The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
I went to Brighton recently, not a first call for bucket and spade for it’s all shingle and, this time of year, freezing cold. In my childhood, news consisted of Francis Chichester, Bobby Fischer, lunar landings and Christiaan Barnard; also seaside piers disappearing – burnt down, blown away, rotted and rusted. There was always regret and implied shame that these platform promontories of pleasure (and natural shrinkage, often piecemeal or jerry-built for rapid financial return) were allowed to crumble; sometimes those who wrote the news attached a sense of blame to their early builders and brokers (although many were bankrupted) for seemingly not taking more care.
The engineer at Brighton’s West Pier was Eugenius Birch. He had that sense of Victorian decorum and sensibility that, like a fine cigar in a drawing room, fostered success. He was a prodigy with nuts and bolts and, when a boy, submitted successfully a redesign to the London and Greenwich Railway Company for its passenger carriages. After apprenticeships he made a mint in India where, with his brother, he built railways, viaducts and bridges; he returned to England with experience and a blueprint for more efficient (as in less costly and more speedily erected as well as longer lasting) pier construction, and this was trialled at Margate in 1853. Margate now has closed – it succumbed to storm damage in 1978 – although its innovative iron piles foundation has remained immune to dynamite until today, and several attempts to demolish its remaining iron skeleton above the sea met structural resistance. Margate led to a raft of further pier design, thirteen more in all, including Brighton’s West Pier whose three-year construction was finished in 1866. A few of his piers went the way of all iron girder. Deal was cut in two by a navy vessel; Lytham too was rent asunder by drifting barges in 1903 and its pavilion was set ablaze in 1927, though it stands still; Brighton’s West Pier also had its excitement when its Chain Pier was destroyed in 1896. Birch’s attrition rate was far less than the mean: of over one hundred piers in existence at the turn of the twentieth century, only half have survived until today.
Seaside piers are glorious social histories. They wax with the invention of leisure and the ease of the railway. Often with tollbooths, which served as a filter to allow well dressed ladies with parasols to occupy their luxury of space and fresh air, their pier heads soon gave way to the hoi polloi, and over two million people visited the West Pier in its heyday of 1919. Its concert rooms, bandstands and variety theatre were immensely successful, and the wane of the pier was signalled by its popular culture giving way to slot machines and fair stalls. Archie Rice, the dilapidated music hall artist in The Entertainer, John Osborne’s stage play made iconic by its film starring Olivier, is a metaphor for the decline of Empire, Suez its backdrop, but in retrospect it is as much about the passing of an age. The replacement of a plethora of iced lolly sticks by brand name confectionery narrates nattily the decline of this world, as their seaside postcard nomenclature, Funny Feet and Stick Up, or space fantasy names inspired by the heroics of Dan Dare, Zoom or Orbit, or comic character names like Lord Toffingham, gave way to the big, global players of today (the Fab lolly is a 1960s late night watchman). The death of the pier is sealed perhaps when the Bounty bar left its factory no longer resting on cardboard trays, the Argo record label sales of steam engine recording halts, and the disappearance of Two-Way Family Favourites on the wireless.
Nostalgia for the past is so often more resonant than hope for the future. Still we place nil hope and invest little in buildings for our children, yet our regret for, and our belief in, the past is writ large; the aesthetic and pocket money applied to the new seaside frontage of Brighton is a riot of calamity, for instance, compared to its impressive, well maintained and pastel shaded Victorian and Edwardian grandiosity. Nostalgia is everywhere: my once svelte waistline is in decline but can be resurrected (watch this space), American hegemony and the British Empire are more doubtful (pace dewy-eyed Trump and Brexit), even the fate of the bound book is linked with tearful regret (even doleful memory). The West Pier at Brighton – that is what remains, cast adrift and forlorn – will have its day again, too, no doubt, for the triumph of nostalgia can be overwhelming (I can’t think of a single reason other than this for Dylan’s rather naff Nobel accolade). Certainly I can live again through the age of Brighton’s West Pier – the land of the saucy Donald McGill postcard, Punch and Judy, Rubber Johnnies and bumper cars, when bosses could seduce their secretaries in louche boarding houses that peppered the sea front, when football players defied waterlogged pitches and kicked leather balls with what appeared to be deep sea divers’ boots; I can listen again to the caterwauling Bob Dylan also (if I have to). But I do hope we are spared the renaissance of Morrissey, his glottal drones and cheap perfumed, bedsit lyrics: I mean even with nostalgia there is a limit.