A few years ago, I experimented with living part of the week outside of London and rented a flat in Hastings so my girlfriend and I could spend long weekends by the sea. I’ve got a few mates down there but not enough to provide a rich and varied social life. I found myself bowling about a bit. Sticking my nose into dusty corners.
Hastings is one of few places in the British Isles that is named after the people that lived there rather than some natural feature. The inga, meaning place, of the Hasta being the tribe that occupied it at least 1500 years ago, Hastings. It is divided into two parts.
1) The Town Centre, which is full of lads and slags and dog shit, doubles as a purpose-built weekend fighting arena due its pedestrianisation - described by some town planning scholars as “the greatest act of civic vandalism in British history”. This is because they built a nondescript shopping centre on a cricket ground. Where people had previously looked out on to Priory Meadows, home of Hastings Cricket Team they now stared at a six-storey-high brick wall. According to statistics it is the second most impoverished town on the UK coastline. Hastings Town Centre is the only place I know of that had a PoundStretcher shop actually close down.
2) The Old Town, is a picturesque, part-medieval fishing port. This is the place the tourists come to see. Populated by well-to-do semi-retired luvvies and indigenous fishing families, Hastings Old Town is the only place I can think of that has opposed the building of a brand new art gallery on the grounds that it doesn’t want to lose its car park.
On one of my wanders I entered ‘Cobblers To The Old Town’, an eccentric-looking shoe repair shop. There I enjoyed some rich sexual-innuendo-driven spiel that tumbled from the lips of the gnarly, bald Scottish owner. Returning there with my girlfriend one Saturday afternoon, we found the place packed with people clutching drinks and generally milling about and having a good time. Having recognized us from only one previous visit, we were merrily greeted by the proprietor, John or John The Bender as I liked to call him coz he’d had so many wives. (He’d been married a few times as well.)
“Would you like a drink”, he said. “Wine, no? Lager, no? How about a whisky?”
“Really? Yes please.”
John left the shop, nipped over the road and returned with a bottle of Famous Grouse. Thus was my introduction to ‘Saturday Club’. A drinking school in a shoe repair shop in Hastings. I became a fairly regular attendee. My fellow drinkers were not the type of people that I’d usually choose to drink with, though some of them were interesting enough. A Chilean composer; a disgraced, alcoholic, short-arsed gay, regional news reporter; some bloke that used to be in Crossroads; Screamin’ Lord Sutch’s bass player; a railway woman; the odd fisherman. Some of their number treated me with suspicion. And there was what I initially mistook for the social ineptitude we find in our inward looking provincial cousins. Never mind, this was an opportunity to meet new people in a new town who shared at least one of my interests. That is, to stand around drinking.
But there was rivalry and bitterness lurking in this clique.
A year or so passed and we’d given up the lease on our seaside home. I’d split up with my tight-arsed Australian girlfriend and was back in Hastings visiting friends. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon and I’d popped in to see my mate Junya. As usual we got very stoned, this time on some high-grade Jamaican weed. At some point he had to get off to work so I thought I’d take a walk over the scenic West Hill and through the ancient walkways to The Old Town. Drop in on John, have a bevvy or two and have a bit of a catch up. As I approached his shop I spotted him across the road and gave him the old ‘hail fellow well met’. He crossed the narrow High Street and extended his beefy cobbler’s hand.
“How are you, John, long time no see”.
“Aye, how you doing?”
“Good, good. And you?”
His countenance hardened, his eyes became fiery, Glaswegian slits. The grip on my hand tightened. A smile danced across his face, not a nice one but one you might expect on the face of a cornered mercenary. He leaned in towards me.
“Did you put a fish in my cistern?”
“What? No. What?’
“Did you put a fish in my cistern?”
“Well, no. No. What?’
“Are you sure?”
“What? Of course I’m sure. What are you on about?”
John was now staring searchingly into my eyes, his face very close to mine.
“See, I’m a nice guy. A very nice guy,” his grip tightened, “Now some cunt thought it would be very funny to put a fish in my cistern and it stunk the fucking place out. Lost me a lot of custom. I’m a nice guy, why would anyone want to do that to me. I’m still very fucking angry. Are you sure it wasn’t you?”
“Of course I’m sure. Why would I do that?
“Exactly, why would you do that?”
“John, I can assure you it wasn’t me”
“Are you sure.”
“Yes I’m fucking sure. Can you stop fucking asking me. Why do you keep asking me?’
“Well, we’ve been discussing it and we couldn’t think who else it might be.”
“Well, it wasn’t me, okay.”
“Alright, come in and have a drink.”
I gingerly entered ‘Cobblers to The Old Town’ and gave a tentative nod and a smile to the familiar faces gathered there. Gazes were averted, backs were turned and no offer of a drink came my way. I sidled up to a clutch of guys that I’d normally chew the fat with. They tried closing ranks but the set up wouldn’t physically permit it.
“Hello guys,” I said as buoyantly as possible. “I’ve just been talking to John outside. This fish in the cistern business. He’s very angry isn’t he? Seems to think that I did it.”
“Well, did you?”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, no.”
“Are you sure?”
I looked around me for a friendly smile. There wasn’t one. Slowly, I made my way towards the door. As I stepped into the daylight I bumped into Alby, a retired tap dancer from Streatham.
“Hello mate, where you going?”
“Er, I thought I’d chip, it’s a bit strange in there what with this fish thing and I’m very stoned, which frankly, isn’t helping.”
“I said it wasn’t you, I told ‘em. I was on your side.”
“Alby, why would I do that?’
“That’s exactly what I said. Why would he do that? Come back in and have a drink.”
“Actually no. I’m just going to go….over there now.”
I wandered off to get myself a bowl of cockles and a pint, shaking ever so slightly.
Later on in the day I tell this story to a couple of friends. They both said exactly the same thing: “Typical Old Town that is.”
When me and my girlfriend moved down here she brought some blank canvasses, hoping to find inspiration in the coastal light. When we’d split up and were moving our stuff back to London, we bickered over how we were going to fit her blank canvasses onto the removal van. When I visit friends there, nowadays, I go out of my way to walk past the old flat. And even if it’s the height of summer I can feel the bite of the Hastings winter in my bones.