Hastings

Hastings comes alongside like the fishing boat marooned on a traffic island outside the station. You thought it would be a good follow-up to Ephesus. Now the test comes. The studio in Duke Street backs on to railway tracks. This row of warehouses on the north side has direct access to the lines, goods out, materials in. Matt is looking down from an upper window either for you or the wood delivery for his stove. He pretends it’s for you and shows you up the steep stairs to the large empty room with cracked windows and a new plywood floor. What do you think? Isn’t it great? Yeah, yeah, great. Your breath turns to steam. You keep your hat on. This is it, your base for the week. Even with the industrial heaters blowing it’s numbing cold. It’s a shoes-off zone with the newly varnished floor. Fair enough. Well, no, actually it’s not fair. This is early February and the wind is coming straight off the sea. It’s a gift horse but you’ll give it a go. Short bursts. How much can you take? You chalk up some thoughts on the rotating blackboard. You move around to music in slippery socks. You’re not thinking straight.

Look what you give to me…see what you done to me….

This is the place… this is the space you want me to be, inside….. me to be….with your hat on….ah got ma hat on…….your hat aint gonna subside…side ways…you make it for me in Japan..…I like your style, your way to be….the sounds outside your window, clankin me, yeah….ahm outa here, where the air is ever so…..ever so……clear today…..dry …..walk with me…

To reach the beach Matt says go around or over the top. You’re not quite sure what this means but he looks busy so follow your nose. You come to Queens Road, which runs down the hill and into the centre of town. It’s faded but hanging in there. Half the stores are rent-free charity shops. Others are empty. You photograph all of them to prove a point, already knowing that this is the 13thmost deprived town in England. Nice index. Good score. The sun emerges as you cross the green below the castle and there, look there, is the beach and a wide expanse of sea. There’s the horizon, ocean’s edge, Channel’s limit, due south, restless waters, no glint, shoreline, pebbles, little train, fishing boats rocked up and beached. And The Jerwood.

John Jerwood, oyster trickster, makes a pearly fortune in Japan. Pay the locals, keep the profits, feed the fashion industry back home. Cultured pearls. Captured molluscs powerless to resist human interference. Prized open, cast aside, farmed for exquisite shiny spheres of calcium carbonate, the stuff of cement. Measured, graded, inspected, carefully packaged and labelled Exclusive Jerwood Pearls By Appointment to His Majesty King George VI, because she couldn’t get enough of them.

Family free, his fortune sits and feeds a collection, a foundation, and now a gallery to house the collection. Bring it here, the Jerwood, and house it right on the beach, The Stade, new building, blended, designed to fit, merge with the tall dark net sheds. No. Approve it and you’re stuck with it.

 The Stade, the sloping beach, the harbour of towing and winching fishing boats, largest of its kind in Europe, each one paired with its own rusty hauling tractor. The Stade, a shingle stretch, with a history of ownership and liberation as common land for the people, a defiant legacy of occupation and settlement, rough sheds, sea gardens, fish stalls, suspended driftwood mobiles, territory long claimed and squatted. It rocks. It’s ours. We resisted. We lost.

The Stade Hall, council owned, also blended in blackness with the net sheds, has a large piazza outside for public use. You are the public and you see this and claim it as an open studio where you can keep your shoes on and warm up in the café. It’s yours. You return later in the week to move across it in free form. This place holds a tension that escapes you in the warehouse over the hill in Duke Street. No walls, no limits, fresh air, birds overhead, sound of waves. You move, inside your mischief, cut across, bounce, stamp, aware of people watching in the café and immune to them. You’re an occupation. You’re also here to make impressions of the cracking and seagull splattered ceramic tiles of the Gallery.

The Stade, a vast expanse of wet and drying pebbles, round, oval, dense, smooth, adjoining, abutting, slipping, sliding. They’re in this together, washed up, pushed down, messed with by tidal surges, spat on by waves and foam, here today, buried tomorrow, exposed to light and darkness, damp and dryness. You pocket one and hold it tightly as you walk around. It feels warm, then cold. It changes shape. It feels slightly different every time. You chose this one. It’s one of a kind, one of billions, solid state, picked up, taken for a walk.

