Lovely bit on the book in today’s Guardian G2, by Chris Beanland. Online here. And a new pier-realted film to check out in the comments.
Lovely bit on the book in today’s Guardian G2, by Chris Beanland. Online here. And a new pier-realted film to check out in the comments.
By Jon Bounds
Danny woke me from a half-forced slumber;
“It’s sodding Christmas.”
The snow weighing down the canvas made the inside of the tent darker. A timid belt of light across the apex was all that revealed it was morning. I’d woken up for the first time at around four am, as I have always done when we’ve camped out on our pier reviewing escapades. I’m no Margret Thatcher, I would normally sleep for about seven to eight hours—but camping, odd situations, not being in my own bed essentially, mean I will wake at the slightest provocation.
When traversing the 56 working pleasure piers in the twilight of the summer season I learnt to get up and make the most of the wilderness. I took to rising as I woke, and running along deserted cliff tops; scattering rabbits and taking sly pisses behind static caravans. My desire to run had come as a shock, I’ve only ever been able to do exercise before as part of sport—give me a semi-competitive game of tennis or football and I’ll run for hours, go running and my brain talks me out of it in a matter of yards. But, here, the solitude, the new scenery, the sharp and salty morning air, combined to make it exhilarating. I’d not been able to keep it up when I got back to Birmingham.
My taste for al fresco urination is a constant.
I did get up four, and spent a burning moment proving that the meme that people can write their name in the snow is totally apocryphal. After that, I lay thinking of anything that might make a couple of fitful hours tolerable. The Clacton-on-Sea Christmas morning swim wasn’t one of those.
After succeeding in our self-created and vapid quest there were places on the coast that I felt I would return to, some because I really liked them and wanted to share them with someone other than a smelly art-goth from Northfield and a tiny punk, but none really because I had any desire to plunge into the North Sea at the height of winter.
“It certainly is.” the noise came from the bundle of cloth over the other side of the tent that somewhere contained Midge Diabolik, Sheldon’s most unemployed man. He sounded like he’d finally regretted saying yes to us.
“Lighten up you cunt, it’s fucking Christmas.”
We’d had to return, Peter from the T-shirt shop had insisted. And there was something about his sage demeanour that compelled up to do so. He’d been the only man to recognise us fro who we are. And despite not giving us a discount in any way on our Pier-Vert T-shirts, he held something over us.
“You should come back at Christmas” he said, “the idiots round here go swimming in the sea. It’s free, they won’t pay for anything but they’ll near freeze themselves to death in the name of ritual.”
And the word ‘ritual’ set something off in Danny Smith’s mind. So, on Christmas Eve we spent nearly four hours Midge-speed driving to the Essex coast. Chris Rea did not feature, our soundtrack was It’s Immaterial. And Fleetwood Mac, obviously. The only thing we all agree on is Fleetwood Mac.
We don’t agree on camping, Midge is prepared man and Danny is a scout, they have ear plugs, masks, inflatable mattresses. I have the uncanny ability to find the hardest piece of even the most muddy field to sleep on.
So, after a token exchange of gifts (I got a book from Dan and a Poundland torch from Midge, which I could have done with a few hours ago) and a cold shower (hot water ‘tokens’ only able to be purchased in a limited and limiting range of time in the off-season) we packed the car. Then on the way to Clacton itself, a stop at a petrol garage for a festive breakfast of machine coffee and non-branded biscuits.
Parking should be easy, no payment on Bank Holidays, but every car park and side street was rammed, Clacton was about to get a very low score on the Kurt Vonnegut rating. In Nelson Road, overlooking the front, car after people carrier skulk beneath the suburban trees. We’re old hands and ditch the clio right on the apex of a bend—people who care about their cars will never park where us unmaterialistic bastards will.
We’re a little late, as ever. The empty vehicles once contained other people foolish enough to bathe and the beach is fast filling up. From the pier approach we inch out from under the arch, taking a brief respite from the wind that hastened our decent. I estimate there are about three or four hundred people here, they burble and laugh, flowing into smaller and larger, tighter and looser groups. The pier itself is closed, it’s one we’d liked, and would have offered a great view of the swimming. But we’re going in, we can’t just watch.
We bear left past the shuttered food kiosk, and descend into the throng. Above us, the sea wall holds those too sensible to go in, swathed in coats and scarves they call out to the particular knots of people on the sand. The groynes (love that word) are a vantage point too for the more athletic spectator, they’re more boisterous and catcall mates.
“Put those legs away, Rich. You’re scaring the kids.”
