Michael White: The pier at Weston-super-Mare will be missed

The pier at Weston-super-Mare has gone up in flames. We can all feel sad about that, can't we?

Weston-super-Mare's 104-year-old pier has gone up in smoke and flame. We can all feel sad about that, can't we? Everyone likes a pier, if only in abstract – long, thin, cold and wet as they often are.

Did George Orwell write about piers, as opposed to peers of whom he disapproved? He must have done, he did cultural nostalgia well. Of course he did. He wrote the Road to Wigan Pier to expose the appalling conditions under which the urban working class toiled to keep wealthier Britain warm and fed between the wars.

Wigan was famously a good 15 miles from the nearest sea and its pier a modest metal jetty used to unload coal on to barges to be carried elsewhere. Nowadays the town's modest tourist industry is happy to acknowledge its strange, Etonian visitor for making it famous, as it was not at the time.

Orwell has another topical link with piers, which (like Virginia Woolf's view of the Godrevy lighthouse from her holiday bedroom window in St Ives) may have inspired a future title. As a child he spent holidays in Southwold (there is a plaque on the High Street) in Suffolk, which boasts a pier. Bless my soul, isn't Southwold where the Brown family is taking its well-earned hols this summer? And wasn't Orwell called Eric Blair at the time? Can't get away from those Blairs. Uncanny.

The English invented long recreational piers in response toa problem created by their earlier invention of seaside holidays as a glamorous options for the beau monde. As every schoolboy has probably forgotten, the Prince Regent – recently and wrongly voted England's worst king – clinched the seaside's popularity by patronising what became Brighton. To solve the problem of jetties which could land visitors from boats at all tides, the first promenade pier – long enough for all tides – was built at Ryde on the Isle of Wight in 1814. In next to no time (well, 1866) the West Pier in Brighton was being built at 1,115 feet, though the Chain Pier which appears in Regency prints was older.

It went the way of all piers when a storm destroyed it in 1896. Its fate is one of several familiar options. Thank goodness that Somerset Fire Brigade's suspicions are currently focused on chip fat friers, not on that other shadowy pier-killer, the arsonist.

Would it be stretching it to suggest that the seaside pier, which soon became obligatory for resorts with ambitions, is a metaphor for a long-gone England? Joan Littlewood certainly gave it more than a passing thought when she filmed Oh What a Lovely War on Brighton's West Pier. In doing so she reduced the horror of inept first world war military command (made fashionable by Alan Clark's enfant terrible book, The Donkeys) to burlesque.

Yet piers are essentially about fun, about escape, about fruit machines, candy floss and tacky shows, about romance too. How many of our parents got engaged watching a sunset at the end of the west-facing pier at Weston – better placed than Southend, whose pier is still doing good business, a local student assured me only the other day.

Do foreigners have piers in the same way? Few have the dramatic tidal drop we take for granted around the British isles, yet I am sure I have encountered them in Australia (one of Melbourne's beaches, Apollo Bay perhaps?) and the United States. Yes, there is definitely one on the Los Angeles shore, Redondo or Long Beach?

A stumpy one though. I cannot think of any like those which are still dotted around the British coastline despite decades when the rising cost of maintaining rusting Edwardian and Victorian structures has taken its familiar toll. I have always admired Brighton's West Pier most, but it has been a rotting hulk – in varying stages of decay like a wrecked ship – for almost as long as I can remember. Do I visit the Palace Pier, which is thriving? Not often, but I am happy to admire its twinkling lights from a safe distance at night. I like the idea.


Michael White

The GuardianTramp

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