Jon Bounds & Danny Smith decided to drive around the coast to visit all the piers in England and Wales. Documenting the journey for their book Pier Review they tell us about their unusual and quirky fascination with the British seaside…
The seaside is odd. People are different when they are closer to water. They’ll dress differently, play stupid little games of golf that are designed to be pointlessly bloody hard (who put that windmill there!). They’ll even pay money to watch Jim Davidson. But most oddly of all, they’ll be happy to sit, stare into space and do nothing.
And they eat so, so many chips.
Like most good things, this started with us drunk and laughing at a silly pun. Neither of us had cared about piers much before, but the more we thought about it, piers are an integral part of the memories and oddness of the seaside we wanted to explore. So we decided to see them: all of them, and write a book. Each beach, we found, was a cultural Madagascar evolving its own unique pier species. And we would get to eat a lot of chips.
I suppose it’s interesting to us because we’re from the midlands and the region is exceptional in its isolation from the sea. We have no real affection for the canals despite every few years the council trying to re-brand them as exciting redevelopment potential or inner city resort. If you believe the hype the canal system in Birmingham is a cross between a corporate open air gym and cosmopolitan café culture paradise. But people in Birmingham rarely think of the canals, to us they’re a quirk of our industrial past that everybody half suspects are full of shopping trolleys and near sentient fungal diseases.
In Birmingham we’re divorced from nature almost completely, most of us are third generation inhabitants of dark factories, as far from the sea as the population of gulls that live on our rooftops near our high streets and concrete school playgrounds.
In Southport (home to the second longest pier, even though it rarely sees the see), during a second lunchtime drink, we ended up pondering how it was probably the most normal place we’d visited since we set off. Normal to us that is, and a semi deserted pub in the daytime is fairly par for our course. We visited no cities; Southport and Southend are the closest we got. They’re big enough places to have the chain store, chain pub, chains of drudgery vibe, but they’re not big enough to offer anonymity in quite the same way as Birmingham does. It was the only time we were homesick.
In 55 piers, in two weeks, across two thousand miles,we discovered piers that were falling apart and that had burnt down but were still loved by the people that lived by and worked on them. We found history that was far more comfortable with itself than our culture usually seems to be. Even when it’s things like slavery, roller discos, and slipping into a diabetic coma due to the amount of sugar you’re stuffing yourself with, it was able to coexist in a confined space: often on those rotting boards atop the waves.
The seaside is odd because it reflects us: albeit in one of its funhouse mirrors.
Pier Review is available from Summerdale books at Amazon, Guardian Books, and all good bookshops now.