Southend, London: flow of the artside

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I spent one night in Southend. The hotel restaurant overlooked the pier, and its decor was dominated by a large representation of it. Eating breakfast and scanning these sunny views, I felt as if I was on holiday in an archetypal world of ‘holiday’.

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As I left, I saw what looked like a stand of postcards but which turned out to be an artwork – Mark Langley‘s photographs of memorial benches. This was part of the Artside festival – I found a programme on a nearby table, realising why I had seen unexpected art incursions the previous day. A substantial programme of public art had just started – I had even missed interesting stuff on the pier itself, like Helen Stratford‘s ‘Please Wait Here: Instructions for performing a queue for a pleasure pier train’. I decided to stick around to try and see some more.

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Outside, I walked along the promenade again. A gleaming tide emerged from a bar:

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I tried to find a Kiss Me Quick hat, but the only ones I saw had the text laserprinted on a piece of paper and merely stapled on to a plastic hat. Whilst I wasn’t expecting to find one hand-embroidered in silk thread by the last of the Pierrots, I judged that too little effort had been made and passed up the opportunity. Then I revisited the underside of the pier:

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After that I reclimbed Pier Hill to find Madelaine Murphy‘s dovecote, a structure made from architectural and nautical salvage. This works as an interactive piece as the audience attach origami birds and other objects to lines radiating from the sculpture. I was a bit early but Amy McKenny, one of the Artside curators was there and we chatted for a while. Amy told me some of the history of the Park Inn hotel where I had stayed – how it had been filled with the homeless, the windows festooned with bags of food, hung to cool outside the fridgeless rooms. I wondered afterwards where those residents went to, and what traces they leave on this place. I wandered off to ring Jennie, then came back to meet Madelaine Murphy and collaborators, including Denise W. Dye whose work I had seen on the pier train yesterday.

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I was the first to hang something on one of the lines – a small feather and some words from a newspaper I had found whilst fossicking beneath the pier.

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I got the train back into London. I decided to ignore the Tube and walked along the Thames path for a couple of miles to get the Hayward Gallery. I paid my money and went in to see Tracey Emin’s big retrospective show Love is What You Want. There I saw my second wooden art-structure of the day, Knowing My Enemy, a full-size recreation of a collapsing pier. I suppose it is a jetty rather than a pleasure pier and thus technically outside the scope of this blog, but really a pier of whatever kind made by Margate’s most famous artist had to be visited. Back in Southend, people were attaching fragments of their own journeys to the Dovecote – here, the art was exalted and untouchable, Emin’s (apparently) deeply personal stuff held hovering for special viewing.

From the Hayward I walked further along the Thames Embankment, to The Beaconsfield, for a memorial event for artist Ian Hinchliffe. I first met Ian when I was still at school, and over the decades experienced many of his unpredictable, uncontainable, absurdly dangerous and disturbingly funny performances. There was a shelf with a book of Ian’s paintings, and assorted objects brought by some of the friends, artists, musicians, carnies, curators, fishermen, drinkers and mad cronies who had come along. Ian himself had assembled and made many objects as props for one-off (unrepeatable) performances over the decades, but very little of that was physically present – I guess it’s all stashed in his home, to be archived one day, or lost forever, who knows.

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Gerry Fitz-Gerald, Lol Coxhill, Roger Ely

So that was my day by the river: art in the street, art in a gallery, art absent but actively remembered; Murphy lowering a line for a memory to be strung in the bright grey air, Emin scrawling a message in permanent neon, Hinchliffe eating a glass while being dragged off stage (recreated).

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Through a glass, darkly – shadows of my head and that of Andre Stitt; Tony Green in hat

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Southend: on Pier Hill

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Getting an early train to head for a place I had never been felt good. Visiting a seaside town may seem like a redundant activity for a Brighton-born man who lives near Southport. But maybe that’s the point – as someone who has mostly lived in or near resorts, I never get to see them as a true visitor. So hurtling to the seaside on a Pendolino train felt like the prelude to an adventure of some kind, though I was still uncertain as to how worthwhile this exercise would be. Exploring the coast and even piers in particular was, I had discovered, a somewhat commonplace pastime, so what would I be adding to the stock of human creation? From Euston I took the tube to Liverpool Street and boarded a train for Southend Victoria – the green decor of the carriage in the shade of a darkened platform made it seem almost subaquatic. For an hour the train took me along a never-visited section northern shore of the Thames, past London Parklands 2012 and long marshlands with buddleia and buglos.

