What We Saw, Besides the Sea

Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme

Associations can play odd tricks. This song, because I associate it with Simon and Garfunkel, I have long imagined to be about a place in the States - Scarboro, Maine, perhaps.

That it might refer to a place brightly connected with my childhood never crossed my mind. How could the mellifluous duo - whose soft American vocalities could hardly have been further from the tough vowels and firm consonants of a northeastern English seaside resort - have heard of "my" Scarborough?

Yet it appears to be the same place. Cecil Sharp, the collector of British folksongs, collected this one. Evidently it is an ancient song, a kind of riddle consisting of impossible tasks set by the singer as tests for his "true love."

The song we would have been more likely to sing in the car on our long annual journey to "sunny Scarborough" was: "Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside/ Oh, I do like to be beside the sea...." And that song is American.

Scarborough is where we went for our summer holidays. Though it has a fair with medieval origins, I do not recall going to it. What I remember are sand-hoppers and shrimps; wave-crinkled sand and starfish and shiny sea anemones - discovered in limpid rock pools; bladder wrack seaweed limply stranded by the retreated tide; sand between the toes, and in tomato sandwiches we ate at the cabin up the cliff. That's where the adults spent their days while we played on the beach or swam in the pool, below.

It was not sunny all the time - this was the northeast Yorkshire coast - and we wasted time at the Hotel Cecil playing cards (pelmanism, beggar-my-neighbor) or Ping-Pong. We whiled away many more hours on the beach - building.

Even now, I can think of few poignant pleasures to rival watching the lacy incomings of the slippery tide as it invaded the moats and mounds and battlements of sand we had exhaustively constructed. The infant words "sand castle" were not remotely adequate for our heroic architecture.

We piled up our monuments against tide-time, conscious that our tower of Babel was built only for irresistible dissolution. We deliberately scooped out and molded tortuous channels for the water to run into and fill, and we relished the process of seeping, sinking, and softening - the destruction - just as acutely as we had the original construction.

Next morning, we searched for traces of our fortifications, knowing full well that there would be nothing. If the sea's work had not been immaculate, we would have felt distinctly let down.

SCARBOROUGH, decades later, is a melee of recollections. I think, for a start, of stick insects. These were my brother's, and they could not be left at home because they had to be fed. The dog was put in a kennel, and Mrs Ducker presumably looked after the chickens. But the stick insects had to come on holiday and be scrupulously fed with privet "borrowed" from a hedge opposite the hotel.

My brother was a great source of information about insects generally. It was he who pointed out the different butterflies everywhere on the cliff paths: the meadow browns, the clouded yellows (emigrating from southern Europe), the tortoiseshells, the red admirals. For some reason, the holly blues - very small and a soft blue - are the ones I particularly think of in Scarborough.

I see from a recent butterfly book that "normally, fewer than 500 clouded yellow butterflies are seen in Britain each year," and this made me wonder if I had imagined seeing them - until I read on: "Occasionally there is a big influx into Britain.... In 1947, an estimated 36,000 butterflies came." So it is possible that we saw a few in fair Scarborough.

It was that year, also - as a little historical research courtesy of Scarborough Library has confirmed - that we encountered Hiawatha and Minnehaha:

From the waterfall he named her,/ Minnehaha, Laughing Water.

I couldn't say how much the extravaganza that unfolded before the spellbound audience in the Open Air Theatre in Peasholm Park had to do with Longfellow's poem, but according to Mr. Berryman of the Library's Reference Department, the 1947 production was probably more of "a pageant" than a drama or opera.

"Hiawatha" had apparently been one of the earliest productions in this theater, performed in 1934, two years after it opened.

I, however, perched in ecstatic anticipation on my rented cushion, sharing the family blanket over the collective legs for warmth in the night air, was oblivious to nostalgia. For me, this was a new and thrilling experience. And when the large rock at the side of the stage opened up and blew out "snow," which landed not only on the stage and but all over the audience, I became stage-struck instantly. I knew from that moment that I was destined for the stage.

THE Fol-De-Rols at the Floral Hall added their own sort of incentive, also. This entertainment - sketches, stand-up comedy, song-and-dance, that kind of thing - was a tradition probably on its last legs, a survivor of the Music Hall. Scarborough had lost its pier in a storm in 1905, but the instigators of summer shows for sea-siders were not likely to be deterred by such eventualities.

Two comedians - the gawky Kathleen West and the hilarious Cyril Wells - were the stars of the Fol-De-Rols. The performance I remember most was by a comic (Wells?) dressed as a diva with an elaborately fruit-laden bonnet, singing "The Merry Merry Pipes of Pan." Every time he/she came to "Fo-o-ollow, fo-o-ollow, fo-o-ollow...." she plucked a cherry from her hat and spat out the stone at the percussionist. I thought this was so funny that my swaying head coincided with the seat in front of me - which added tears to the laughter.

Two catch-phrases entered our family sayings from the Fol-De-Rols. One was the refrain of a silly song in a broad Yorkshire accent: "Ee! 'twer a grand choir outin'!/ Ee! 'twer a reet fine do!" And the other, which came from a sketch about physical fitness, was "You, too, can have a body like mine!" This was my favorite, to be much used as a self-deprecatory comment on my skinniness when, for example, I was reduced to bathing trunks on the way down to the big concrete South Bay Pool for an open-air, salt-water swim.

I would stand there in the east wind, shivering and goose-bumped, and flex my nonexistent biceps. "You t-too c-can h-have a b-body like m-mine!" I would expostulate, and follow with overloud - indeed, theatrical - laughter.

Well, they tell me that the South Bay Pool (in which I swear I did 19 lengths without a pause), has been disused for 16 years. The Fol-de-Rols, coming and going through the 1950s, finally called it a day in 1963. The Open Air Theatre presented its final production in 1968, and is now derelict.

And I have no idea what happened to the Hotel Cecil. Or to my career on the stage.

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