Hotel Victoria, Newquay, England 1981
My brother arrived in London, as welcome as spring after a grim winter. I chucked my job, packed up my flat and we took off to Europe together. There were castles, canals, beerhalls, museums and a Dutchwoman shouted at me in the street for wearing a Bundeswehr singlet. On our return, for reasons no longer clear to me, we went south to work the summer season, randomly hopping off the train in a Cornish town on the Atlantic coast, just north of Truro.
Paul and I found work [kitchenhand, chambermaid] at the Hotel Victoria, a crumbling pile perched over Tolcarne Beach. This once plush 19th century resort was requisitioned as a convalescent hospital for soldiers wounded in The Great War. By the time we arrived, the Vic had a sad, stranded look up there on the clifftop. It was, like any faded beauty, a haunted shrine to better times.
The hotel was staffed by a crew of working class kids from some of the roughest parts of Scotland and the north. Working the summer in a seaside town was their best shot at a holiday somewhere nice. A solid core of them returned year after year and snagged the best rooms. Most arrived with a nickname [Moif, Sham, Shuggie] and if not, they were soon given one. The accepted universal greeting when passing in the hall or street was to shout the other’s nickname or birthplace [Easterhouse! Hartlepool! Wigaaaaaan!] at top volume.
Staff quarters were in the basement. Ceilings were low, the concrete walls painted white and each narrow cell fitted just two single beds and a basin. Even at the height of summer it was cool and damp, so it came as no surprise to learn that it had once been the hospital morgue. Cue constant banter about stiffs and inviting people down to the slab.
The owner of the Vic was a cross little man with a comb-over who regarded hotel guests and their needs as an inconvenience at best. He wore cardigans and corduroys and lived quietly in a suite upstairs. Meanwhile the morgue was a non-stop basement party. Day and night, staff came and went. There was always music, drunk lads shouting and someone banging on someone else’s door trying to start a pub crawl.
Fancy dress parties sprang up every few weeks to boost staff morale. These had a chipper, holiday camp ‘knees-up’ vibe and participation was full and frisky. It was trad to start with a pub crawl through town in costume, then shamble back to the morgue for more drinking and dancing. The Scottish lads had all lost their front teeth [fighting, falling over drunk] and at some point they loved to flip out their plates so we could appreciate what proper hard men they were. This may or may not have been some form of Celtic foreplay.
Of the three chefs who ruled the kitchen, the most memorable was Monty Sunshine, a bi-polar Jamaican with the widest smile I’d ever seen. On the early shift he flipped from kitchen karaoke to screaming abuse at sous-chefs. Paul peeled potatoes, scrubbed the muck off pots and kept his head down.
I worked six days a week stripping sheets and scrubbing bathrooms with a gang of northern lasses. We’d meet after breakfast in an extended broom closet which smelled of furniture polish and despair. Our floors and duties were assigned by the head of housekeeping, Hatchet Annie, an eastender with a forest of grey hair and rough hands. I was advised by the other girls never to cross her.
To test their fortitude, novice chambermaids were given the dodgiest equipment and sent to a wing on the top floor known as the ‘spooky corridor’. My duster was down to its last four feathers and my hoover had next to no suction. It cast an erratic trail of nuts and bolts and I had to crawl across carpet to collect the debris in its wake. Each day, after the others had finished work and taken off to the beach, I pressed on with my enfeebled appliances, wondering what the strange thumping noises down the hall were. Ponty! [from Pontefract] finally took pity on me and offered to pair up. She showed me the shortcuts, let me use her hoover and told me that Annie had offed her husband with an axe and done time for it. Hence the name.
Of course the Vic was haunted: there was the noisy one on the top floor, a nun on the first floor and Bertie, a young army officer, lost in the basement. The latter was seen often enough that staff were casual about fresh sightings, sharing them over breakfast. Bertie didn’t seem to know he was dead and everyone felt sad for him eternally wandering the hall in army greens, head cocooned in a bloodied bandage, looking confused. He’d taken a shine to a Scottish lass called Lorna and she spoke of him almost as a friend.
For off-duty ambience, Paul bought a radio cassette player from Woolworths – all up-tilted treble and no bass – but at least we could play the stack of tapes we’d accumulated between us. We were listening to a lot of early Kinks and Bowie – reedy, low-fi treasures so impossibly British, they became the official soundtrack to our seaside excursion.
Oh! You Pretty Things is, for me, the track most redolent of our summer at the Vic. The melody is singular, wild, remarkable as an exotic bloom; it is crammed with glamour and killer chord changes. We open on a domestic scene, almost eerie in its quietness. The verse, carried entirely by voice and piano, is a musical-hall turn, reminiscent of the Beatles’ Martha My Dear. But before we can settle in and get cosy, things are already coming unstuck: Look out my window, what do I see? Crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me.
On the verge of becoming a father, Bowie wrote this wry, theatrical ode to generational strife. Parental anxieties dissolve into a shrug of acceptance as he prepares to welcome this being who will emerge to continue the species and make him redundant. All the nightmares came today, And it looks as though they’re here to stay. As we hit the chorus, a glitter gun explodes on that Oh! and the full band dives in to embrace the lone vocal.
When I hear this song, I remember Elvis from the still room who only ate ice cream and wound up in hospital with pneumonia. I think about Ugly Barry who lived to DJ at staff dance parties. I wonder where they all are now and if their sons and daughters carry on the tradition of heading south for summer. I listen to Oh! You Pretty Things and see the faces of all those roughhouse kids we worked with at the Vic. Each and every one.
Look out at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of the coming race