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I had meant to go to Southend Central, so on arrival I had a slightly longer walk to make, down the hot high streets of Chichester and Grover Roads. Fire engines were blocking the street so I stepped into the town’s Wetherspoons, housed in an Edwardian building that had been the head Post Office. As is usual for the chain, it had aged-drinker clientele mixing with other groups such as the Goths who were getting served before me. I had a half of a craft beer from a small brewery in Ilkley and chatted to a guy who told an amusing anecdote about falling asleep on the train I had just been on, that involved his leaving a beer festival early one evening and arriving home at 3am spattered in mud.

The fire engines had gone and my route to the coast seemed clear. The shops were like those in all towns, through I was slightly confused at the sight of some huge t-shirts bearing the legend ‘Size Zero’.

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Looking at the ‘longest pier in the world’ disappearing into the distance I decided that I needed a clothing rethink. My man-in-black gear (carefully chosen for a memorial service the following day) would be too warm for a long walk exposed to the sun – I didn’t want to crawl to the end with sunstroke. Recently, somewhere in China, computer-controlled production lines had delivered a shirt and a hat into distribution systems that ended here in the Royals shopping centre, the design and price calibrated to appeal to me, so I entered the Park Inn Hotel with a bag of replacement clothes. The hotel (a treat by my normal standards) was cool and airy, only recently re-opened after a £25m refit. Laurel and Hardy had stayed there once. The more expensive rooms literally overlooked the pier (below); mine overlooked a car park.

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Finally dressed the part I walked down Pier Hill, through the amusements and on to the famously long pleasure pier. It’s a long stretch of wooden planks, punctuated with benches and shelters. At the end it bends around, giving a rare view back of the pier itself. This is the mouth of the Thames, the river I walked along for some miles and eventually crossed by ferry in Walking Home to 50, at this point as wide as a small sea. I took pictures, had a cup of tea in a styrofoam cup, answered some emails. It was 4 in the afternoon and I began to wonder what I would do next.

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I decided to take the train back to the landward end. As I boarded it I noticed a photograph, an image of water by Denise W. Dye… again I was on an aquatic train.

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It was too early to eat and I remembered an idea I had, to try and get underneath the piers I visited. The top of the pier is the daylight, rational, straightforward part with its RNLI shop and safety notices. The underneath might be something else. The things that belong in the underpier zone – lovemaking trippers recorded by Mass Observation teams; ‘Under the Pier if Wet’ Pierrot shows; gangs of Mods sleeping out the heart of a Bank Holiday rampage; the Sandman character1 (played by John Le Mesurier)in The Punch & Judy Man film, living a life of unfulfilled promise – these underside myths suggested the existence of a less certain kind of place. In Stinkfoot: An English Comic Opera by Vivian Stanshall2 and Ki Longfellow-Stanshall, ‘below the theater on the pier, there is another world. Down underneath, on the rubbishy hard-pebbled shore of England’s cold and oily sea, lives Mrs Bag Bag, a fishy Lady of the Bags who finds and treasures things, little things…Under the pier, it’s a world of the lost and disregarded: partially cooked shrimps and woeful sirens and drowned sailors and horrid cocklers and giant squid.’ In Southend, reaching this world involved circumnavigating Adventure Island, a large amusement park that straddles the land end of the pier.

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It did turn out to be possible to clamber down to the under pier world.

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Somehow, seeing this mile-long green lane made the whole thing feel worthwhile. Here was a place that combined artifice and nature, an unwalkable cloister inviting a secret gaze, suggesting a new form of romance.

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I took more pictures and walked back to the main road. The Kursaal was etched with pale neons in the evening sunshine. In a pub, I had more beer (Cornish this time), Sgt Rock (Is Going to Help Me) playing loudly from the jukebox – a connection to the superworld. I felt invigorated, the idea of this journey redeemed somehow. But Sgt Rock – a battered, indefatigable and ultimately tragic character3 – usually turns up when a long, heads-down arduous slog is required – leading me to wonder – what kind of adventure would this actually turn out to be?

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Notes

1 Probably not the same Sandman that features in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels, but possibly the one referenced in Anne Briggs’ song (see ‘Photography’ page).

