Next door but one’s being converted into luxury flats. Some weeks back, a dead rat appeared in the road outside. His body seemed to be pointing in the direction of our house. Luckily, he didn’t make it.
My home’s a bit like the House of Usher or a brothel for masochists. In the last century, an optimistic Italian shoved two towers on an ordinary Regency building and filled parts with frescoes, decorative plasterwork, Cupids and Carrara marble. By the time we got it, sections of plaster were down and the Cupids had mostly lost their bows and arrows. Some parts are like a Shelter ad. Still, it was cheap. I tell people I’m restoring it, to explain the mess. An Art training comes in useful for roofing, glazing, rendering, plastering. But, as I finish one job, something else goes.
I moved here, over nine years ago, after Art School. My parents had retired to St Leonards, on the outskirts of Hastings. Then my father died, leaving my mother alone in this crumbling house. The place draws retired people – the lost-youth, bucket-and-spade syndrome brings them back to the sea. They forget it’s too late for running on the sand. It’s easy to be taken in by Hastings at any age. In summer, with a few brightly-dressed foreign students around, it has a more hopeful look. I found it pleasant at first, but now I feel like a man who’s been tricked into marrying a seedy old whore. The worst of it all is I have only myself to blame.
Hastings seems to be a sort of latterday Gotham. I haven’t caught any local worthies fishing for the moon yet, but I did see a policeman chewing straw. That was at the Carnival. My next-door-neighbour-but-one – the bloke whose rat died – follows the majorettes in the Carnival every year, dressed as a Mexican, carrying a chamberpot with ‘Pee Wee’ painted on it. It could get him in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer.
I was once photographed by this paper, when I had poems in a local anthology. Their man didn’t like my dress, so I changed. Then he wanted shots of me pretending to paint. The following week they ran a picture (face only) labelled ‘Tammy Jones’. (She was doing a song-and-dance act here at the time.) People are like that about Poetry. They don’t know whether you’re singing, dancing or painting, but they wish you’d go and change.
Visiting bards don’t find the place any more congenial. A Liverpool poet came, saw and threw up in the White Rock Pavilion. Last year, I watched an elderly poet read himself quietly to sleep at the St Leonards Festival. The town’s big on festivals. There are six, plus the 1066 celebrations. (I wish some history teacher’d tell the council we didn’t win.) There are six writing groups too. Also, a couple of discontented middle-aged married men approached me to start a monthly workshop in my home. (As if periods weren’t bad enough once a month without bloody poets too.)
At times I relent and try to mix in. I even go out with locals – well, St Francis kissed lepers. You’re considered a suspicious character, though, unless you come from seven generations of fishing families, or are a member of the Winkle Club. This honourable society organises sponsored winkle-eats: one Mayor and wife got through five hundred. Another member had a suit weighing 84 pounds. His son told the story in the paper: ‘It was made of winkles and string the first time, but the string broke and all the winkles were busted. So he had to start all over again using wire.’ Members receive a silvered winkle: they have to show it or pay a fine when called to ‘Winkle up!’ The Queen Mother was presented with one made into a brooch. On her return visit (without it), the Mayor asked her to winkle up two or three times.
Apart from joining the faithful dozen at festival events, I have the delights of shopping and the Library. Shopping’s enlivened by conversations with old ladies who use me as an unpaid agony aunt. All the agony’s mine. I have nicknames for them based on their catch-phrases: ‘Sex-Was-A-Nightmare’, ‘I-Would-Say-No-To-A-Black-Man’, etc. They all advocate flogging for everything – even for the owners of dogs who shit on pavements. The Library’s more full of old men than old ladies. They’re not nice, either. I’ve been told to fuck off and roared at like a lion. The place has a rather unusual classification system. (Hastings regularly wins the Best Library in Sussex award.) Kafka’s The Trial’s under Detective Fiction and the full-length OED has gone missing somewhere in the basement.
I sometimes visit local exhibitions – scraperboards of Di with the face left black, flower pieces and oily oils of the fishing-huts. There are no nudes. Local painting classes can’t get models – which is odd considering Hastings had the first naturist beach in the country. The beach isn’t well-patronised. Getting there involves a two-mile walk across mud and barbed wire – which is great if you have fantasies about trench warfare and prison escapes, but a bit much for the average, out-of-shape voyeur. Of course, Hastings does have some professional artists – John Bratby, for instance. When he exhibited locally, some arse-licker left his address and wrote, ‘Wonderful, just like Vincent,’ in the Visitors’ Book. I couldn’t resist adding ‘Price’ in the same writing.
