The poignancy of piers
The end of the pier
Dec 19th 2007 | ATLANTIC CITY, BRIGHTON, CONEY ISLAND, SOUTHEND AND SOUTHWOLD
From The Economist print edition
Musings on a favourite memento mori
“‘A COLD night,’ Cubbitt said. The old gentleman swivelled his eyes on him like opera glasses and went on coughing: hack, hack, hack: the vocal chords dry as straw. Somewhere out at sea a violin began to play: it was like a sea beast mourning and stretching towards the shore.”
The book is Graham Greene's “Brighton Rock”; the violin is playing, unseen through sea mist, in the concert hall on the West Pier. Both Brighton's piers have starring roles in the story: they are the stages where killings are discussed, threats made, fortunes told. Savage gang warfare is intercut with candy floss and penny-in-the-slot machines. Laughter keeps pace with horror. Life is at its bawdiest and most reckless, but death lurks everywhere. This is the essence of piers.
No construction is more appealing, or more redolent of mortality, than a jetty that sticks out from the shore. It tells men they can walk on water, and suggests they can stroll as far towards infinity as their engineering can take them. Piers symbolise escape from the everyday, from the shore, from work, from life itself. For that purpose, they are more reassuring than a ship: though planked and decked like one, and originally manned with pier-masters in crypto-naval uniforms, most are attached to solid rock. It can come as a sudden, giddying surprise, amid the fairground tat of piers, to see the sea crawling darkly under your feet as you sip your cup of tea, or a seagull flying below you. Early piers were mocked as “disappointed bridges”, fixed at one end but, at the other, yearning towards the void. A man on a pier never quite lets go of the land. But, seeing it from a distance and another angle, he becomes a little disoriented, and much more daring.
A century and a half ago, promoters of piers were surprised at this. They imagined that an entry toll, a penny in the turnstile, would keep the indecorous at bay and ensure that solemn middle-class promenaders could compare their bonnets and parasols in peace. Piers were a marine version of the parkland walks at spas, sedate and quiet. Grand balls, art exhibitions and royal visits took place on them, while the plebs bobbed below on small boats and craned their necks to see.
Yet as soon as working men, too, were given official holidays and allowed to have fun on Sundays, piers ran down-market. At first, the poor man paid his penny to sit and observe the higher classes and to dream he might be like them. Then, gradually, he shed the conventions that restrained him. He could be rude on the pier, gawking at What the Butler Saw or buying saucy postcards in which breasts were confused with blancmange; he could buy chips, candy floss and silly trinkets he would never want at home; he could cram on silly hats, and the girls could wear skirts that whipped well above their knees in the wind. (“Young ladies”, carped Queen in 1900, “give themselves up to abandon on piers.”) Soon the pier managers not only accepted this, but also encouraged it, by getting rid of the turnstiles and tolls that had provided, in the 19th century, 80-90% of takings. They could profit instead from the mob's adventurousness: that sense of being in limbo, neither on sea nor on land, suspended in a state of fantasy.
Pink paint and corrosion
Most piers still encapsulate 19th-century dreams. They are lined with pleasure domes, octagonal kiosks, maharajahs' palaces and Ottoman minarets, their lattice and lacework done in iron instead of shining marble. They offered, from the beginning, the latest proofs of man's prowess: telescopes, the telegraph, radio broadcasting, moving pictures, besides the marvellous ingenuity of their own construction. Eugenius Birch, Britain's greatest pier-builder and the inventor of the screw-pile, was almost as well known in his day as Stephenson or Brunel. The stalking girders of piers subdued the mighty deep, or at least half a mile of it, and their twinkling electric lights crept out bravely from the shore; in Atlantic City, New Jersey, no fewer than 27,000 outlined the Steel Pier against the dark. In Britain pleasure piers grew from every nook of the coast just as the Empire expanded, and the blare of military bands along their decks echoed the triumphal march of colonisers overseas.
But dreams don't last. Look over the rail on any pier, and the rust is inch-thick and flaking from its girders. Green weed and grey barnacles encrust every part under the sea. Within five years, every plank on the deck will need replacing. The annual slaps of paint—sea-green for the railings, bright pink for the doughnut stall—cannot disguise the fact that the layers are plastered round corrosion.