2 Who had a ‘seaside boyhood at the mouth of the Thames’ according to Ki Longfellow-Stanshall’s introduction (Stinkfoot, Sea Urchin Editions, 2003)

3 In the mythology of the comics, Sgt Rock is killed on the last day of WWII by the last bullet fired. But in other stories he is still alive in later decades, even to the present day, palling around with superheroes. So who knows, really, how things will turn out?

Saltburn-by-the-sea – Pierrot don’t surf

A ‘vision of a heavenly city above the cliffs’ led to the creation of this seaside resort, 150 years ago. Quaker industrialist Henry Pease saw the potential for development here and laid the foundation stone to the first row of houses in 1861. Victorian hi-tech followed, like a steampunk virus – railway (1861), pier (1869) and funicular ‘balanced cliff lift’ (1884) transforming ‘humble Saltburn into Saltburn-by-the-sea, the last word in northern seaside chic’. Today ‘Saltburn is at a crossroads, reinventing itself as a leisure destination for the 21st century, a haven for artists and walkers, surfers, cyclists, and lovers of the great English seaside’.

(Quotes from ‘Welcome to Saltburn by the sea’ brochure, (c) Finks Publishing. See also www.welcometosaltburn.co.uk )

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This was the first new (to me) pier to be visited on a planned odyssey around all 55 surviving ones, together with trips (where practical) to some fictional and imaginary examples. On a late May Bank Holiday we drove here, past the Angel of the North and the model of Saltburn Pier on the outskirts of the town. We parked near a cafe in a gray drizzle. I looked up at Victorian terraces lowering above the cliffs. A miniature train went past. I had begun the journey in earnest.

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We had lunch in the Vista Mar bar-cafe-restaurant, motto ‘love food | love drink | love life’. As we ate I watched a line of freight ships crawl along the horizon. Enjoyed the fishcake but only ate a token chip; I worry about such things, these days. I was nearly 50, a third the age of the town, health enhanced by surgery, tablets and ‘lifestyle’. The time-horizon had been bent in my favour, but for me the landscape was clearly finite – why had I decided to spend precious days wandering around grey margins and peering at strange embellishments? I felt like one of the Challengers of the Unknown, ‘living on borrowed time‘, not having supercharged adventures but instead drifting in some bosky netherworld.

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After lunch we decided to explore separately. Outside Vista Mar I futzed with my cameras. A surprise loss of battery power in my digital camera left me with just the Lomo Spinner and a phone with which to capture images. [Further photographic entropy may have occurred – at the time of writing the film from the Lomo Spinner seems to have gone missing, so as yet I have no 360-degree picture to show you.] Head down in the rain I loped towards the pier.

Saltburn has been described as an inter-war ‘stronghold’ of Pierrot shows1, suggesting that they persisted after other resorts had replaced them with more modern entertainments. Pierrots don’t seem to have hung around until now, however. What I did see were plenty of surfers and, despite the cold day, families enjoying the sandy beach and queuing for fish and chips.

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I checked out the souvenirs – coffee mugs with digital images of the town and a plate showing leaping dolphins. Then I walked on to the pier, and took a couple of 360 shots with the Lomo [but you’ll have to take my word for it.]

Squeals from children drifted up through the planks – beneath me they were sheltering from the rain and dashing into the waves. I walked down to the end where people were taking advantage of the best fishing spot. I guess I’ll be doing 55 walks like this and, despite the rain and greyness I felt cheered at the prospect of reaching many more of these joyfully absurd viewpoints over the waves.

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Halfway back I leaned on the railings, looking along the coast – the classic ‘existential’ pier-pose. I heard a voice: ‘Edge is a man alone’. Jennie had found me. We walked through the amusement arcade – still no Pierrots, but a machine version of the King. (Photos above and below by Jennie; full set here.)

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We took the Inclined Tramway (powered by a gas pump and 20,000 gallons of water) to the top of the cliffs, walked through the fossil garden and towards the main streets.

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I liked the definite way the town, cliff-railway and pier all joined up. The town itself seemed tidy and purposeful. The brisk energy of the surfing beach, the clean lines of the promenade – these things had seduced my holiday-self. In the secondhand bookshop I found ‘How to See England’ by Edmund Vale (1937). His ‘How to See…’ instructions do not involve ‘wandering round all the piers2 taking random pictures’ but I can empathise with his statement that ‘We must rely on a few set pieces and, everywhere else, endless hints, endless clues’ – stated over a drawing of a dolphin – itself perhaps one of the ‘clues’.

