, bloody tourists come in all afternoon demanding battered cod and chips.
Ultimately, I have no idea why. For a start, I find cod a particularly insipid fish, and don’t understand what’s so great about batter. I suspect that the impulse for fish and chips isn’t simply a desire for “plain food”- we do after all also have a steak pie and a burger on the menu- rather some kind of morphic resonance with the presque-marin environment. Perhaps they (rather charmingly) cling to the belief that the fish is caught and landed locally? It almost certainly isn’t. For a start, although Twynham technically has a harbour, it hasn’t supported a fishing fleet for the best part of a century. About the only seafood landed on the Quay are crabs caught by children on bits of string. These days, the harbour is more of a marina where the pleasure-craft of the rich bob unused for much of the year.
And there’s also the question of the fish. Neither cod nor haddock is endemic to the Channel. Rather more likely is it that your cod has been caught somewhere in the north Atlantic by some industrial trawler, not a picturesque little fishing boat. And that’s even when your fishmonger is a reputable local supplier who deals only in fresh fish. It’s far from unlikely that in fact, the cod has been caught and frozen, flown to China to be boned, skinned and filleted and then flown back to the UK to be distributed by a national foodservice company such as Brakes or 3663. And don’t even mention scampi: the fishmonger we use is entirely reputable but even as far as he’s concerned breaded scampi comes out of the freezer in bags.
What I would love to see is a new, liberated tourist, who has broken free of the shackles of convention and woken up to the fact that there is more to life than cod and chips. That a seaside holiday doesn’t mandate battered fish, fish whose most recent stopping-point was a refrigerated transport container somewhere outside of London. That perhaps if you do feel the need for something fishy when by the sea, it might be a good idea to seek out an independent place which serves locally-caught fresh fish, cooked in inventive ways. I would also like to see this New Tourist before the summer holidays, as my fryer can only take so many fish at a time and the less strain placed upon its ageing mechanisms the better.
1) Should I ever find myself opening and running one, I’ve already decided that it will be called “Oh, Cod, Why?”
2) The truculent young children will opt for chicken nuggets, generally. I always skimp on the chips and send a gratuitous amount of dressed salad with them, out of spite. The wails of “mummy, I don’t like salad!” can sometimes reach the kitchen, which brings a spark of glee to my cold, black heart.