Two years ago on the day before Valentine's Day I proposed to my girlfriend of over a decade by text.
The method was an unwitting one. I had visited the nonsensically long mile-and-a-third pier at my hometown of Southend, Essex – a place where we both did a lot of our growing up – earlier that day, and had realised that they'd started doing weddings at the end of it. So I texted Hayley, who is also from the area: "Do you know they do weddings at the end of Southend Pier?"
It was enough to make the one-knee business with the engagement ring passed down from her grandmother when I got back home to Walthamstow a formality. When the idea formulated between us right then, we knew it was going to happen.
What fuelled our certainty about getting married on the pier was this feeling of a fantasy idea achieving a sudden sense of reachability. To hold anything at the end of the pier seemed miraculous. Ever since I was a kid I'd known there was nothing to do when you finally got to the end. The cafe and a pub closed down after there was a fire. The puny RNLI Museum offered only keyrings and disappointment. Every now and then, Eastenders actors had been carted to the end of it – some of whom try and throw each other off it.
The fortune teller had the wherewithal to to know the game was up long ago. But it's the promenade into nothing that has long been the pier's appeal – you walk all that way to get nowhere. The Southend sense of humour grows from this curious sense of fatalism, which you can feel everywhere from the pubs to the pie-and-mash shops. It will all turn out shit in the end so you might as well laugh.
But now Southend Council had hired a Danish architect to design a "cultural centre", built it out of glass and reclaimed timber, and had it shipped to the end of the pier via Tilbury Docks. There was something there at last, a building built for an occasion (even if its first wedding descended into a brawl).
I was reminded of this minor anniversary last week when I read the news that Southend was voted "the most romantic town in the UK" in local newspaper, the Echo. It was one of those marketing surveys designed for placement in local newspapers: Southend "pipped Wigan to the post" by buying more presents online than any other place in the UK.
"The kinky folks here are most likely to buy adult gifts," reported Postcode Anywhere, the address management service that took out the survey, leading one to imagine a commuter town (Southend is a 45-minute train ride away from the heart of the City) chock full of budding Christian Greys. Fifty Shades-style serious romance; office fantasy imagined by the pulsating click of a Parker pen. But it's not the whole story, or even half of it.
There is a rift between those who measure "romance" via its commercialisation and those who see it as unquantifiable – that the former fits with Southend chimes with its image of vulgarity, its stereotype, is not exactly scandalous. "Southend is twentieth century," wrote the Irish novelist Kate O'Brien in the 1934 collection Beside the Seaside, edited by Yvonne Cloud. "It has set to face its future, and has run through the dangers, crudities and mistakes, which are the lot of the courageous and the outgoing. It has decided to be a place of pleasure and a home from home."
O'Brien set up Southend as a place of innocence and naivety. "In aesthetics it is innocent and unselfconscious... If anything is old, it is so by accident, and no one thinks the worse of it for being so – but nothing else is dressed up to humour it..."
Like much of Britain, Southend does have an air of the "bad rep" about it, but anyone who knows it even a little bit can probably deduce that it has never, on the whole, been consigned to the same Shit Britain pigeonhole as many places up and down the rest of our island have. It houses poshos as much as it does plebs. Its history is not so much one of underdog as outerdog. In being so close to London and at times feeling so far, it can sustain within you a feeling of escape.
Southend was the motive for the Cockney holiday-makers who came in their hundreds on bank holidays during the Victorian era, to eat cockles and shrimps from the estuary and dance in the promenade. The East End pioneers who upped sticks to start families made it into the large urban conurbation it is today.
This part of the world grew up as a promised land for the working poor, including immigrants from Ireland (my mum was one of seven brothers and sisters in a family of Irish immigrants in Southend), eastern Europe and elsewhere. The town grew significantly during the 19th and 20th centuries, but the innocence of Southend – unconstrained by the foreboding of the past or a grim architectural school to live up to – has always made it feel a bit silly. It carries with it a certain feeling of pointlessness, typified by its pier, of which England's populist laureate of place John Betjeman remarked succinctly: "The pier is Southend, Southend is the pier."
Serious occurrences never seemed all that serious. I remember watching the black smoke rise from the burning PMS factory on the A127 from my school playground; playground gossip the next day suggested it was full of Mr Blobby toys.
Since the 1889-built iron pier replaced the original wooden one (1830) its value as a drop-off point for day-trippers on boats and paddle-steamers had declined with the advent of the railway.
