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30 Aug, 2010

The big picture: Blackpool beach, 1948

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

In a time before nylon and spandex, before even the idea of leisure, postwar Brits leave the air-raid shelters and learn to enjoy the daylight once more

My first reaction to this photograph is to feel itchy. It’s not just the thought of gritty sand infiltrating every bodily crevice; it’s the sight of all the cardigans and sweaters, the knee-length socks and tightly knotted ties, not to mention the thick khaki flannels of the demobbed soldier. Like sheep, people back then carried their insulation around with them, even in the summer. It’s such a woollen world that one of the women has brought her knitting to the beach, and bends over her clicking needles. Scratchiest of all is the figure dressed for the sun in funereal black velvet, with a black hat resting on his knees as a concession to informality: a cleric apparently, propped up on his deck chair in case anyone needs spiritual counsel.

To his credit, he conscientiously averts his eyes from the boy beside him, the only one in the crowd to realise that the beach is where you shed clothes and flaunt flesh. Stripping and preening, the show-off removes all the markers of social identity and economic function. Everyone else is costumed for school or for work, like the housewives in their dustcoats and pinafores; the soldier lying upside down as if discarded on the battlefield is still dressed for war. Instead of a bathing suit, the little girl near the centre makes do with rolled-up bloomers, and her beach towel is a blanket. A father shades his head with the cap from his son’s school uniform. This is how the world was before the invention of nylon and spandex, before Speedos and trainers and trackies and flip-flops. There was no leisurewear because there was no conception of leisure. What the beach offers here is the chance for a rest, as rare and brief as the spasm of sunshine.

In 1948 the war was not long over, and these creased and care-worn people are still learning how to enjoy the daylight. They might be in an air-raid shelter with the roof removed, or huddled on one of the London tube platforms that served as dormitories during the blitz; transposed to another country, this could be a mass grave. On a scorching day in July 1940 at the beach in Coney Island, Weegee famously photographed a crowd of more than one million broiling New Yorkers. Being exhibitionistic Americans, they all wave or swagger for his camera. But the bogged-down Britons look up more apprehensively, and the boy at the bottom shades his eyes to see whether the glare conceals a low-flying plane with a cargo of doodlebugs. Is it too soon to trust the sky?


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