In the evenings, there are the pubs – the tweely stone-clad-interiored Mr Cherry’s, the boring British Queen, the Stag with its mummified cats and Gents urinal channel filled with 2p’s (‘Spend a Penny for a Guide Dog’), the cultured Pig in Paradise. Conversation’s strained: ‘My dog drinks beer,’ ‘I caught a conger last night.’ Recently, though, I did hear an interesting tale in the Pig. ‘If you were born in Hastings,’ a drunk said, ‘you’ll never get away.’ The drunk went on to explain that Aleister Crowley spent his last years here and that he put a curse on all the indigenous inhabitants.
Well, I’m glad I wasn’t born here. I can still cherish faint hopes of getting away. But even if I had the income to justify living in London again, it wouldn’t be easy to find accommodation. I remember the difficulties from my Art School days. One room I looked at then had a floor covered with bones and socks. There was no dog, just an old man who had fatherly feelings. About the same time, a Brazilian friend, who looked like Queen Victoria and had a psychology degree, was offered a bedsit in exchange for beating the landlord – something he termed ‘light housework’. At the moment, a London friend’s trying to hold a council flat. Single flats can belong to couples, but not to two tenants who don’t sleep together. Camden’s very understanding about gay relationships. Officially, my friend’s the lesbian lover of the legal tenant, who moved to Dublin months ago. Unfortunately, someone in the Peabody Buildings peached to the Housing Committee. Now my friend’s asking the tenant back for a holiday to stage a lesbian reunion to placate the Council. My friend’s not a lesbian, but a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do.
There are some nice things about Hastings. We’ve still got a pier and the fish is fresh. I’ve tried everything from a winkle up. My fishmonger’s very good. He shares the same name as two characters in Pitcairn’s Ancient Criminal Trials – one committed bestiality, the other killed someone with a fork. I think about that when I buy a piece of cod. Hastings crimes are usually smaller beer – Cub-buggering and shop-lifting. In my favourite shoplifting case, a youth stole a leather jacket from Debenhams to look good for his Tesco interview. The youth – they call them ‘youths’ when they steal, ‘lads’ when they help pensioners – left an old denim jacket with his name and address in the changing-room. My favourite sentence was that of exile from Hastings imposed on a transvestite who’d lifted his skirts and shown his ladies’ knickers in the park. He’s probably the only Hastings-born man to avoid the Crowley curse.
Some turn to crime, others to religion. ‘If you can afford £70 for your golf, you can afford Lourdes!’ one woman told her husband. Our road gets done by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Usually it’s two meek women, so I take the coward’s way and pretend I’ve left the bath running or something cooking. There’s a kind of sighing, groaning, dripping noise in the house that bears me out in my lies.
Hastings is considered the occult centre of Britain. They say there are two black masses in the Old Town every week. I can’t vouch for this – I haven’t been invited. Of course, I moved to Hastings too late to be used as a virgin sacrifice. The evangelicals take a firm stand against such things. When an Old Town pub put an ad in the paper promising a free drink to anyone coming to their Hallowe’en Occult Evening in fancy dress, local churches set up an all-night pray-in, taking shifts on their knees, to combat this evil. In the event, only one man, in a werewolf mask, turned up.
Local churches also managed to close down a sex shop. It was one of the boring variety with boarded windows advertising ‘Marital Aids’. The Hastings joke shop’s more like the good old-fashioned sex shops. Some of the items have undeniable artistic merit, like their large, clear-plastic, copulating-couple paperclips. The shop stocks vibrators at toddler’s eye-level. The local churches haven’t objected – probably because the things are shaped like fruit and veg and called ‘Sexy Bananas’ or ‘Sexy Cucumbers’. The lowest tier of the window display looks like a Harvest Festival. Higher up, there are all sorts of spare parts. Plastic Boobs, 99p, Soft Vinyl Boobs, £2.75 – which is like life. Some people only get 99p’s worth.
These products, like the dirty postcards, are just meant for tourists. Maybe the vibrators have Hastings stamped right through like the rock. Local rock comes shaped like dummies or false teeth. You can also buy foot-high wombles covered in shells. But there aren’t many tourists, so the things get left standing in solitary state in shops that are closed through the winter.
At Christmas, I was invited to a psychologist’s fancy dress party, to which I went with a man who teaches the psychologist Martial Arts. The rest, I thought, barring two artist neighbours, were patients: it was something about the way they hugged the analyst and stayed horribly bright, sober and together after midnight. The man I was with told me all the Hastings intelligentsia had turned up that night. I expect he was right.