It’s round and smooth to the touch, with slight indentations in the surface if you scrape your nail. It’s the size of a golf ball. No it’s smaller. It’s the shape of an egg. No that’s ridiculous. It’s the weight of a 2 pound coin, almost. It’s the colour of olives, of driftwood, of amber, of Mediterranean soil, of the sun, the sea, the feathers of a pigeon, the skin of a turtle.

 Stay with me…be with me…take me home…talk to me….spend time with me…get to know me better…..you, you chose me…..I am the one….you are the one, the other one…..

And there, almost completely camouflaged, the eyeless corpse of a sea creature somebody called a small spotted catshark and someone else a lesser spotted dogfish or scyliorhinus canicula. Identification numbs the senses. Not knowing its name you can swim in its subtly mottled skin, a former pebble friend.

Hastings dogfish

Underfoot they crunch, slide, grind, nudge and disappoint the day-trippers who long for sand and stumble across this crunching surface on their way to the water’s edge, the land’s edge, to gaze out and away from island mentality. If only it was sand.

Turn around and the cliffs behind you look as solid as the beach feels unstable. You’re not the first to be drawn to them and you’re back crossing Queens Road again in the early morning. You pass a holm oak, tightly fenced in on either side, planks cut to fit. The bark, like the spiked fencing, is covered in black anti-climb paint, with warning signs on either side DO NOT CLIMB. There’s a property on the other side. The owner resorts to desperate measures to prevent garden access. You’re looking for a tree to focus on and this may be the one. It’s survivor and victim. Evergreen, wind bent.

Further along the path opens up and you see them. The soft contours and winding tracks of the Castle Rocks are inviting, especially for the thousands who’ve inscribed names, love hearts, obscenities and swastikas on every accessible surface of these rock cliffs. They’ve come well prepared to make a mark, to leave a trace, with chisel, scribe, screwdriver or penknife. The name, my name, your name, is mine, yours, we’re here, been here, are here, were here, will remain here, forever, look. Look closer and there’s a different story. Carvings from 2003 are fading away. Sharp lines are softening. But Max over there is still sharp, thanks to the clean angles of his three letters or the depth of the incisions. You take out a flat decorators knife to gradually scrape the name away until only the faintest impression of Max remains. It takes about a minute and leaves a small pile of sand at the base. These rocks crumble to the touch. They taunt the pebble beach below. We make sand while you long for it.

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The Stade has seen it all. The new black block buildings sit on deeper memories of storms, net hauling, daybreak and death. Fish stop wriggling out of water and hit the slab and the chip shop. The town is heavy with mixed messages. Archie Belaney from James Road plays the Indian as a boy, disappears, becomes the Native American as a man, fools everyone, feathered up as Grey Owl, Apache half breed, beaver saviour, prolific author, celebrity speaker, world tour. The truth posthumously revealed by ex-wife after booze-fuelled death in Saskatchewan. George Bristow shopkeeper in Silchester Road, guns and birds, shoot em and stuff em, little carcasses tastefully displayed for the home or museum, bright colours, glass eyes, skilled craftsman. Collection grows and shakes the world of identification. Hastings now celebrated for rare sightings and exotic visitors. All in question decades later as Bristow’s links with Egypt surface. Museum removes his collection and the scandal hits the national papers as The Hastings Rarities Affair.

You see a link here between these two earnest English men and John Turtle Wood (b 1821) excavating the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, sending his finds back to the British Museum in wooden crates dragged to the railway station in Selcuk, burying one of his workers suffocated in a hole of excavation. This station he’d designed a few years earlier when he called himself an architect. These three, four with John Jerwood, fulfill their missions with a sense of upright masculine entitlement, doing the right thing in their clouded eyes.