Longtime Paradise Circus-ers Jon Bounds and Danny Smith visited every surviving pleasure pier in England and Wales, in two weeks. And then wrote a book about it: Pier Review. Brum’s own Catherine O’Flynn says, “Humour, nostalgia and a certain landlocked romanticism run through this coastal odyssey. Pier Review is an engaging and highly revealing sideways look at Britain from the margins.”
We say have a look yourself in our exclusive extract. Join the guys, Danny first, in Swanage:
Looking around Swanage town we are overwhelmed with the food choices. I suggest the Wimpy we walk past. Wimpy was the English burger bar that existed in this country before McDonald’s. I honestly thought they had all closed and can’t think of a better metaphor for a dying English culture than eating in a now nearly defunct chain hamburger shop.
‘I’m not eating in a fucking Wimpy,’ Midge says flatly. Granted, he hasn’t eaten much in the last three days and is probably
looking forward to an actual meal.
‘Come on, it’s perfect, look,’ I say, gesturing to the menu of food that all looks terrible.
‘Definitely not, no.’ Midge storms away.
Jon shrugs, his apathy for food balancing almost neatly with his love of obscure British brands.
Wimpy made it from America to England 20 years before McDonald’s and quickly spread to India, Japan, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. It was the only game in town as far as chain restaurants or American-style dining was concerned. From my youth I remember a mascot that consisted of a hamburger dressed as a Beefeater (and I half remember a Spectrum computer game starring the squat tower warden).
Even back then Wimpy had been erroneously marginalised as an English knock-off of McDonald’s glamorous authenticity. Since then, you still see them around the country, cowering in service stations like beaten dogs or looking confused on some backwater high street, sticking out like a pensioner wearing their slippers to the post office. The most English thing about Wimpy is not the table service that they seem to have a child-like stubbornness in keeping, but their tenacity to stick around, refusing to believe in defeat because of their once brief but almost worldwide dominance.
We head into town, make a circuit of the eateries, and choose to eat dry fish and chips. Due to some complicated system we manage to confuse the waitress enough for her to bring cans of cider we haven’t ordered. We obviously look like the cider-before-lunchtime types. We eat quietly, drinking ginger beer, aware perhaps that we’ve snagged the best table in the restaurant. There are regulars, old guys and gals on permanent vacation, or those who quickly gain a routine while on holiday, who want the table. It’s the one with the sea view. We have our heads down, writing. The table is fairly silent. I exchange a few Internet messages and think of the people I’m missing. Of people back in Birmingham essentially. Heinz sauces will do that to me. I squeeze some red out over my chips and feel guilty.
Nothing is as English as Heinz ketchup in the sauce game, except perhaps HP. The HP bottle really is iconic – the round-cornered square, the unusual colour and the name that has nothing to do with the taste. It’s from a time before modern marketing, much like large parts of Swanage.
I went to school within smelling distance of the HP factory in Birmingham. On a day when the wind blew from Aston Cross towards the park, you could feel the tang of molasses in your nostrils. I used to swear I could tell whether it was original, fruity or curry flavour production that day. The illuminated HP sign shone like the chip-shop equivalent of the bat signal, except this one shone across the M6 as opposed to the rooftops of Gotham City; it meant you were home. We won’t see it when we complete our trip, as it’s been taken away. The factory closed and production moved to a cheaper facility in Holland, despite Heinz saying that they’d do no such thing when they took over the local company that had been making HP sauce for decades. The demolished site is now being rebuilt as a modern factory, with the usual mixed-use plans for a hotel alongside. Like many a modern building, it seemed to go up too quickly to have a lasting impact; construction without toil seems so temporary. The HP sign is in the storage warehouse of the local museum, the brand’s association with a place now historical and intangible.
‘Jon, have you noticed we’re getting stared at?’ I say loudly,hoping the other patrons get the hint.
‘It’s probably the jacket,’ says Jon, once again referring to the thin bin-liner bomber jacket he’s wearing. Despite its complete lack of practical value he hasn’t taken it off since we left Birmingham. ‘It was designed by Paul Weller for Liam
Gallagher’s fashion label, thus making it the most mod piece of clothing ever created.’
‘Both Paul Weller and Liam Gallagher are fucking pricks, though, Jon. You’re wearing a prick’s coat.’
Jon looks hurt briefly then shrugs. Midge shoots me a look and I’m suddenly aware of the numerous pairs of eyes on me from the other people in the chippy, mostly elderly with either raised bushy eyebrows or jowl-wobbling heads. I try to look sorry but then shrug as well.
I haven’t bought Heinz products since that day; there’s no orchestrated campaign, I just feel uneasy. Little choices that we can all make, little remembrances of things past. Forget the fossils in the museum opposite, forget King Arthur, forget the ‘Ralph Coates museum’ that I can’t believe exists but am sure I saw a sign for. The reminders of history are all around us. And reminders of the present too. There’s a piece of Banksy graffiti near where we get back into the piermobile. The sauce signal is calling us onward.
If you fancy following what happened next, Pier Review: A Road Trip in Search of the Great British Seaside is out now.