“Look at the state of that”
The disorder is comforting, as I’m not sure we want anyone to know just how disorganised we are. We’ve no fancy dress, no warming flasks of anything, and no wetsuits. As I always will when faced by a situation I can’t control, I turned to the internet and tried to find out as much as possible about what I was about to do.
Apart from some goosebumpy shaky-cam footage on YouTube there just wasn’t much. While Felixstowe or Southwold raise money for deserving causes, and offer hot chocolate and safety wardens, Clacton just seems to be people turning up and running into the surf. It apparently used to be organised by the Clacton Swimming Club, but they seem to be no longer in existence. An old, rugged, chap in a red swimming cap muttered something about a disgraced treasurer and wandered off—I had a vision of Arthur from Eastenders vigorously towelling himself off.
“The tepid safety of the indoor pool is not for me” he’d said when I asked why he was here. There are different types of people here: some all year round ‘wild swimmers’ taught and weather-hardened in trunks and dark swimsuits, the rest are in party mood. Bright swimming shorts, santa hats and, compressed through cheap speakers, a waft of Elton John on the breeze.
People are waiting for 11 o’clock, inching toward the waves in an ever tighter crowd, there isn’t a timekeeper. Midge is the only one of us that has a watch, and it’s not waterproof, we’ll go when they go. I strip down to my swimming shorts, blue, adidas, difficult to keep up—phone in sock in trainer, T-shirt in jacket, with trousers wrapped in my towel. For once I know where my towel is. We hang to the far left of the bunch, nearest the pier which seems natural. As outsiders we also don’t feel too comfortable being in the centre of things.
Most here have non-swimmers to look after their clothes, but, still, molehills of cloth and leather punctuate the sand. The sea looks not only fresh but a little rough, I’m not totally sure I want to do this.
A countdown starts, a big man of about forty is leading
“Are we ready? Ten… Nine…”
Pockets of the crowd take it up, some young girls giggle.
Some are bouncing: warming up?
“Shall I stop and look after the gear?”
There doesn’t seem to be a ‘one’, the jog has started and I go with. The lads at the front are already reaching the water, arms windmilling high, the running motion seeming to attempt to keep them out of the water for as long as possible.
Eventually each topples into the water, a step into Christmas, the brave duck under straight away.
When I go, it hurts. Like a rough smack to the exposed skin, and a cold hand to the covered legs.
Submerged it’s okay. After a few seconds you start to shiver into a sort of comfort, fresh like after a long wait for a night bus.
Midge is barely visible when I surface, each piece of current lifts him slightly. Danny is sort of striding into the splashing pack. People are already getting out, a dip more than a swim. The cheers and laughter is sustained from those on the beach, I can hear a Winter’s Tale and some at least are joining in.
I decide to at least swim a few meters, maybe to the other side of the pier and back. I’ve been under them, but never in the water, this might be the only sensible chance. I get a little further out, going to do a sort of circuit, the waves lap hard at the wooden struts, a comforting lick like from a boisterous collie, I struggle a little with each surge, my stroke not confident enough to ensure. Pause. Past one, white spittle breaks up against the sodden roughness, I’m brushed against it, a lonely pup, away from the pack, it scratches, I push off and away to loop around. Not push far enough, a rush back to the structure, against it, a slap to the back, a hug of water pressure.
I go under.
And back out, I can’t get a grip on the pitted green. I wash in and out with the swell. The rhythm of the Glitter beat, regular.
I go under.
Just out this time, a gulp of brine, hard to breathe. The decking above like staves, regular, four four beat. Perfect pop.
I go under.
I can still hear the music from the beach, just. Sleigh bells. I can’t focus. Paul McCartney is having a great time.
a child is born
through my lungs
harsh bristles attack my mouth
cough from the depths of my stomach
it’s hard, the ground I’m lying on moves
I can hear voices, singing yes but also bonhomie
“Are you alright?” It’s the hair, the teeth, beard.
“Mmm” I cough. The beard hands me a bottle, I slug, it burns.
“I’ve got to go change the record. Back in second.”
“And that was the new one from Paul and Linda, great mates. Here’s everyone’s favourite Welsh rock and roller.”
“Sea’s rough today, needle’s slipping everywhere.” He hands me a blanket. “Get this round you, I’m going to put a Genesis LP on and get you to shore”
“This is Radio London, I’m the hairy cornflake, here’s something for all you rock fans.”
I’m falling asleep, much warmer.
“Stay with me buddy, on 1134 medium wave”
Danny is standing over me.
“You alright mate? Though we’d lost you there.”
eBook versions here.
Danny swears this happened on Bosbome Pier…
“Do you have them?”
