Beside the Seaside
‘I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’
was how J.Alfred Prufrock intended to manage senility. But it was to be properly unchallenging:
‘Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach’.
Paddling at the tide’s edge, dressed in a style as might once have been admired, enjoying some rare luxury of tropical fruit. It was a day free from the stresses of the workplace, some slight easing of glum fears about the butt end of the days. Then dozing in a beach chair briefly unworried about the call to catch the coach back to the yellow fog rubbing its back on window panes and the pools which stand in drains. Late in 1949 as the nights drew in a married couple stared out from a bench on the sea front at Folkestone in Kent, where they had bought a small hotel called The Rhodesia. Sitting there that day they worried together about how they would survive as the hotel bookings fell off during the winter. Until the woman gave voice to what was obvious – at that moment they were among people who were too old for employment and who therefore did not have to go back home as the blinds were drawn on the summer season. Their hotel could survive in profit by offering pensioners the choice of a cheaper package holiday when the resort was quiet. It was in 1951 that Saga Holidays, based in that same sea front town, came to life.
That man was Sidney De Haan who had long nursed an ambition to buy a seaside hotel – perhaps from his earliest employment as a chef in London and then when he was a prisoner of war in Poland under orders to escort some sick prisoners who were being repatriated. In truth this period was not unblemished as preparation for his future; during his time as a prisoner he was repeatedly in punishment for ‘insubordination’ – although which side he was insubordinate to is not known. In 1951 he faced different demands and priorities which encouraged him to reveal a keen talent for the manipulative art of what came to be known as market research. Perhaps drawing on what he had learned from getting those prisoners back he travelled the country looking for a place where he could rely on filling a regular coach service to Folkestone. When he found what he was looking for in Yorkshire he opened a service of regular trips from there to The Rhodesia hotel for bargain, all inclusive holidays. The result was an explosive growth in business, which spread across the country and then to hotels and resorts abroad. And now Saga is big time, selling holidays and tours around the world. It owns cruise ships and hotels and sells insurance for a wide range of what are called risks, financial advice, healthcare, direct mail trade. There is also their biggest-selling Saga Magazine which claims a readership of over a million.
Sidney De Haan retired in 1984, passing control of Saga to his eldest son Roger who left the company in 2004 after selling off its hotels and then himself moving into financial services and insurance. A management take-over of Saga backed by the private equity company Charterhouse yielded the De Haans a profit of £1.35 billion. This at a time when Folkestone was suffering from the decline of the Kentish coal mines, from losing the ferry trade to the Channel Tunnel and the competition of cheaper air fares and package holidays. In the eastern part of the town – described by De Haan as ‘the slum area around the harbour’ – there was one of the country’s lowest rated secondary schools under the dreaded ‘special measures’ performing the third worst in the country. Two wards in Folkestone are among the ten highest occurrences of pregnancy among the age group 15 to 17.
The 2011 Census revealed that respondents in the town considered their health to be significantly lower than the national average. It was symptomatic that Folkestone was part of a constituency where UKIP could benefit from any rampant dissatisfaction with the big parties and became of interest to Nigel Farage until he inflicted himself on Thanet South. The town was apparently in terminal decline until De Haan bought up the harbour for £11 million with the intention to revive it with new shops and premises to be known as a Creative Foundation. There has been a response to this. In August the beach was swarming with people hopefully wielding buckets and spades as they dug in the sand for gold bars which had been buried there by a visiting artist. This year’s Triennial art festival included the re-opening of the previously dilapidated Payers Park. It was all part of the intention to create another Barcelona presumably to be unaffected by the devastating Spanish recession as well as free super pricey footballers and the feather-fingered pickpockets along Las Ramblas.
Meanwhile in 2013 Saga became a public limited company – Saga PLC – with its share price quoted, with a varying response, on the Stock Exchange. This aroused some arch comments from media financial and investment specialists but the overall result, typically in the present recession, was rather less successful than previously. Saga holidaymakers, anxious not to jeopardise their pensions, were intrigued but not wildly tempted. To judge from the prevailing popular subjects and style of discussion in hotel lounges and on the terraces they are now enjoying some unexpected consolations from being old. These spring from the assumption that vital components in working class life such as employment, health, a stable home, were more accessible to them when they were younger and employed than they are now for the generation who have replaced them in the workforce but do not yet qualify by age for a Saga holiday. This is not because the pensioners had any special skills or fortitude; all in all it expresses the particular passage in the economy which capitalism is going through. As a result, young workers who have a range of experience, educational qualifications and expectations which would once have given them some confidence about their immediate future on the labour market, and all the stress that goes with it, are now cruelly thrust onto an unimpressed and unwelcoming labour market to moulder in bewildered distress.
But those hotel discussions too often take comfort that all of this is a kind of revenge for those infamous drunken evenings in places like Magaluf. This can often override the pensioners’ memories of their own very real, hard struggle which, although different in detail from what is being experienced by younger people now, was nevertheless demanding and terrifying. The elements of working class oppression change with time but the basic realities remain. Meanwhile it is hard, in those terraces and lounges, to listen to opinions which allow no acknowledgement of those realities. Even when it is soothed by an ‘entertainment’ which can be as outworn and tiresome as music from Victor Sylvester.
So what of those who work for Saga? The holiday reps? Overall they perform as mature, patient and hard-working. Amid the customary stress of expectant – very often demanding – holidaymakers they manage to stay placid and confident. Ask them about their job and if they enjoy it?
Most definitely. Yes.
What was their work before they joined Saga?
Er…marketing, office admin …felt like getting something different to do…
Were these responses spontaneous or rehearsed? The replies of Saga employees to a questionnaire on The 10 best things about working at Saga provides some clues, not always comforting:
“the fact you receive Quarterly business presentations from the CEO himself as he updates staff on how Saga is growing…”
“the fact that there are constant goals and I’m always working hard to achieve my targets set …”
“If you can’t get to grips with selling a product they will provide you with 1-on-1 training to get you back on track …”
When the De Haans were huddling on the sea front at Folkestone that day did they ever experience any awareness that holidays are commodities, designed and produced to be bought and sold and with all that follows by way of being contributive to capitalist society where all wealth has that character? We can have access only by buying them, which is subject to influence by the current situation in capitalism at large. It is all part of the system’s repression and manipulation of our lives. Paddling at the tide-line or gazing out at the sea can be recommended as relaxing and can induce a reflective frame of mind, to reveal something vital even to the extent of our holidays. Well worth rolling our trousers for.