Oh West Ham, Barking, Upmister, Basildon; the stations on the misery line from London out to Southend roll off your tongue like one of those anxiety dreams where all your teeth fall out . But I do like to be beside the seaside, even when the only thing likely to sweep me off my feet is a force nine gale, and the sea is a turgid, dishwater grey with more white horses than a Guinness ad.
I was met at Leigh-on-Sea station by a string of frantic text messages from my friend Phill, sitting outside in the deserted car park in his brand, spanking, new Chrysler Noddy bread van. Where are you? Did you miss the train? WTF arent you on the platform? Oh, the perils of being a newly tinted brunette. You changed your hair, he said accusingly, and I didnt bleedin' recognise you. I saw this black headed bird in a Nazi raincoat get off and thought it couldnt be you. Oh Phill, I feel the same way myself. Every morning I put on my make up and say a little prayer for the imminent return of peroxide. Mind you, when talking Tales of the Unexpected, you dont think that Phill Jupitus, stand-up comic, musical oracle on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and exponent of TV trivia will take you for a ride through Southends scenic route in a life-size TOMY truck. Have I died and gone to Toytown? Its the wifes he explained.
We drove through Old Leigh, past the shuttered, off-season cafes and the latest import - a fish restaurant with a swish new plate-glass frontage which, according to Phill, opened and closed faster than a flashers raincoat. Further along the coast we parked beside the only other car containing an ancient, shrivelled woman in a furry hat slumped, either dead or asleep, in the passenger seat beside another, younger, septuagenarian who peered out to sea through the double handicap of moving windscreen wipers and a pair of binoculars. We, however, were desperately seeking The Arches, a corrugated row of plastic facetted eateries, held together by Velcro and grease, humped alongside the promenade at Westcliffe-on-Sea. I keep meaning to try out all of these restaurants, but by the time I get to about here, said Phill, leaning against the wind outside the Riverside cafe and beach shop, I forget which ones Ive done. I think this is the best; hand cut toast, ysee - mark of a good caff that is. So, we opened the door and stepped inside the plastic awning and drew up a pre-formed plastic patio chair underneath an beach umbrella fringed with rafia which looked as though it should be in a Pina Colada with a maraschino cherry.
Inside it was like sitting in a lung - admittedly an emphysemic lung as the wind wheezed in through the peeling gaps in the Velcro, competing for oxygen with the cigarette smoke emanating from the anoraked locals. Over in Kent at the opposite side of the Thames Estuary, the power station chimneys are just visible through the dreich drizzle. Picturesque Canvey Island is to the right, while a team of work-men in orange Day-glo donkey jackets dig up the road in the foreground with the frenzied pneumatic bass and energy of fans at an Iron Maiden concert. It brings back memories of summer holidays in Largs, Leven or North Berwick. Me aged eight, dancing through the sludge-coloured waves in a plastic Mac and a swimsuit unable to feel anything from the legs down, with my mother huddled at the back of the beach with a golf umbrella, a windbreak, and wrapped in a tartan blanket. Baywatch - British style.
The menu (laminated of course), is longer that a bad foreign film, but infinitely more comprehensible. Were here for a fry up but you can have just about anything as long as a frying pan came into use somewhere between the food and the table. Its not exactly breakfast at Tiffanys, unless youre thinking Eastenders whereTiffnaise rhymes with mayonnaise and everyone sounds like Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates (who knew the peasants spoke with an estuary twang in the Urals?). But you dont come to a greasy spoon to eat gourmet granola with oat flakes rolled between the thighs of a buxom highland maiden, served with a dollop of organic yoghurt from a certified herd of Swiss yodelling goats, Phill, however, settled for low-fat beans and hand-cut toast, but I had cholestorol with everything. Reviewing is like being pregnant, sometimes you have to eat for two - so runny fried eggs, bacon saltier than a sailors sweat, a pale, uninteresting debutant of coming out as a sausage, a round of fried sliced bread,, grilled tomato, some mushrooms and a pair of those rectangular tablets that supermarkets who dont speak North American think are hash browns. Everything was served with an accompanying stainless steel pot of tea, on a garish plastic tablecloth which the management urged us to avoid cutting with our knives. If only Id brought my bucket and spade and souwester, we could have played in the sand afterwards, but even Im not that hardy. As we rolled out of the cafe, contendedly full-up, fried up and awash with tea, it started to snow.