Wednesday, November 12, 2008
I spent most summer holidays as a child at my grandparents' house near the Essex seaside. Although it had passed out of their possession by then, my grandmother's family had once owned the lease of one of the beach huts that flank the east coast of England, coming down from London on the train to spend their holidays sitting out the front of a tiny, uninsulated shed, smoking and knitting and gossiping and watching the grey breakers roll in to the beach front below. You can't sleep in the huts; they don't have toilets or electricity or running water; they're places for boiling up cups of tea and storing buckets and spades and sheltering during the day from the ravages of the British summer. Or at least, the British summer as it used to be; during my childhood I vividly remember one sweltering day when the temperature climbed doggedly to 25 degrees, but when the big guy was in London a couple of years ago it was regularly 36 degrees and people were frolicking in public fountains.
One summer during my childhood there was an enormous storm along the east coast, and dozens of the brightly coloured beach huts along the Clacton-Frinton-Walton-on-the-Naze strip were overturned and swept out to sea. For weeks afterwards the contents of the huts were washed up each day by the tide. On our morning walks along the beach we would see knives and forks, unbroken china plates, picture frames, chair legs, scraps of curtains, shrimping nets and door knobs lying in drifts on the sand, while flowered cushions bobbed on the outgoing tide. Men sweeping metal detectors in great fluid arcs were the unspoken lords of the beach: kids and idle walkers got hastily out of their purposeful way. I was fascinated by what the sea took, and what it gave back, and what might still be out there, caught in underwater currents. I was desperate to claim some of its treasures. My grandmother, however, forbade us to bring any of the booty home. "It belongs to someone else," she said severely.
In recent years, beach huts have become ridiculously fashionable and regularly command the kind of exorbitant prices which would have made my grandmother's family require a stiff cup of tea and a lie-down. Keith Richards owns one, as does PD James; the royal family have hung on to theirs at Holkingham Beach for more than 70 years. Yet for all their cultural resonance in Britain, the only artwork I know of concerned with beach huts is Tracey Emin's The Last Thing I Said to You was Don't Leave Me Here (2000), which consists of the tumble-down blue hut at Whitstable in Kent she bought with her friend the artist Sarah Lucas. It was originally exhibited in its entirety alongside two enigmatic photographs of Emin naked inside the hut, in which she seems to be dealing with some restless memory.
Tracey Emin, The Last Thing I Said to You was Don't Leave Me Here II, 2000, Tate Gallery
(The hut was subsequently bought by Charles Saatchi for $75 000, and along with Emin's infamous tent on which she appliqued the names of everyone she'd ever slept with, was destroyed in the massive warehouse fire in which many of the key artworks of the YBA generation were lost.)