Of 81 piers round the British coast at their zenith, in 1908, 26 have gone. Of dozens in America (though America never knew the craze as Britain did), only seven major piers remain. Occasionally their bones still lie on the shoreline like the remains of behemoths, too costly to demolish and, in their way, a memento mori that people wish to preserve. Atlantic City has the Garden Pier, a warped spine of concrete sprouting grass; in Brighton, the West Pier concert hall where Cubbitt's violin played is now a humped ribcage half-submerged in the sea. Visitors still stand like mourners at a funeral, silent and thoughtful, and pick rust from its girders. The fluted columns that once held glass weather screens, the lampstands with their coiling serpents, the flowering and curling iron balustrades, are stored in heaps under the sea wall. All that proud work is decaying and disappearing, as inevitably as the tides come in and out.
The fates of piers are easily written. They rot, collapse or are eaten by sandworms. Ships crash into them. Gales and high seas remove whole sections of them, shot-blasting them with shingle or sand until they break. The wooden decks, the drying wind and the obsessive, repeated coats of paint feed enormous fires, still the main reason for their demise. Their very frailty, a mere network of girders, is preferred to the reinforced concrete that might make them last. When they die it may be in a peculiarly human way, heaving and shuddering along their whole length before they founder. Yet most pier-deaths are slower. The gates are padlocked; the pier is closed; owners, council and preservationists argue; the elements do their work.
A natural disaster is often the last straw for pier-owners. Piers have to pay for themselves, and few make profits nowadays; even at their peak in the 1860s, they never brought in the promised dividend to investors. They are monuments to 19th-century speculation, to the new delights of limited companies and shareholder security, and to dreams. In the glory days of piers, the middle classes and tradesmen of seaside towns bought shares in them to dip a cautious toe in the stockmarket, and town corporations saw them as the key to prosperity and the apogee of development. All were eventually disappointed.
Almost no new piers are being built now. To put up such a structure, working largely under sand-filled water, costs three to five times what it would on land for perhaps 50 years of life. Rising sea levels, too, increase the stress caused by the waves. So the old are repaired and recycled according to the swings of fashion, their life a ceaseless struggle against erosion and decline. True, there are success stories, or dreams of success. On Brighton's Palace Pier, where the Noble Organisation has invested in a dazzling array of slot machines and fairground rides, entry is free, as are deckchairs in which to sit and watch the sights of London-by-the-sea. Southwold Pier, in Suffolk, has reinvented itself as a cream-painted string of upmarket boutiques (“Seaweed and Salt”) and ingenious automata, such as a “quantum tunnelling telescope” that preserve the traditional inventiveness of piers. Southend Pier has acquired a new entrance that is all curving steel and glass; Boscombe Pier, next to Bournemouth, hopes to be revived by a £1.4m artificial surf-reef being built beside it; Brighton West's remains may be incorporated into a gigantic viewing tower, the i360, in which people will rise in the air, on a vertical pier, rather than walk on water.
No British pier has gone as far as the Pier Shops at Caesar's in Atlantic City, where, in the shadow of a gigantic Roman-style casino, an enclosed street of glittering boutiques winds over the waves. The pier is in fact part of the casino, a similar gamble. Despite the eternal hope of money from somewhere, even the healthiest specimens seem financially on the edge.
Today's piers have no monopoly on thrills: most of those lurk under the pier, a dark demi-monde of corroded columns, braces and lattice-work where, at low tide, there is just enough sand for the young or the desperate to have sex on. Pier-decks are largely the resort of the old, who sit in cardigans out of the wind and watch the young passing. But they still hold out the possibility of sudden wealth, if the grabber-arm can avoid the giant cuddly toys and instead unlock, in a glittering torrent, the glassed-in trove of silver. The empty gaze of the old into the distance is mirrored in the gaze of the young into slot machines.
Atlantic City once had Young's Million-Dollar Pier, which became Hamid's Million-Dollar Pier: although gambling was never allowed there, the name encapsulated both brassy new entertainment and the off-chance of getting rich. But serious spending, or winning, has seldom been seen on piers. A more reliable living could be made, in the old days, by urchins diving the waters or strolling the sands to pick up pens and watches dropped through the boards by promenaders, or coins tossed through the rails.
Even an empty jetty, like the melancholy Steeplechase Pier at Coney Island in New York, draws Russian and Chinese fishermen eager to net the tiny fish that gleam in silver schools round the piles, for the little fry will catch bigger fish, and the bigger ones (mostly herring) are worth curing and eating. Their bicycles carry industrial-size grab-nets, rice sacks and white plastic buckets in which crabs clamber slowly. On Southend Pier, the world's longest, which ends after 1.34 miles in water so deep that flounder, mackerel, cod and plaice can be caught in it, a grey August day finds knots of anglers at every shelter. Some sit companionably on a seat dedicated to an absent colleague, “Loved by everyone who knew him, except the fish.”
