While wealthy Silicon Valley tech stars spend their money and leisure time on fast cars and extreme sports, British Internet workers are spending their downtime in a more leisurely fashion.
“Pass the sun tan lotion, I’m burning up!”
It’s not an unusual cry on the beach at Walton-on-the-Naze but the sandy encampment from which it echoes stands out from the rest. For one thing this is one of the few that doesn’t ring with the sound of children at this family seaside resort, just up the Essex coast from Clacton-on-Sea.
Perhaps more importantly though there is more high technology in this 10’x12’ space than the rest of the beach put together.
Sarah, Hamish and Damian are all approaching thirty and all escaping from their busy lives in London’s booming new media industry. They are among a growing chunk of dotcom workers who, in looking for something different to do with their weekends, have chosen Britain’s traditional coastal towns as their new playgrounds.
There is little chance, however, of escaping work completely. “Don’t get me wrong,” says Sarah, “I wouldn’t give up the Internet for anything, but it does make it hard to really get away from it all.” She says this while staring intently at the screen of her new computer, a “ruggedised” (water-, shock- and, hopefully, sand-proof) Panasonic laptop bought especially for this trip.
“F***, the connection won’t stay up!” she exclaims, not noticing a disapproving look from the mother shepherding her two toddlers along the beach. “Hamish, I thought you said this was working?”
Hamish, a programmer for a “b2b” (that’s business-to-business commerce) start-up in London’s Soho, peers over Sarah’s shoulder at the screen that is shielded from the sun’s rays by a large and all too appropriate Sun.com umbrella. Sarah fiddles with the mobile phone through which she can work online as if she were back in the office of her employer (an established portal, or gateway, web site).
The third member of the group, Damian, is taking a well-earned nap. He’s already taken a slew of phone calls this morning, plus restarted the computer on which his company’s web site is located. All without leaving his expensive-looking, but traditional, wood and canvas deckchair. He’s also been constantly exchanging text messages on his phone with his girlfriend Tash. Tash was also planning on a couple of days by the sea, but an overdue deadline means she’s spending yet another weekend in front of a PC, putting the finishing touches to a new mobile-phone based web site.
Growing numbers of Internet workers are choosing to spend their limited leisure time on the shores of Britain, in resorts previously regarded by the young as boring and old fashioned, despite being able to afford holidays much further afield.
“My parents brought me here every year as a kid, yeah,” explains Sarah, now happily tapping away on the laptop, “and I was so glad when I was old enough to go somewhere else without them. I thought Walton was so boring.”
Things have changed now. Sarah and Hamish (who made a considerable sum when his previous employer took the company public last year) have even bought their own caravan, permanently housed at a nearby holiday park. “It’s a bit Corkhill inside,” laughs Sarah, referring to the overly frilly taste in interior decoration of Brookside’s Jackie and Jimmy Corkhill, “but that kind of makes it more fun.”
“All this,” says Hamish, gesturing at the flower-patterned sun lounger, deckchairs, striped windbreak, vast wickerwork picnic hamper and even bucket and spade, “is ironic in a way.”
“But we also really do enjoy it,” says Sarah. “There’s an 80s night at one of the pubs on the seafront tonight. It’ll be such a giggle! Last time we were here we saw the Beverley Sisters at the community centre; there’s always loads of silly things to do.”
“Now that’s what I call a gadget!” says Damian in a voice full of admiration. The roar of a sharp, white speedboat woke him as it skipped across the waves, out past the children bobbing in inflatable rubber rings. The slightly burnt 28 year old is already surrounded by his phone, Palm computer, brand new digital video camera, MP3 music player and long pump-action water rifle, but he obviously has his sights on bigger toys. “It’s settled; when we IPO I’m getting a boat,” he says with glee, referring to his company’s imminent Initial Public Offering on the stock market.
“Damian’s definitely of the ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’ school,” laughs Sarah, as she clicks around her screen. “The great thing about all this is that when I came here as a kid we couldn’t afford much. It was all sandy cheese sarnies and fish’n’chips. Now we can afford to do it properly. Hey, get us an ice cream!” she shouts after Hamish, who’s walking to the nearby shop clad in designer shorts and Nike sandals. “But not a Magnum as they’ve got no jokes on the sticks.”