The young dusky-skinned boy shifted uneasily in his tweed suit, such a heavy material he thought, even though he found England cold especially with the summer sun dipping below the horizon and a bitter wind sweeping from the sea, he hated how the suit pressed against him. The Pier Master was in not mood to be dallying:
“Well, boy do you have them or not?”
The boy put his hand inside his jacket and drew out a small fold of black velvet. The wind swelled and almost took the package but the boy had firm hold.
“Right here, Master.” the boy held the package up with a small bow of his head.
“Well I don’t bloody want them, chuck them in the sea and be done with it.” said the Pier Master brusquely and with the annoyance of a rational man that had no truck with this sort of nonsense.
“Sorry Master, alas I cannot.” the boys head stayed bowed.
“Of course you can, the sea’s just there. It’s the wet thing down there over the railing.”
“This is your pier, Master, for the curse to be lifted you have to throw them over.”
Typical, thought the pier master, first I get a phone call from the bloody Governor of all things and now I’m supposed to save an Egyptian princesses’s life with a bunch of mumbo jumbo. Well the quicker the better, with a swipe he grabbed the velvet fold. Immediately his hand dropped. It felt as heavy as the artillery shells he had handled during the great war. The ache in his leg swelled to a crescendo of pain, So many men, friends, bullies, husbands, most of them bloody children really, lost in a rain of sand and blood…
The young boy saw the colour drain from the Pier Master’s face.
The Pier Master’s mouth made some movement but no sound came out like a silent prayer, the boy could see tears in the English mans eyes, all of a sudden he seemed very old.
He shook the old man. Confused he stumbled backwards towards the rail, lets go of the small velvet fold that got so heavy over the railing and into the sea. The boy shifts in his suit and reads something from a scrap over paper in his pocket. Out of the corner of his eye while trying to concentrate on the figures on the papyrus he sees the old man rub his face, long ago he stopped trying to understand English idioms but tonight he finally understood ‘pull yourself together’ after seeing the Pier Master gradually raise himself to his full height and muster his authority. Respectfully he waited for the boy to finish. Soon they were both just standing in the twilight watching a calm sea and enjoying the breeze.
“I’ve seen some things in my time lad…” the Pier Master trails off
“Do you drink tea?” as they walk off back down towards the shore.
We’ve said before that writing a book is hard, but as we’ve discovered letting people read it is in harder. That’s not to mention letting people read it and then actively court their opinion how to make it better. THAT is hard, every hesitation, “it’s great, but…” and “weeeeeell”, try as we do, is still a vicious pinch in the ego.
You only let people read something when you think it’s finished. Intellectually you know it’s going to need some work, but in your heart its done, over. That’s how you’d ever let anyone read anything anyway. But its not. And thats the point where we’re at now. We sent the manuscript to six or seven people we trust, while trying to hit as many of our target demographics as possible. We’re now currently waiting for the last of the feedback so we can assimilate that information for the final changes. The feedback we’ve received so far has been fantastic, some praise that we’ve obviously completely ignored, and some criticism that, if we’re honest, kinda knew anyway.
— ℝσϒ ∆•ß• (@Mister_Roy) August 25, 2013
The final changes shouldn’t take more than a few weeks, then we’ll have everything in place to send to the literary agents. After that it’s their job to sell it to publishers.
A sub-£2.50 pint in central London and reading @pierreview. Not quite all my Christmases though as the joke box is stuck on Alanis Morisette
— jonhickman (@jonhickman) September 2, 2013
Thank you to everyone who’s helped get us this far, including our partners who to describe as ‘long suffering’ wouldn’t do justice to the amount of weird shit they have to put up with.
A bit that didn’t make the cut…Danny spends a penny on Swanage pier and drifts away (cert 15).
Hastily, I paid my penny and watched a blur of images until I saw boobs. And after just three days in a car with two men, that glimpse of boob was the most erotic image I have ever seen—including all of the actual boobs I have been luckily enough to see.
The least erotic set of boobs I’ve ever seen were during a live sex show in Kings Cross, Sydney. I was drinking with a viking of a man called Aussie Dan, a bearded giant so Australian his nickname among other Australians was ‘Aussie Dan’ which worked out well for me because I could slot into that social circle with just the name ‘Dan’. Aussie Dan was dragging me around Kings Cross and I was trying to keep up, physically and in terms of booze. Walking down the main strip we were accosted by a man:
“Live sex’ $20s each.”
Without consultation Aussie Dan (at this point he does sound like a fictional fraction of my own psyche, but I assure you he exists because other people I know have met him) says “Sure”. When we got to the entrance Aussie Dan said with aggressive confidence to the girl behind the glass partition “we’re paying five dollars each, less if you argue” and loomed. I’ve never seen looming as a conscious act before, but sure enough Aussie Dan is actively looming at her and she is desperately making eye contact with the barker that dragged us in. Having never been to a live sex show before I blanche, but this seems to be standard behaviour and we get in for the five dollars.
