The King of Porthcawl

Abby Kearney and Daniel McMillan – From Elvis in Porthcawl (self-published, 2021)

From Elvis in Porthcawl is a new zine by Manchester-based writers Abby Kearney and Daniel McMillan, which recounts a visit to the famous Porthcawl Elvis Festival in South Wales. Combining creative writing, travelogue and local and cultural history, Elvis’s career path is interwoven with the story of how the event itself came into being, and snapshots of people and places carefully observed during the town’s annual takeover and transformation by scores of Elvis fans and tribute acts. 

The result of many months of painstaking research, and published in a tiny print run of fifty, From Elvis in Porthcawl is no mere fan act, but something much richer. As well as exploring how Elvis’s image and persona shifted according to the social mores of mid-twentieth-century America, Kearney and McMillan document the changing fortunes of Porthcawl as a tourist destination in the latter decades of the twentieth-century and contextualise them against political and economic events. Significant among these are factors such as the Beeching cuts of the early 1960s, which closed the town’s railway station – where many visitors arrived – and the subsequent closure of the Welsh mines which provided many of Porthcawl’s tourists; arriving on schedule with the shut-down of the mines every year, these visitors brought significant disposable income to the town and even an audience for its annual panto.

In the face of dwindling visitors, coming up with the idea for Porthcawl Elvis Festival – which was first held in 2004 – must have felt like hitting a pot of gold: the underused Pavilion was reimagined as a stage for Elvis impersonators, and the glut of holiday camps hosted a ready audience, forming a niche but thriving community in the process.

While the Elvis Festival is specific to Porthcawl and unrivalled in its scale, the town’s experiences mirror those of coastal resorts up and down the country, from Blackpool (where Kearney is originally from) to Great Yarmouth. Elvis acts present a significant part of the cultural offer in towns such as these, too; despite the fact that the King himself never performed in Britain, his music and charisma continue to exert a powerful transatlantic appeal.

Anyone who has grown up or worked in a seaside town, or visited out of season, will, therefore, recognise Kearney and McMillan’s evocative and sometimes bittersweet portrait of a resort desperately seeking creative ways to remain novel in the era of mass travel and the package holiday: the zine has just as much to offer those with an interest in British places, social history and customs as Elvis fans.

In an unforeseen twist of fate, since the zine was originally conceived tourism has been one of the industries hit hardest by Covid-19. From Elvis in Porthcawl reminds us what British seaside towns have to offer us, from the daytripper to the dresser-upper seeking to find like-minded fans against a backdrop of sun, sea and sand. Reading From Elvis in Porthcawl, one can only hope that the current restrictions to travel might work to the benefit of resorts such as Porthcawl, as we look to holiday closer to home.

Natalie Bradbury

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