Sunday, 25 August 2013

If Blackpool was a woman she would be a tart

As the party conference season approaches, the view "it was so much better in the seaside towns" once again starts circulating. Looking back through rose-tinted spectacles is human nature, and perhaps in some ways it was a bit friendlier and less corporate then. But there are some myths which deserve to be challenged.

The first of which is accessibility. In the "good old days" associations were allocated tickets for the senior officers (Chairman, Vice Chairmen, CWCC Chairman and YC Chairman and so on). If these people all wanted to attend, and most did, it left no space for others. Activists who did not hold constituency office were often excluded. I remember my mother and a group of her branch colleagues frantically ringing-around Liverpool associations trying to obtain unallocated tickets. Often when the conference was in Blackpool they simply could not attend as there was no space. At least now every member has an equal opportunity to register - surely a good thing.

Then I hear about how much more fun it was in seaside towns. Really?  Please don't misunderstand me, Bournemouth, Brighton and Blackpool are all super places. I have enjoyed weekends away in all of them. But for a whole week? In October? My memories of seaside conferences are of long walks in the dark, along rain-drenched promenades with the wind howling in from the sea, trying to find obscure hotels which offered their dank basements as venues for the fringe.

I recall spending far too much time looking for somewhere to eat which didn't serve food at Formica-topped tables from laminated menus showing pictures of what the selected dish *should* look like. Then we found the wonderful "September Brasserie" an upstairs culinary oasis in a desert of chips. The September Brasserie was opened and operated by the former Chef at the Savoy (the real one in The Strand), who took early retirement with his wife, returned to their home town of Blackpool, and decided to serve vegetables al dente and not from tins. I once took a group of eight there for a birthday dinner (driving from London). It was probably one of the best meals I have ever eaten.  Sadly, the owner told me he was only ever busy during conference season and he simply couldn't make it pay.

Then there is the price of hotels. Someone said to me the other week how much cheaper it used to be. Well, let's be honest, everything was cheaper in the 1990s!  I recall paying £20 per night back then for a fairly basic B&B, but that was 20+ years ago. Two years ago in Manchester I paid £40 per night for a decent clean room with an en suite in Salford, 15 minutes tram ride from the venue. And last year in Birmingham I paid £50 per night for an equally pleasant hotel about 15 minutes walk to the city centre.  I suspect you would pay a fortune to stay at one of the main city centre conference hotels, but you would have paid similarly to stay at the Grand or the Highcliffe or the Imperial back then too.

One year I took a party from my local association to Blackpool, where we stayed at Holiday Flatlets by the North Pier. It was, shall we say, an experience. Plastic sheets on the beds (I am not sure if they always were, or if he had put them on specially for us) and suspiciously placed spy holes in the communal showers (which we spotted and covered with tin foil!). On the day we arrived my constituency Treasurer (now an MP) got out of the car, cast a suspicious eye along the windswept promenade, with its flashing lights, 'Kiss Me Quick' hats and the pervading odour of stale chip fat, and announced "My God, if Blackpool was a woman she'd be a tart". Talking of which, I bumped into a contingent of friends who had booked themselves into Trades Hotel (the clue is in the name). "You look a bit jaded" I said when I saw them one morning. "Yes, darling - it's the only hotel I know where they have swapped the bedroom doors for turnstiles".

Maybe it was more fun back then! And if we return; great! But I am sure that any return to the seaside in the future will result in equally vocal groups complaining about the lack of modern facilities, the long cold walks between venues and the sound of seagulls keeping them awake.

See you all in Manchester!

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