The basement is a dive, paint peeling with sweat on the walls and seats. I hope it was sweat. After the waitress has served the table next to us a round of pinkish cocktails, she comes over. Basically the choice is between the house cocktail that costs six dollars or a bottle of beer that would cost us fifteen dollars. We take the same pinkish cocktail that the group before us took.
After one sip I say: “Dan! Dan! Don’t drink the cocktail.” He takes a long pull from the cheap straw.
“It tastes of drugs.” I say, trying to articulate the chalky, bitter taste that the fruit juice and very cheap vodka was doing a very good job of hiding.
“What?’ he says taking another pull.
“Trust me Dan, I have taken a lot of drugs in my time. A lot.” A take my own tiny sip to be sure “This has got something in’ he looks at me quizzically and I gesture over at the six or seven men that had drank the cocktail before us on the other table.
They were in the process of being led up a side door upstairs by some girls in their underwear.
“Two beers, please” says Aussie Dan to the passing waitress “and leave the caps on.”
The live sex show itself, which out of what I can only presume is Aussie Dan’s bloodymindedness we stayed for, was a bored red head with stretch marks. She lay a towel down on dirty dusty stage, picked a member of the audience and laid him down on it. She lazily fellated him for what seemed like seventeen months, rolled a condom on him and then squatted on him for a few minutes. She never bothered to feign enjoyment, I remember looking at her boobs thinking that I should be aroused but only ever mustering sad.
I now know if she had wanted to be really erotic what she should have done is record the whole thing on a series of pictures nearly a hundred years ago and charge a Victorian penny to watch them erratically flick forward on a pier on the south coast of England.
Jon chatted with Adrian Goldberg on BBC WM this morning, here’s what you missed (if you missed it):
I said we’d have it done before the end of the weekend and we have. Starting at the crack of about half eleven we snuggled in our writing den until two separate 50,000 word plus accounts were hacked into one story of our journey to the outcrops of a dying culture.
It totals 104,063 words and now we’re going to spend a week polishing—before certain Pier Review funders will have a special preview in their inboxes as a thank you.
Then comes the proofing and copy editing, and the exciting prospect of pitching it to actual publishers and agents. We’ll keep you up to date with everything and will not be shy of asking for help, but for now:thanks to all who have been on the journey with us in any way.
And special thanks to our editorial assistant who is now dog tired.
Writing a book is easy, and also hard. It turns out that the easy bits are also difficult when it comes down to it. The easiest bit is the idea, but it doesn’t stop there: you have to finish what your brain starts. Around three years ago I was sitting in the bar of the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath in Birmingham with my friend and artistic collaborator Danny Smith. We had done a couple of articles togther, had launched a magazine with some degree of sucess and basically liked drinking with each other. Then Danny—definitely Danny—said he wanted us to visit all of the piers in England and write a book about it.
We laughed, came up with a title, and then; did nothing. Nothing at all for at least a year.
It turns out that this was one of the hardest parts. You see when you have an idea and you ignore it, push it to the back of your brain like a washing machine pipe bracket in a kitchen drawer just in case you ever get round to doing anything with it, it pokes out at awkward times. Not only does it see itself reflected in other things you see or do it provides a worry that someone else will do it before you do, and it catches on the lip of the drawer when you’re looking for batteries. Worst is the nagging feeling that you get, reminding you that you’ll evenutally have to go through with it.
Writing the book is also the hardest part, two things get in the way. One is confidence, with every word you put down you feel useless and unfit for the task, with every book or article by someone else you read you feel you can’t live up to it, and every time you open the keyboard there are websites about obscure ’70s celebrities to look at—that’s something you know you can do well.
The other is life. Life gets in the way when writing a book. You have to work, rest, play, move house lots, move jobs, get married, be in love. Some of these are wonderfull but they are all rather difficult to do at the same time as writing a book.
Editing two sometimes contradictory accounts together may be the hardest part—but it’s what we’re going to do now. Danny is already on the coach to Oxfordshire, my shed is waiting us both. We’ll be finished on Sunday, we promise.
Actually going round the country as you’ll see in the finished book: that was the hardest part.
These are the graphs from Scrivener (the writing program we both use) that shows that we’ve both now reached the end of the writing of the big old first draft:
Celebrations are now ensuing, and we’ll have a proper completed edit within the month, promise. Pier Review supporters check your email inboxes regularly as we may well just take the opportunity
for free proofreading to send you a preview.
Thanks for keeping on keeping on.