British piers are deep-fried suburban high streets, marching blindly into the sea. They are our national folly; temples of winking, blinking, and drinking, decked out in their Sunday best with no purpose but delight. They are the smack of wet fish and the flush of lost youth. I love them. Where, other than at the British seaside, would you find a hairy-armed football fan sitting alone, happily, at a metal garden table, eating wind-chilled fish and chips as seagulls feast on the bones of their avian cousins four feet away?
Where else would you find a bowel-loosening funfair hanging above the swimming filth of the Irish sea? Where else could you walk past a man shadow boxing under a vine of Despicable Me toys? Who else would build a cathedral to gambled pennies across a conga line of barnacled-crusted Eiffel towers? British piers are the tang of piss, the burn of hot fat, the clatter of lost coins, the drip of melting lollies and the texture of wind-whipped salt as it sets your hair into a solid mass. I don't consider a holiday complete until I've eaten fish and chips, ice cream, and a cream tea. Try doing that in a Tuscan farmhouse and you're fucked. Step onto the rickety, rotting boards of a British pier, though, and you can condense a whole weekend away into one solid hour of turbo-eating. I should know. Last Friday I walked out of my office, onto a train, and an hour later was standing in the gathering gloom of a rainstorm, eating a huge of candy floss on Brighton pier. Over the next hour I ate a tray of polystyrene chips, a bouquet of plastic-wrapped crab sticks, three foam strawberries, and a 99 that tasted not only of my childhood but actually—no thanks to Margaret Thatcher—had the consistency of real cream. I washed all this down with a cup of coffee that, despite the board of Italianate options behind her, came either black, or white. It was one of the greatest meals of my summer.
The sky may have been the colour and consistency of a student's towel; grey, sagging and threateningly dank, but I was by no means alone as I ate my way across the waves. A young mum sat laughing under an awning, as her cherubic daughter smeared ice cream across her face.
A middle-aged transvestite sipped at a bottle of Coca-Cola in a tight green T-shirt with "Because I'm A Girl" written across the chest. A group of teenagers huddled around a high wooden table, chewing hotdogs and comparing phone photos. A Muslim family leaned against railings, eating Nutella crepes folded into grease-spotted paper plates. During gay pride, according to Magda—the unfeasibly fresh-faced Polish woman behind the crepe and doughnut stall—her outlet alone went through 17 catering-sized tubs of Nutella. That's 12,750 g of Nutella. The weight of four newborn babies. "Last summer we sold strawberries, but now we've stopped," Magda tells me, looking sadly down at a shelf of condiments, on which sweet chilli sauce is nestled up right next to chocolate icing.
But while this pier may have lost its strawberries, it has not lost its romance. For anyone who ever looked at the faded black and white photos of their grandparents' first dates, British piers are all burgers, salty snogging and clouds of spun sugar. There may be the odd noodle bar now—huddled between a coconut shy and a photography studio that can make even your hen do look like the very image of Ye Olde Wild West—but the majority of the dishes on offer are as timeless as the horses on the carousels. Chips, doughnuts, winkles, tea. Mussels, cockles, and pickled eggs. Of course, people buy the noodles. But, when I stopped to ask a redheaded teenager if she was enjoying her sweet and sour ensemble she looked, dismissively down at her little cardboard tray and said, "No, I'm just eating the chicken."
When we walk out onto the fragile, unfeasible emptiness of a pier, we want to stuff something comfortingly familiar and stodgily solid into our mouths. The two Italian boys behind the counter of the Palm Court takeaway at the centre of the pier told me that they had probably sold over 700 fish that day. They had the fat burns and neck spots to prove it. "Food on the pier? Simple—it's fish and chips," said the younger of the two, while an ocean of hot oil bubbled at his waist. And he was quite right. From an Indian mum to a topless Spurs fan, everyone on the pier was eating fish and chips. Piers are, almost by design, doomed. Salt spray, lit cigarettes and wooden slats are about as robust a combination as doilies and dynamite. Through fire, vandalism, and the simple rotting march of time, many of our finest piers have crumbled, burned, or been washed into the sea. Their names read like a roll call of fallen soldiers; Margate, Eastbourne, Sheerness, Ramsgate, West Pier, Hastings, and Ryde.
This weekend, an 86-year-old man in a zip-up cardigan and steel-coloured slacks told me that Brighton Beach, and the pier above it, were out of bounds during the Second World War. In July, 1940, barbed wire and concrete blocks were pushed against the town, while landmines were buried beneath the pebbles of the beach. Even the piers—those emblems of British gaiety and leisure—were dismantled; sections of their decking removed so they couldn't be used as landing stages by an invading enemy. Can you imagine, in the sticky heat of summer, looking out across the sea and knowing that any attempt to reach it could be fatal? Can you imagine Britain, ringed not only by wooden arcades of recreation, but by a sea of submerged bombs? And yet, they survived. These strange, gull-covered institutes of fancy live on into the 21st century. To be trodden and tripped across, munched on, dribbled over by children and gambled in by self-sufficient old men with no teeth.
They will outlive me, these hovering hinterlands of piss and chips. And they will outlive you. So when I die, carry my ashes in a huge Sports Direct mug and sling me off the end of the pier.