I arrived in Hastings on a damp, sodium coloured evening, the orange of a setting sun on wet pebbles and worn pavements. I picked up a pizza from Pizzarelli, a new takeaway and restaurant in the base of Marine Court in St Leonard’s. Marine Court is a truly huge seaside tower-block that overhangs the English channel like a financier’s chin, balanced awkwardly on the fulcrum between the ice cream parlours and cheap gift shops of yesteryear and the modernity of sophisticated eateries and £5 IPAs in cans. To the East, I could see the pier stick out into the sea, angular and odd, fizzling out at the end. Staring into the corrugated bottleglass green of the channel, I rang my Dad and discussed the week’s rugby league action. There’s nothing quite like considering Halifax’s prospects at Widnes on Sunday afternoon to remind you how far from home you are. Hastings was already done for the day, winding down, the hum dropping away on the tide.
The new day was wet but drying, and a sense of renewal sat softly in the streets. I walked in from on high. Hastings is cliffs, all steep roads and funiculars, penny arcades and Italian coffee. I went for a wee in Marks and Spencers before purchasing breakfast from the 1066 cafe in the new town. The bacon was thick and sweet, the coffee was very strong and threatened spontaneous new hair growth. With my sustenance I sat in the sun outside ‘DELBOYS – Toys – Sweets – Gifts – And Much More!’ and enjoyed the sun. There was already a busker at work, despite the early hour.
At least that’s how it first seemed. He had a guitar, a Metallica t-shirt, and was strumming with a persuasive drive that almost sold it. The only problem was the lack of any notes. He had the strings damped off and refused to bring any into play. The man had rhythm and a certain panache. He rocked out, stuck his right leg forward, and owned the solo that wasn’t. I watched for a while in case this was the centrepiece of some vast performance piece that deconstructed the art of guitar playing before reconstituting it into a towering wall of sound, but it didn’t happen. He simply couldn’t play, and had instead perfected the other mannerisms a musician might employ. It had its merits. The good thing about having no music to your act is that you don’t need to stop between numbers. He just kept going. I wandered off.
Hastings is a town divided, between old and new, separated by cliffs and joined by a thin coastal strip. The towns sit in the recesses in the landscape, where the space opens up. I made my way to the old town and sought out somewhere to play. In the winding road from new town to old, amidst the antique dealers and coffee houses, I found my spot in what is known as ‘Butler’s Gap’.
It was a good morning. The clean air and sunshine coming after the rain seemed to have put a smile on people’s faces and I made money fairly steadily. A small girl was walking a large dog on a lead. The dog stopped a few paces before me, suddenly afraid of my music, and began backing up, going straight between a surprised man’s legs, followed quickly after by the small girl. I was so overcome by laughter at the situation that I had to stop playing for a moment.
Across the street, at first floor level, a ginger cat came to an open window. It had one of those faces frozen in permanent shocked dislike, and it stared intently at me with it for a good half hour. The proprietor of one of the antique shops came out for a cigarette and to say hello. He didn’t really like buskers he told me, but didn’t want me to move on, as “I’d only be replaced by someone much worse. At least you can play!”
This was the sort of endorsement I thrive on, and I played my way merrily through to lunch time.
I was staying with friends, May and Naomi, a mile or so inland in the St Leonards part of town. When I got back to their house, they were preparing to go shopping. Naomi is a Quaker, and her local group had decided to make a collective contribution towards helping people with period poverty in Hastings.
“There are girls missing school because their families won’t buy them sanitary products. There’s so many problems with substance abuse in Hastings, and poverty generally, and nobody really helps with period poverty because it’s not talked about.”
The Quakers had provided £50 to be spent on sanitary products for the local food bank. I topped this up with a bag of 50ps from my morning’s collection. I’m grateful to her for the account of what happened next. Having bought as much as she could with the money, she delivered the supply to the food bank, which is run by an amiable and evangelical sort of fellow, who upon receiving the offering, was surprised to find himself with a tear forming in his eye, and was moved to passionately declare; “It’s beautiful. You’ve given these tampons to JESUS.”
“Well, really they’re for the women…”
“For JESUS! And he will thank you for them!”
There’s no answer to that.