Southend is an architecturally unremarkable seaside town, as evidenced by Betjeman, who called it a "cheaper Brighton". From the vantage point of the Kentish side of the Thames Estuary, from the more acceptably bourgeois Whitstable or the wholly more industrial coastline gothic of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey, Southend is imperceptible. It's a bank with tiny specks of miniature buildings, barely anything at all. Much of its shambling Victoriana has been pulled down through the years. Newer lego-brick concerns, such as the university halls of residence, have been added. But that the architecture isn't particularly coherent, or much to write home about, might suggest that this is a place for people rather than ideals.
Vulgarity is another word for innocence, for unlearned codes. From Southend, the City seems like an aggressive confusion, whereas the estuary and its big sky makes total sense.
As London's skyline increasingly resembles a series of gargantuan upturned penis extensions, as if imagined into being by some top geez who has to check his smartphone when he takes his missus to see Fifty Shades of Greyin case he is missing any top work bantz, the city's collective state of mind is faring similarly to its vista. Assumptions become representations that become mediated truths, which in turn are fed back to us. It might be why it's hard to fall in love in London , or at least with anything other than the City itself: its unforgiving nature, the way it steals your time and makes you beg for each modicum of comfort. The Christian Grey of cities.
Southend has always had an air of failure that could be attributed to its feeling of inadequacy next to London, which at once sustains it in terms of the endless job opportunities, but also deprives it in other, less quantifiable ways. Of image and identity. But there is a freeing quality to be found here. If London is the city built on the smoke and mirrors of media saturation, Southend is the slipstream where certainties begin to waver.
Along the promenade, couples and family members hold hands on sunny Sundays (it is one of the sunniest places in the UK). Back in adolescence we didn't really consider the water the place where the sea met the Thames – and if we did it was some abstract Thames, as if the Thames was water itself. Container ships glide by, as Wilko Johnson had it.
Recently revived, Dr Feelgood are not a band you'd immediately describe as "romantic". Their songs were written from the fictional point of view of the woman-afflicted tough guy who sat at the heart of Dr Feelgood, and which singer Lee Brilleaux and the guitarist Johnson used. But it is the romantic urge that guides their view of Canvey Island and the Thames Estuary. The push and pull from sea to city, city to sea; fragmented lives and lifestyles, residual reminders that this was once a countryside hamlet on the edge of a river, a meeting point of off-key outsiderdom and the churning London machine.
To be from Southend is to be saddled with a knowledge that nothing is as it seems. Nothing is real. The amusement park was called Peter Pan's Playground (now it's bigger and called Adventure Island) and was accompanied by the oddity that was Never Never Land over the road on the verdant cliffside – a surreal haven that included an animatronic He-Man figurine as a highlight. A visit to the seafront was sometimes soundtracked by the sound of bombs being tested at the MOD-owned Foulness Island on the edge of the estuary.
Serious occurrences never seemed all that serious here. I remember watching the black smoke rise from the burning PMS factory on the A127 from my school playground, and the playground gossip the next day that suggested it was full of Mr Blobby toys. My neighbour once made the front page of the Sun with the headline, "Werewolf Seized in Southend", after a bestial altercation at Southend police station.
Like anywhere in England, Southend has an industrial-sized drug problem, for which David Amess, Southend West's politician (knighted in this year's honours), sought out a fictional solution that turned out to be an infamous stunt by Chris Morris for Brass Eye – he was fooled into filming an elaborate video warning against the dangers of a fictional Eastern European drug called "Cake", and went as far as to ask a question about it in Parliament.
Another fine "Amess" occurred in 2013 while bidding for Southend as the Capital of Culture 2017. Amess branded rival towns as "absolute dumps" and, after a disastrous press launch at the end of the pier that apparently included an impromptu operatic turn from a council employee, Southend was beaten by Hull, which, incidentally, was named the country's "least romantic" place in the same recent survey that Southend topped.
Love is often framed as a conformist act in the current climate, but it's as much a silly and childish thing as it is something that should be taken seriously. Entering into it requires a kind of stupidity, to let in the rushes of intense feeling to make the heart skip a beat. If Southend represents nothing, it is a cyclical nothing, and it's beautiful. Like life. Love.
Out at the mouth of the Thames, nothing is the same as the day before. The tide sees to that, coming in, going out, coming in, going out. The marshland around Leigh-on-Sea and the Dengie seems to speak to an in-betweenness akin to the place it could be said love is found.
For Hayley and I, like many before us, it represents the oxygen outside London's claustrophobic pile-up of representations and ambitions. So near yet so far. On our wedding day the weather was a little odd for July. It wasn't quite raining but there was a fine mist that obscured the industrial towers over at the Isle of Sheppey. I met her at the shoreline to walk to the end of the longest pleasure pier in the world, into a haze that seemed charged with the innocence of a temporal dreamworld of our own creation: into love.
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