It’s good to know that David Cameron has been reading my blog. Or at least that he has come to appreciate the cultural significance of the British pier since I last blogged about this in March. When he chose to give his vision of a Big Society another push earlier this week, he sent Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, down to Hastings to see how the locals are trying to save their pier.
You can see ten minutes of Newsnight documentary about Hurd’s seaside visit here; and there are some nice reflections from Max Davidson here on the strange pull of the pier on the British imagination, occasioned by the opening of Weston-super-Mare’s new £51m Grand Pier.
For they were, in their heyday, romantic places. The ingenuity of Victorian engineers, building out into the sea, when it would have been far simpler and cheaper to build the same structures on shore, stirred the imagination. There was a kind of poetry in the conjunction of the lapping waves and those jaunty pavilions, shimmering in the sun. They were places of adventure, glamour, innocent merriment. No Mediterranean beach could match the splendour of an English pier in its pomp.
When I was a child in the 1960s, an outing to Margate Pier was an event of knee-trembling excitement. I laughed myself silly at the Punch and Judy shows. I guzzled huge sticks of rock. I thought the ghost train was the single scariest thing that had ever happened to me. It didn’t matter that paint was peeling off the skeletons, that the spiders were made of shoe-laces or that the driver of the train looked like Albert Steptoe. I let my imagination roam.
Most of all, I loved those old coin-slide machines where if you rolled a penny at the right moment, you could get ten, 15, 20 pennies back, as a gleaming pile of coins toppled over the precipice. It was my first introduction to the thrills and spills of gambling.
Like pantomimes, with which they have much in common, piers bewilder foreigners. “This is your idea of fun?” asks the bemused German or Frenchman, as giggling English families pile on to 5mph trains, puttering along to the end of the pier past speak-your-weight machines and candyfloss stalls. But they retain a nagging hold on our imagination, for that very reason. They are not sophisticated. They are the reverse of sophisticated. But they connect us to childhoods past, when the world was simpler.