Whitby: A Quarter-Life Crisis

Illustration by Fiona Byrne

It was the weekend before The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, and the impending celebration was on everybody’s minds, although seemingly not on the minds of those responsible for the publication of The Whitby Gazette. They had bigger news to report; shoplifting had occurred sometime in the week, and as this crime had taken place in Whitby, the news had naturally become the town’s equivalent to the LA riots.

Spotting the paper at a garage near where the North Yorkshire moors start to slope down towards the sea, I felt compelled to buy a copy so that I could read up on what was surely the most exciting thing to happen in Whitby since Sir Roger Moore—or at least somebody who looked like him—passed through back in 1982. After reading past the opening paragraph of the article, however, I soon realised that the news item was not news at all, but rather a news item that could have been.

It appeared that the piece concerned a person who had accidentally walked out of a shop without paying for their goods, before being asked politely by security to step back inside so that the items could be run through the till. Naturally, because the fortuitous shopper complied, no legal action was required—although it was a bewildering experience for the unwitting thief, Edna Lovejoy, 74, who, it later transpired, had no previous convictions (except for some minor arson).

I realised that day that it was stories such as this one—i.e. stories of complete and utter banality—that make Whitby such an enticing bubble of escapism. Everything seems to move at half the speed in this little town. With its tiny cobbled streets and old brick houses that adorn the English hills, Whitby is an old-fashioned place shrouded in history: Caedmon, England’s earliest poet, lived there; Captain Cook learned seamanship there; and Bram Stoker included the town as a location in his novel Dracula.

Yet in my mind, Whitby will now forever be known as the town where Edna Lovejoy, 74, almost unintentionally shoplifted.

If there’s a reason why I enjoy visiting the place quite so much, then it might be because I’m currently undergoing something of a quarter life crisis, which causes me to hold dear all of things that I rejected as a teenager. Nowadays in fact it seems that everything I was once so certain was boring and unremarkable a decade ago, is now incredibly comforting and heart-warming.

Also born out of this quarter life crisis, however, has come a dejecting fascination with death, which frequently brings to mind the all too obvious realisation that the bodies that carry us through this world—capable of withstanding so much erosion over so many years as they are—will inevitably begin to pucker and wilt until they’re as cold as the soil we’re condemned to one day call a bed.

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote that “all life is a process of breaking down,” which is indeed a sad thought. If my gums are already starting to recede, I often wonder, then what will become of them by the time that I am 40, or 50, or 60? Will I even have gums at all or will my mouth just be full of teeth? What about my hair? Will I become one of those old men who constantly has a peculiar white residue at the side of their mouth?

I would have guessed that surrounding myself with young people would have helped bury my concerns about getting old: inhaling the heady aroma of their scalps as I unsettlingly attempt to absorb their youthful essence. But on the contrary, I’ve found that the elderly, rather than providing an unneeded reminder that I will one day wrinkle like a dried apricot, have helped reinstate in me the notion that I’ve still got a fairly long way to go before my prostate swells up to the size of an ostrich egg.

Thus, naturally, Whitby has become something of a second spiritual home to me in recent years, as the little seaside town is to the elderly as Israel is to the Jews. It’s a sort of holy land for OAPs, with oldies flocking there every weekend from as far away as Port Talbot, despite Whitby’s notorious lack of parking spaces.

It is easy to see why Whitby is so popular amongst such a demographic. If I were Edna Lovejoy’s age, I too would enjoy visiting a part of Britain that hasn’t changed all that much in the past fifty years. Whitby might, after all, have gained a few trendy restaurants and a nightclub like all these young kids like to go to, but it is nevertheless a town of the past. In fact most of its new additions remind guests of the bygone era, such as the Pie and Mash shop, Humble Pie ‘N’ Mash.

The Whitby that I lovingly present to readers here, of course, is likely my own gratifying invention. But there is truth to my hyperbole. To take the twilight cruise out of the bay reveals just how charming the little seaside town can be, as does walking along the beach next to the Whitby Pavilion, looking out to sea as the reflection of the sun spreads like a deck of cards over the waves.

Such experiences are timeless, although I suspect most twenty-somethings would find them duller than a double bill of Cash in the Attic. The truth, I suppose, is that Whitby isn’t a wonderfully exciting place. The only genuine thrill I’ve ever received there happened in a charity shop quite recently when, as I casually looked through a stack of old books, a husky man in his sixties perhaps—respiring so audibly that it sounded like he’d replaced breathing air with treacle—came up close behind me and began attempting to inhale the shirt off of my back.

Startled and a little repulsed, I walked away towards the exit turning as I did to who I thought was my girlfriend, to whom I whispered, “So creepy.” But the person who I said “so creepy” to wasn’t my girlfriend at all, but rather a confused middle-aged woman, who must, I’ve considered, have thought that I was pretty creepy myself.

So it wasn’t a particularly pleasant thrill, but then I’ve found that very few thrills are. Life in London offers enough of those: Whitby is where I can escape them. It’s where the only sounds one can hear are the squawks of seagulls, the crash of waves and, on very rare and unfortunate occasions, the sound of an old man struggling to breathe behind my back.

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