When I saw footage of Hastings Pier up in flames earlier this week, I almost burst into tears. I didn’t feel anger because it seems that all the best piers meet the same fate: fall into disuse, owners not prepared to invest, and then up in flames.
Hastings is a romantic place. It is full of artists and chancers and wasters and dreamers. I fitted in nicely. I’d only been living there a few weeks, back in 2002, when the pier ballroom was being reopened. I was doing the ents pages for the local paper and got accosted by a bug-eyed fella by the name of Paul Hutchinson, plus beautiful accomplice.
They had designed a night called Phase:02, which was pretty much a shout out for everyone who liked to get mashed up – ie the whole town – to come and have a party. I went down there with a son of an artist called Jonathan, and we joined the happy throng.
I grew up in Romford where club nights are pretty much the preserve of the young, or very young. But in Hastings you pitch up at nights and you will find everyone from teenagers in hoodies, right up to grandparents. There’s no cliques or little subcultures, you either want to crack on, or you don’t. Most do.
Needless to say details of the night are sketchy at best, but it left me feeling good about living in this seaside town.
Over the course of the next three years, I saw all manner of people in there: Jimmy Carson, Nick Cave, Chas & Dave, and, three weeks before he died, Joe Strummer. I interviewed Strummer over the phone before the gig and he had a desire to come back to do the pier, to a place where the Clash had played, where the Stones had played. It was a legendary venue.
I often wrote stories about the pier. The possibility of new ‘boutique’ shops, the rent prices, the need for investment. The pier did get some investment while I was there, but it was never enough. The place was always getting patched up, while the traders just about hung on.
Hutchinson soon flew the nest, a string of debtors shaking their fists, and in his place came Dave Preedy, a man designed to run a cabaret venue. He was all tattoos and tall tales, another man placing his dreams in a crumbling edifice above the sea. He didn’t last long after what money he had ran out.
But the fact is that people just like piers. It’s great to be on land but over the sea. It’s wonderful to look back at Hastings seafront and see the line of grand old houses, and Pelham Crescent and the castle above. It was good to sit and have a cocktail on the pier apron, with the fortune teller in her little hut down the way, and the smell of frying burgers and onions over the other side, and a couple of old people having a fag outside the bingo hall.
The pier closed again a few years later, for safety reasons. And, as the place was always quite rickety, you imagine those reasons were fairly compelling. But people were determined to get the thing reopened. On one of my more recent visits I was walking past the pier, feeling a pang of sadness to see the place bolted up, even if it was a windy and rainy winter’s day. And there outside was a couple of old women, collecting money for a fighting fund. I gave a couple of quid, knowing it was probably futile.
It seems now, a few days after the fire, that if people really want to save the thing, to stop it going the way of the West Pier in Brighton, it could happen. I bloody well hope so, but they’ll probably need an awful lot of cash. Piers are romantic places, but like theatres, they eat money.