The Night the Pier Burnt Down (Southend 1976)
The relentless heat makes flying in daylight unpleasant, so the older gulls have taken to scavenging after sunset. Crowds of humans continue to gather below, even though the dark hours have been upon them for a considerable time. A constant thrum rises up, generated by the activity on the ground. A voice cuts through the warm air, but does not draw attention. The birds watch rather than listen. Their watching is finely tuned to the particular behaviours and movements which signal food, even though there is much to see, they do not notice.
A mass of people swarm on a bright strip of land. Slightly beyond this, in a dark street off the main drag, a transaction is taking place. Lit by a single street lamp, Zebedee, an amiable scarecrow of a man, is selling a small wrap of poison to a skeletal and androgynous couple. They lean into each other; a bony hand fumbles and pulls notes from tight jeans. The exchange takes place. The couple cling to each other as they stumble from the light. They grow more indistinct, until the dark has swallowed them. And Zebedee has gone.
All of the windows of the town are open in hope that a stray breeze might cool the heavy heat which makes it so difficult to breathe, let alone sleep. Security is not a concern as danger has been let loose and it is a matter of chance whether it settles on this individual or some other.
Ivy is in bed, as she is a creature of habit and she has to be at her machine by six; for how else will she bear it? Dralon is so heavy, and she finds that as the heat intensifies, so the fabric becomes heavier. She has been making mistakes and is in fear for her job with the bespoke upholsterer. But it is not this which keeps her awake. Nor even the heat, but the racket, she cannot call it music, from the bedrooms on either side of her. She might knock, but June has her own problems and is losing her grip on young Simon. And on the other side? She shudders, it would only cause trouble. Ivy’s old man is out drinking, ‘And he’s every right,’ she thinks, ‘He’s been working in the heat of the plastics factory all day and needs a good cool down.’ She hopes he’ll stick to beer and determines to be asleep before he returns. So she lies on her tight, hot bed, finding no refuge in any corner of her mind.
Simon lifts the needle and carefully returns it to the groove which starts the song again, the fifteenth time that night, he is a perfectionist. He has the steps but needs to polish that impression of effortlessness. ‘Night Fever’ is the soundtrack to the hottest of summers, ever. In his mind he is on a dance floor, he is mesmerising, even Adam, his tormentor all last term, is open mouthed in admiration, for Simon is a true dancer. Disco is his saviour. He longs to be out on the street, as everyone is there and everything is happening, but he is just into his teens and his mother is worried enough about his sister, Shaz. She has not been home for… this would be the fourth night. He is both excited and horrified.
On the other side of Ivy a radical transformation is in process. Fifteen year old Filf and his friend, Sue, have already hacked at their hair and used food colouring to dye it green. This has been moderately successful but they are at the ceremonial point, the piercings. Sue holds the safety pin into the flame of a candle until it burns her fingers. Filf has been holding an ice cube to his eyebrow, but in the heat it has quickly disintegrated into water, turned green from his food coloured fingers. Filf offers himself up to the moment, as the searing pain of needle into flesh envelops him. They looked at each other and what they have made of themselves and scream in delight, for if they can do this they can do anything. They jump up and down, faster and faster to a discordant music of their own making, for the newly discovered sounds and sentiments which energise them, have not even been pressed into vinyl yet.
On a side street of the parade, someone has thrown a snooker ball from a high window, narrowly missing a man stripped to the waist, his skin deeply tanned, his muscles impressive, but no defence against the unexpected missile and anonymous assailant.
The undercurrent of violence is palpable, but it is too hot to fight for long, even the Mods are dishevelled and anyone who has a scooter or motorbike is on the A13, shirt off, wind in hair, trying to stay cool.
The statue of ‘Leda and the Swan’ stands proudly at the heart of law and order, for here is the courthouse and there the police station. Even in this place violence is celebrated. The statue is an unspoken warning to women to not bother whining round here with their personal slights.
Just behind these buildings is a railway track, the Fenchurch Line. On wasteland between the track and a row of terraced railway cottages, a figure runs, stumbles then runs again.
A red brick wall stands opposite a row of shops. Letters have been sprayed-painted in white along its length, ‘NF’, over and over again. The two teenage culprits lean with their backs to the wall and share a cigarette, empty cans at their feet. Headlights of a bus illuminate them and they scowl shamelessly at the few passengers aboard and spit as the bus driver casts his eye over them then swiftly returns his gaze to the road ahead.
The bus swerves round the corner onto the sea front and halts momentarily outside the Papillion. The pub has prime position, as it overlooks the longest pier in the world and sits at the very start of the Golden Mile.
The seats outside the Papillion are occupied by underage drinkers, and they will not budge. Shaz, Simon’s sister, is here. She has not given a thought to anyone who might be worried about her, for it is the summer of heat and danger and anarchy and change. She looks up into the sky, and sees seagulls; surely not at that time of night? She looks around at the wonderfulness of it all. She is here, she is in it, it is now, this is happening.
She sees smoke rising from the far end of the pier and considers it. Fire, it really is fire; the pier is on fire, and what can she do but stay put and watch? The wood is so dry after the weeks of heat with no rain that it is soon a blazing mass of colour, beautiful in its orange and red glory.
It is an historic moment, how unexpected. The longest pier in the world is burning down before our eyes.
The seagulls circle overhead, look down and disregard it all.