Emily by the Seaside was based on a dim memory of the 1987 film Wish You Were Here, starring Emily Lloyd. All I could remember was that it was about a teenager living in a seaside town who becomes pregnant with an older man who abandons her, that she isn’t treated very well by other people either, and that she tries to get an abortion but ultimately decides to have the baby on her own. This bothered me and I wanted to give her a happier ending. In my version the town rallies around her and tells the man to ‘go to hell’. ‘A lot of these people here care about you,” the narrator tells her, “they’re less shocked than you think by what you’ve been through, don’t push them away.’
At the time I had one young daughter and was exploring my anxieties about how the world treats women – The Dark Ages, from the second Swimmer One album, does something similar. Looking back, though, it’s quite a patronising song, and probably a bit sexist too. Wish You Were Here – as I later remembered when I bothered to do some research – is actually based on the early years of Cynthia Payne, who went on to run a famous brothel in Streatham and turned her notoriety into a celebrity career as a writer and after-dinner speaker. It was a great story, after all – she was famously jailed for four months in 1980 after 53 men were found in her house, including ‘a peer of the realm, an MP, a number of solicitors and company directors and several vicars’ .
Wish You Were Here is one of two films based on her life, both released in 1987; the other one was Personal Services, with Julie Walters. That same year she launched her own book about her life, Entertaining at Home. In 1988 she stood for Parliament to try and change Britain’s sex laws. In 1992 she did a one-woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe. If I’d paid more attention then, I might have realised that there was a more interesting story to tell here. Somehow I’d mostly forgotten that the point of Wish You Were Here was that it was about a defiant, unconventional, outspoken young woman, a survivor in a sexist world rather than a victim of it.
Emily Lloyd, meanwhile, seems to have had quite a difficult life at times, struggling with long-term mental health issues. On the days when I wonder whether I should have written a different song about Cynthia Payne I sometimes also wonder whether I should also write a song about Emily Lloyd. But then I remember how many amazing female musicians are already out there telling stories like this, based on actual experience rather than imagination.
This is, in fact, part of the reason why I’ve stopped writing songs. I decide I should maybe write something new, and then I hear something as brilliant as Green Light by Lorde or Bury a Friend by Billie Eilish, and I think, nah. When I was younger I’d hear songs on the radio and cockily think ‘I could do that’. Now I think ‘maybe my daughter will want to do that one day’.