We wanted tea but found ourselves in the friendly Artsbank with its five floors containing a vast and splendid array of popular art: painting, prints, photography and sculpture. Amongst these I began to see another role that piers have – as visual subject matter; Saltburn pier was portrayed in various media by several contributors to the Artsbank of ‘affordable art’. Jennie suggested that, just as in Walking home to 50 I had become part of a fraternity of walkers, I would now join some loose group of artistic explorers of the coast. My technique of ‘just showing up with a toy camera’ [then losing the film] is slightly different than the application of skill and judgement seen in the Artsbank pieces, but nevertheless this seemed like a fine way to spend time. My mission began to make sense.

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Earlier valetudinarians had sought out seaside resorts for the health-giving benefits of seawater, ‘ozone’, sunlight3 and leisure. I would do the same, seeking instead the therapeutic power of random arrival at places like this, finding streets named Diamond and Coral and Emerald or, hopefully, circa 55 other marvels.

We turned the corner into Marine Parade, with its tall Victorian terraces and curved viewpoint windows.

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When we arrived these had seemed foreboding; now I would happily have taken a lease on a basement flat there. From this point the sea was visible again. This was the visionary city, still solid with detail in the miles of salty air: a supercharged adventure after all. On black iron railings, details smoothed by decades of painting and repainting, a fragment of leaf… no, a butterfly flickered in place.

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Notes

1 In The British Seaside by John K Walton (MUP, 2000) referencing Pierrots of the Yorkshire Coast by Chapman & Chapman (Hutton Press, 1988)

2 In fact he mentions piers not at all. Castles, mountains, rivers and monasteries get plenty of space. The spot in the index where piers might be mentioned is bracketed by ‘Pews, Church’ and ‘Pilgrim Fathers, the.’

3 The Sunlight League believed that sunlight was ‘nature’s disinfectant’, I learned in Walton’s book. The Sunlight League reminds me of John Sunlight, arch-enemy of Doc Savage… this link must be investigated further.

Anticipating Hunstanton

I hope to get to Hunstanton one day. Its pier may not currently be in physical existence, but the Hunstanton Pier Company has the majority of its 999-year lease left so who knows what will happen in the future? The now-gone pier features in the last Ealing Comedy Barnacle Bill

…and George Harvey Bone, the protagonist of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, briefly contemplates the pier while he spends Christmas in Huntstanton with an aunt, in a prelude to the main action of the novel1. Walking on the cliffs, he observes how ‘The little pier, completely deserted, jutted out into the sea, its silhouette shaking against the grey waves, as though it trembled with cold but intended to stay where it was to demonstrate some principle.’ However the pier’s Pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1939 (the same year Bone destroys himself in the novel), and most of the pier was lost in a storm in 1978.

So there are at least two reasons to visit. But travelling east takes a lot of energy and it will be a while before this happens. In the meantime here’s a very short film by Tina Richardson, schizocartographer supreme:

1 The Hunstanton sequence may be just a minor part of a ‘Novel of Darkest Earl’s Court’ featuring some famous passages in Brighton. However the early part of the book is memorable and has inspired at least one poem. For my part Bone’s sojourn with his aunt, a “sport” dutifully ‘pretending that she liked “cocktails”’ has always stuck in my mind as an example of cosy pathos. “But she was a good sort. She would be cheerful at tea, and then when she saw he didn’t want to talk she would leave him alone and let him sit in his chair and read The Bar 20 Rides Again, by Clarence Mulford. But of course he wouldn’t be reading—he would be thinking of Netta and how and when he was going to kill her.” The Bar 20 is a Hopalong Cassidy novel, 17th in an immensely popular series that had also been adapted as films, so it works as an arbitrary example of low-brow reading. However Hamilton himself is recorded as enjoying westerns as ‘leisure reading’ and, at the very end of his life, revealed to a young friend (the 22nd Earl of Shrewsbury and Talbot, who I once met briefly when he was Chancellor of the University where I worked) that he ‘longed to write stories of the Wild West!’ (as stated in Sean French’s biography.) So Hamilton, Bone and myself, in our respective times and 8-o’clock sitting rooms, all enjoy escaping into the literary freedom of the western plains. Bar 20 will go in my suitcase when I finally head Hunstantonwards.

