Norman Wisdom and Hastings Pier – two lamented English institutions.

So Hastings Pier has been burned by vandals it seems and another symbol of the grand days of the English seaside holiday goes up in flames. Hastings, in Sussex, has in recent decades tumbled down the social scale from respectable Nineteenth century resort to problem town with high unemployment, shabby infrastructures and, yes, poverty. The pier was one of the last remaining symbols of its happier days and had, until yesterday, been the focus of some ambitions plans for the town’s regeneration. We do not yet know why two people, being questioned by police last night, may have done it but I suspect, as I speculated yesterday, that it will have come out of the anger and depression that comes from life at the bottom of the pile in a society which too often closes its eyes to its social problems.

I thought of living in Hastings a few years ago. I had seen a wonderful house going for an amazing price and found it annoying that everyone I knew said “don’t go to Hastings”. I liked what I had seen, a lovely old house with parts going back to the middle ages, an enjoyably bohemian town which, over time had attracted folk who were not always obsessed by money and business and who might have looked, well, a touch eccentric. It was also well known for its chess tournament. Perfect.

I took a walk with my joyfully ebullient springer spaniel over the airy open grassland at the top of the cliffs just minutes away from the house that I was considering as my future home and thought that this was the ideal spot. Then a white van drove onto the green with screeching breaks and three beefy men jumped out and ran round to the back of the vehicle and proceeded to pull out a floral patterned three piece suite, a sofa and two armchairs which they doused with petrol and set alight before driving off at speed. Well done to the Hastings fire service who within twenty minutes or so were aiming their hoses at the black acrid smoke that had obliterated the view.

Maybe not Hastings, after all I thought, so I moved to Lewes instead. I suspect yesterday’s incident will make other people think the same.

If you don’t live in Sussex in England, you will probably have no idea why the possible end of Hastings Pier is so sad, but this, just one of several elegant Nineteenth Century pleasure domes that used to stretch languidly out into the English Channel allowed people in simpler times to have just a taste of what life on the ocean wave might actually be like without having to risk crashing into an iceberg and going down with the Titanic. All along the south coast of England, and further North if you were hardy enough, it was possible to enjoy, mostly, innocent pleasures by the seaside in a charming and gentle environment with nothing more sophisticated, or enjoyable, than the traditional end-of-pier variety shows which starred jugglers, dancers, magicians and, yes, comedians. Those vandals stole a bit more of that dying culture yesterday.

One of those comedians, Norman Wisdom, died yesterday too and, on the day that another pier burnt, it was possible to see the dying embers of a whole period of English entertainment history where performers learnt their trade in front of discerning and unforgiving audiences in music halls, clubs and end-of-pier theatres before becoming, in some cases, international stars. I don’t know if Norman Wisdom ever played Hastings Pier but he certainly did the Pier circuit even in his later days when his film career was mostly behind him.

He made me laugh, sometimes with a touch of guilt at my own lack of sophistication, but he was one of those people who could combine pathos and humour in the manner that must go back in time to the very beginnings of  society. I met him once, well, in fact, I nearly trod on him – he was very small.  In the early 1990’s, I was at  party in Liverpool after seeing him perform, quite brilliantly, his one man show at the Liverpool Empire theatre to a sold out audience of old-timers and raucous students. he mesmerised everyone, this little man on his own in the spotlight.

At the party, which was a television affair in association with a comedy festival, I stood to one side, never really liking these events even though I am told that I am a show-off. I took a step backwards and nearly knocked this little man over. I apologised, he laughed. we were both, I suspect, quite shy. We exchanged a couple of pleasantries and then, quite without prompting, he did his little clown act, miming the potential catastrophe of being knocked over at a party by, not me, but some large vehicle or even a rhinoceros. It was very gentle, wryly humourous and ended with a wink. I never saw him again but was privileged to have had this private viewing. I think a lot of people will miss him.

England, today, is all the poorer for the loss of two institutions.

2 Comments

  1. It's as good a time as any to revive this (from the Beeb):

    "There's a nice story about a debate in the European Parliament, during which the French sentence «Nous avons besoin de la sagesse normande» was simultaneously-translated as "We need Norman Wisdom"… I can't find solid evidence for it on the internet, though in one online Hansard report from the Lords, one peer says it is true because he was there."

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