That evening I played for a house concert. Arriving at the house, the host offered to treat me to a pizza from Pizzarelli, as it was the best in town. Good to know. The concert was fun. I mixed up tunes with a few readings from my travels so far. It went well, and one of the punters invited me for breakfast at the East Hastings Sea Angler’s Club at 9am the next day. Never one to turn down a free meal, I showed up promptly the following morning, where I found my new friend with his cycling-and-fry-up-club enjoying a seriously significant breakfast after a few token miles on their bikes. They were a bunch of lads either side of retirement, and a glance round the other tables showed numerous similar groups. This was clearly where the men went for a big breakfast on Saturday mornings. The walls were adorned with plaster models of record-breaking fish, set into commemorative plaques.
I tuned in to the local gossip. The pier was a major talking point. Rebuilt after fire, it had been rescued by a community group run on donations and public money, which then suddenly folded. The administrators gave another community group (Friends of Hastings Pier) a price of £500,000 to buy it, before quickly selling it to Sheik Abid Gulzar at a point where FOHP had raised £461,000. There is a strong feeling that a lot of public and community money has been spent simply for a private businessman to profit from it, and most people I met were cross about it. It certainly looked a bit weird through the Sea Angler’s club window, like a child’s unfinished lego creation, neither here nor there architecturally, with odd blocky units part way down and fizzling out at the end.
I busked again, staking out the same spot as the day before. The street felt different today, dustier, older, with a weekend crowd down for the day. It was busy, but I made less money. This doesn’t bother me really, I’ve learnt to enjoy the street and play for my own entertainment. I soon picked up an older fellow striding towards me, full of purpose, dressed in a tweed jacket and smart shoes.
“Ee, I’ve got an old fiddle at home. Maybe you’d want to buy it? It’s been there decades.”
I said I’d have a look at the very least and he set off to get it. immediately after this, another fellow turned up and introduced himself as an artist whose studio was up on the cliff overlooking the road. He’d been listening to me all morning and wanted to thank me. I looked up. It was a long way back to where he was pointing and I was amazed that the sound had carried so well. I was well chuffed and played on. The older fellow returned with this fiddle. It had a beautiful back and scroll but a heavily damaged front. Somebody had loved it once, but it had been broken and suffered the indignity of a bad repair. Normally I’d say ‘no thanks’, but I had a moment of sentimentality and bought it for £80, leaving me £6 down on busking in the town. I hope to restore it to life, and will report back on it as things progress! I packed up and had a wander along the front.
Hastings has a good endowment of amusement arcades. They’re of a kind, architecturally, with the colourful awnings made of square corrugations bending up. Rideable dinosaurs flank the ends, unloved fluffy toys sit forever unclaimed beneath loose cranes, and 10ps clatter down at a constant return rate of about 70%. There is no regional variation in these places at all, and dropped into one at random, you’d not know if you were in Rhyl, Scarborough, or Hastings. Things frying in cheap oil is the nasal soundtrack. Do other countries have them, or are they uniquely British? I’ll admit I quite like them, and the reams of prize tickets you collect that never add up to quite enough to win a finger puppet or gobstopper. They don’t seem to have changed with time either, working to exactly the same formula they always have. When it rains, a captive market will play the machines, and that’s good enough. I don’t think I’ve ever won a thing.
I’d been told to visit ‘The Source’, a vast underground skate and BMX park on the front. It was apparently down some stairs in a small booth on the otherwise unbuilt seaward side of the shore road. I went down the stairs, and emerged into an abandoned courtyard below the road at about sea level. Another anonymous door led off this and I went down further flights of stairs, into the earth itself. I passed through a shop containing skate fashion and equipment, arrayed all around a cavern, through another set of doors and onto a balcony. Beneath me was the Skate park itself. The fully surrounding balcony allows you to watch the action in the largest skate park outside London in the UK. There was a lesson ongoing with an attentive class of small children, which was great to see, but meant the level of riding was somewhat limited!
It is a remarkable and beautiful space though, set deep in the earth between Hastings and the sea, filling the cavity left by an old municipal swimming pool, a triumphant reimagining of dereliction. Everyone I’d met was proud of it, even if they really weren’t into skate parks at all. It filled the void of town pride left by the pier. The ramps made an alien landscape, a dance floor twisted and metamorphosed into curving shapes. I briefly wondered what the acoustics were like, before putting the thought out of my mind. It was time to leave again.
I caught the funicular railway up the West Cliff. They would only sell me a return ticket but I was leaving town. I’ll keep it for the day I go back. I had been fascinated by Hastings. A complex town of many different communities, layered above and below the cliffs in strata.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!