There are some beautiful images of The Bar 20 Rides Again books, including the ‘yellow-covered’ edition that Bone would have had, here.

Southport Pier, golden shift

Southport Pier (big)

It is hard for me to get a fresh view of Southport Pier as we go there all the time. Nevertheless, as I turned the corner from Lord Street to be hit by sea breeze fragrant with chip fat and candy floss, I was struck by just how ‘seaside’ the town is – an aspect we often ignore as we head for shops and cinemas (even though the cinema is part of ‘Ocean Plaza’). As I walked down the wide street that leads to the pier, mechanical laughter followed me out of an amusement arcade with elaborately-dressed china dolls in the window.

I walked down by the Golden Gallopers carousel and the cafe where, even on a weekday, bikers were meeting up and chatting over their machines (as photographed by Jennie a couple of years ago.)

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I peeked into the amusements at the very start of the pier. I felt oddly scared to go in, despite the inviting offer of cheap tea. For some reason I felt that this was grown-up territory, a place apart.

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The pier starts over land – one reason I suppose that it is the second longest in the country. The overland end is surrounded by concrete aprons, large regenerated spaces with graffiti starting to grow in the hidden corners.

From Southport Pier

Further on to the pier I got out the Lomo Spinner. I may well have taken some great pictures at this point, but there is one serious mistake one can make with this camera – leaving it set on Rewind. If this happens no pictures are actually being taken. I spotted the error and took some 360 shots from the end of the pier.

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Southport Pier (big)

Southport Pier (big)

This pier is surrounded by a long wilderness of sand. There are places of a kind on this territory, Horse Bank, Angry Brow, Foulnaze, The Bog Breast. Hints of danger and alarm in the shifting landscape that stretches to Lytham, Blackpool and future piers.

Blackpool, from Southport Pier

I had a cup of tea in the cafe, which also houses an antique amusement arcade. As I left, mechanical laughter followed me once again.

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Brighton Pier: across a threshold

Brighton Pier

It was the last day of a long, episodic walk I had made from Southport Pier, lasting over three years. My destination was Brighton Pier, the end of that walk and the beginning of this project. Before I reached the pier I headed into the North Laine where I bought a Lomography 360 Spinner camera from Zoingimage in Sydney Street. The lady was very helpful, talking me through flm types and scanning. Explaining cross-processing to me, she opened a book to show an example – which turned out to be a photo of a pier. This felt like a nice piece of synchronicity to start with.

Brighton Pier

The Pier was busy on this hot Easter bank holiday and I was flowing with a huge crowd. I’m no pier obsessive; as a local I rarely visited this one, or indeed any of the tourist spots. For the Council tourist people Brighton is ‘vibrant, colourful and creative’, a place where ‘daytime traditional seaside fun mixes seamlessly with night time funky beachside club culture’, while for a geographer (Shields, 1991) it is an ‘institutionalised liminal zone of carnival’, ‘a social as well as geographical margin, a ‘place apart”. But for me actually living there such things were merely a sideshow. However on this trip I began to sense dimly this ‘carnivalesque’, the seaside’s ‘overflow of meaning on the anomalous’ (Fiske, 1989). There was a vast erotic energy flooding to the beach, down from the station, through the streets and shops and bars of the town, terminating here, on a strange Victorian platform jutting over the waves.

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‘Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial.’ – Turner, 1969

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There seems to be no definite end to Brighton Pier; the closest one can get to gaze out to sea is a sort of side-bay behind the fairground machinery. Still, it was a place to look at the sea. ‘There curves and glimmers outward to the unknown / The old unquiet ocean.’ If I had crossed some pier-threshold and been transformed, it was to become one of the tourists – plunging into the seaside carnival in search of elusive pleasures, staring out at the ultimate horizon, then turning around and going home with a pocket full of bizarre souvenirs.

‘…there were little lights on the sea facing the majestic Metropole between the two piers outlined with blazing jewels. He wondered what it was all about – the pounding sea, the beach, the rain, the stars, the lights, the piers, Brighton, Hitler, Netta, himself, everything. Why?….” Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square

Brighton Pier

References

John Fiske, Reading the Popular, Unwin Hyman 1989
Rob Shields, Places on the Margin: alternative geographies of modernity, Routledge 1991
Victor Turner, The Ritual Process, Aldine 1969