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Pier Review: A Road Trip in Search of the Great British Seaside Paperback – 11 Feb 2016
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'Peerless'(Danny Wallace) --.
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Living in land-locked Birmingham, authors Jon Bounds and Danny Smith, plus their driver Midge, set out on a two week trip with the intention of visiting every pier in England and Wales. The aim, in part, was to recapture shared Eighties childhood memories, to perhaps do something that hadn't been done before. (It had. By Victoria Wood's brother).
Danny and Jon met up after setting up blogs online and the two thirty somethings quickly realised they had a lot in common (as well as a lot not in common), with a shared working class background that their education had taken them out of. Hence the nostalgia and the strong bond of friendship that keeps this book in great good humour and on an even keel throughout.
It reminded me a lot of one of my top five favourite non-fiction books, Ian Marchant's brilliant The Longest Crawl, where Ian and his photographer friend 'Perry Venus' went from the Scillies to the Shetlands on a month - long pub crawl of some of the iconic pubs of the British Isles, staying with friends, and mostly at good B&Bs.
Our heroes, on a wafer-thin Crowdfunded budget, had two weeks of sleeping in a leaky, collapsing tent (Devon, Kent, amongst others), in a converted coach (Devon, again), in friend's spare rooms (Isle of Wight) with the odd B & B visit (Kimberley House, Whitby, being a highlight). Not to mention Pontin's at Southport. These experiences as as much part of the book as the actual 55 piers.
All the piers get a little Top Trumps style factfile summary, (Opened, Length at start, Length now, with any interesting bits of trivia) for those who want those details.
Not all the piers are described in detail. Mumbles Pier was closed for repairs benind huge metal gates; at many others they arrived after closing time, so never stepped on the pier. However the atmosphere (Mumbles: weird, apparently) is caught in the twin voices of Danny and Jon who take turns to narrate, helpfully Danny is in bold font. Midge's voice and views are heard too, in the third person. He wasn't really in to the piers at all, but he features frequently.
You often get the same experience from different points of view, which is delightfully amusing - Jon's leaving his bag of clothing and toiletries at a friend's house on the Isle of Wight is a classic.
My own nostalgic and more recent experiences were mixed in with some of the authors', I visited Southport a couple of years ago and they describe it perfectly. Saltburn and Sandown, IoW, also. Ditto Blackpool, which my parents honeymooned at in 1947. I went so I could say that I had been... Enough said.
Opinions can be highly subjective, but my experiences tallied very well with the writers.
For other piers and places - Weston super Mud, Penarth, which were part of my childhood - it was interesting to work out what had changed and what hadn't. Some experiences are timeless - the smells never change, there are still postcard stands outside shops selling rock, and the risk of seagulls divebombing anyone with food.
This book deserves to join the 'microcosm of Britain' best-sellers like Notes from A Small Island and that book about Alton Towers, the title of which will ensure this review gets rejected, so I won't mention it. I loved Pier Review too. Definitely recommended.
As Jon, Danny and Midge make their way across Blighty, they stop off at 55 seaside towns, visiting their piers (or what’s left of them), noting anything of importance, such as when they were opened, length, number of times they've caught fire etc... ticking the boxes as they go. But this is more than just a box-ticking exercise, and these statistics actually form a very small part of the book. It is the author’s reminiscences about English oddities and their musings which give this book such a warm feeling of nostalgia and makes for such a delightful read.
I could almost smell the fish and chips as they took a stroll along promenades lined with tired guest houses and arcades, desperately trying to engage with the locals in an attempt to discover points of interest along the way, and having been to a few of the towns listed, I could certainly relate to their observations.
Reading this book hasn't made me want to go and visit any of the piers anymore than I did before I read it, but I enjoyed sharing every minute of the journey, and I'm sure that it will prove to be an inspiration for other Englishmen wishing to fulfil their own challenges.
For those of a certain age, the seaside pier is indelibly marked on our childhood experiences. Whether as day trippers or holiday makers. With it's gaudy, tacky sights, sounds and smells...cheesy organ music, candyfloss and hot dogs, shooting galleries and elderly fishermen casting off the end of the pier... for a young child it was quite magical.
Sadly, a lot of piers from my own childhood have either disappered, burnt down or been demolished. Thankfully, many have survived the changing social climate which has seen the seaside holiday become almost a thing of the past as Brits travel to warmer climes abroad. Visting a pier today can be a melancholic experience visited by ghosts of the past. Thankfully, the authors have managed to capture a slice of British culture and social history before even more of our piers disappear forever.
Amusing and poignant.
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