Sunday, 16 February 2014

Pier without peer

Brighton's West Pier, gouache, February 2014
Pleasure piers are as English as cucumber sandwiches, handkerchiefs on the head and the sound of the Wurlitzer.

Jutting out into inclement seas all around this island, they’re as much an essential feature of our collective culture as the strandk√∂rbe is to Germans.

The first such one was Ryde Pier, on the Isle of Wight, which opened in 1814.

February 2012
In 1823, Brighton got its first one – the Chain Pier – although it was destroyed by a storm in 1896, and the Palace Pier was built a little to the west and opened in 1899.

My own memories of piers include standing at the back of the Morecambe Pier to watch wrestling – and seeing ‘Cry Baby’ Jim Breaks actually get thumped by an elderly woman wielding a brolly.

I sung on the same pier in competition in my school days.

Stencil art on one of the columns, June 2007
And at Blackpool’s South Pier, a friend took me to see Danny La Rue in 1990 – harking back to entertainment that was a thing of the past by then.

And later, there were interludes with The Other Half playing air hockey as competitively as it’s possible, and ‘winning’ a grey rat toy, at the amusement arcades on the same pier as we whiled away the time waiting for a Rugby League cup final at the town’s football ground.

Blackpool is rather greedy on the pier front – it has three, although the town’s North Pier has taken a battering in this winter’s storms.

That on is the oldest and longest – and was intended for a ‘better class’ of holidaymaker.

June 2009
Opened in 1863, it was designed by Eugenious Birch – who designed Brighton’s West Pier, which opened three years later.

It was, however, closed in 1975 for renovation, but that never happened.

There have been plenty of plans to restore it, but two fires, the weather and various other catastrophes have continued apace, with no sign of any such restoration ever taking place.

Detail, June 2009
There are conspiracy theories aplenty about the fires – at least one of which is popularly supposed to have been arson – and many of the plans to restore it were opposed by, among others, the owners of the Palace Pier, who apparently thought that any subsidy for it’s restoration would be unfair competition.

There has been a plan for something called i360 – a futuristic observation tower – with a suggestion that money from this would then be spent on rebuilding the pier itself.

Ballroom dome and seagulls, June 2009
So far, the only thing that has happened is that the West Pier’s slow decline continues.

Storms, as well as a ship crashing into it and three attempts to dynamite it, plus the fires and decades of neglect have seen it gradually fall into the sea. The most recent damage occurred just a fortnight or so ago, when the weather ripped a gaping hole through the main structure, splitting part of it.

It’s difficult to see how much longer the old lady can continue standing.

Rusting support columns, June 2007
And yet she does.

In spite of the tawdry attempts to get rid of her and the broken pledges to restore her to glory, she remains.

She seems determined to defy everything – and has become loved in her own right for what she is today.

January 2014
The structure that still rises from the sea has a melancholy beauty and elegance that makes it the very first thing I look for on visiting Brighton. I’d go so far as to suggest that, stripped back to its iron skeleton allows you to see that elegance far more clearly.

A few years ago, the dome of the ballroom collapsed into the water to be washed by the tides and draped in a gown of seaweed green. Seagulls sat on it and squawked, while thousands of starlings swirl and roost on the structure at sunset.

I’ve been photographing the West Pier ever since my first visit, back in 2007, and this year, I’ve added a pastel and a gouache version to my gallery.

A Moody Brighton Day, soft pastel
She continues to delight – so much more that the Palace Pier that I’ve visited once for a henna tattoo and haven’t bothered with since.

And there’s a certain pleasure in the knowledge that, as she stubbornly refuses to sink beneath the waves, she remains an embarrassing reminder of something every bit as English as piers: our centuries-old lack of concern for our own heritage.

We are, at heart, vandals.

And as she continues to stand proud, her farcical recent history brings to mind a rather less funny version of another very English institution: the Carry On film. Its entirely coincidental that the Palace Pier features prominently in Carry On at Your Convenience.

But however inconvenient, it’s the West Pier that seems determined to carry on regardless.

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