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Southend redux

Let’s try that again. Working with my Canon 9000f scanner was driving me wild, as most of the pictures had coloured bands running through them, or random colour-casts. Turns out this was something I was doing wrong, concealing some kind of sensor doodad by laying film over it. (Here is the explanation of the problem.) By cutting the negs up I’m now able to get pictures that resemble more closely what’s actually on the film. There’s an irony to using an analogue camera which produces results that need to be digitised in order for anyone to see them, but there you go, it’s a fallen world. So here’s a do-over of my Southend trip:

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Exposure is still a dicey business, as the pictures usually have very light and very dark areas. I expect if I get into Photoshop I could do more with this but hey, as well as my day job and writing up my previous walk I want to get round some piers, so perhaps these crude efforts will have to suffice for now.

You may notice that I am wearing a stupid hat (even in the improved versions of the images):

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– to which I would reply ‘Heh, you should hear what my wife says about it.’ But it was fun at the time and if you can’t wear a stupid hat at the seaside, where can you wear one? Promenading in the sun as a different man – one who would wear that hat, and that shirt, proudly showing off my normally besuited, skinny arms (+ tattoo, + scar) – was half the fun.

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

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?