In early years, invalids were restored to health by being wheeled above the sea. With copious lungfuls of that “life-prolonging air” inside them, they would be themselves again. The healthy, besides sea-walking, were offered reading rooms and showers at the shore end. Self-improvement and piers went together. Self-knowledge, too: your picture taken, your voice recorded, as soon as technology allowed it. On Southwold Pier the “Expressive Photo-Booth”, which moves while you're in it, captures “Your True Personality: Thrilled, Exhilarated, Distracted, Weightless”. Pier-strollers still like to read their astral charts, cast by Gypsy Rose Lee or her descendants and printed out on pink slips of paper; they discover “the unique side of you” by obtaining from a lurid kiosk the meaning of their surname, or the details of the day they were born.
Into the unknown
This sense of self-discovery was particularly strong, and is still strongest, at the very end of the pier. Traditionally the pierhead was where steamers would arrive and depart, and where roads ended; Santa Monica Pier, in California, marked the place where Route 66 petered out into the ocean. At the pierhead prudent promenaders, blown to the limit of their endurance, would have to grip their hats and turn back. But in the film “Mona Lisa” the end of Brighton's Palace Pier becomes a horrifying cul-de-sac from which the characters barely escape.
When open-air dancing became the rage, pierheads were the place for its erotic riskiness. The biggest ballroom in the world could be found, from 1904-11, at the end of the Dreamland Pier in Coney Island, before the flames destroyed it. Nude bathing was still allowed from the ends of piers long after it was banned from the beaches. They were the haunt, too, of performing swimmers, who would drink cups of tea, or lie and read the paper, in the sea; above them, “professors of natation” would perform death-defying plunges in chains or into fire. At Bognor, and elsewhere, men did their best to fly from the end of the pier. In Atlantic City the divers were horses, plunging 40 feet into a tank of water with a bareback rider clinging on.
Many piers had theatres at their heads, typically the first parts to close or burn down. The shows put on there—pantomimes, stand-up comedy, mysteries and thrillers—catered for the happily undiscriminating, and plays and actors invalided out of London's West End could limp on there for years. Playing the pier was a particular challenge, from shouting against the elements to struggling along the deck with the flats to putting on costume with the swimmers, in a cubicle among the piles. But it launched careers. An actor who could tread the stage in the middle of the sea, cheekily ad-libbing into the huge darkness, could put up with most reverses—and could catch fish through the planking in the interval.
The end of the pier is the ultimate dare, the part most likely to be cut off by fire or a drifting vessel as the last girders snap. It offers the last laugh, the last reckless, stupid act, in the face of death; in “Brighton Rock”, it is where Pinkie shows Rose the bottle of vitriol that will dissolve him. On the Pier at Caesar's the casual stroller, at the end of the dimly-lit mall that might be anywhere, finds a thunderous neon-lit water show and then suddenly, through huge glass doors, the shock of the silent sea itself. The man-made entertainment is put in its place by the power of nothingness.
Traditionally the end of the pier is the place for suicide, where people feel they can go no farther; recently it has also become a favourite spot for “tombstoning”, leaping into the water for the hell of it. “Think before you jump”, read the posters on Brighton's Palace Pier. “Do you know what's down there?” Of course not; no one does; but the urge to find out may be stronger than any instinct to obey.
The end of the pier is also the place for what is euphemistically called “scattering”, the dispersal of the ashes of the dead. “Good day for a scattering”, they say at Southend, meaning that the wind is south-westerly and won't blow the departed back into the faces of his friends. The train along the pier, the Sir John Betjeman, often acts as a funeral hearse for groups of quiet people in anoraks, or chatty Indian families with plastic bags of marigolds to scatter on the grey North Sea. An hour after high tide is the recommended time; the east slipway of the pierhead is favoured, less because the east symbolises resurrection than because at that point only, between the dreary arms of the Essex coast and the refineries of the Isle of Grain, there is a gap of open sea.
People's feelings on piers are well summed up at Southwold in Suffolk, where the neat and witty restoration of the pier has been financed in part by selling small plaques along the railings. There are 3,000 of them, a few years old but already as worn, out in the salt wind, as medieval brasses. Most are memorials to parents, dogs, friends, nans, or the purchasers themselves. Being where they are, they are cheekier and more intimate than gravestones. “In memory of Ted Smith: It must be Wednesday”. “Alexander Robert Kearton: ‘Just resting my eyes’”. “William Scrivener Waters: Left for London, April 1853”.
Being where they are, too, some plaques become philosophical. “To infinity and beyond”. “We flew our kite and lost it here”. “For Robin: Gone into the mystic”. “Bethan and Benedict Evans: So you found it then.” And, perhaps inevitably, those lines from e.e.cummings: