Friday, March 28, 2003

The West Pier has burnt down. This morning, in broad daylight, it burst into flames. The whole back end, that is, the concert hall or whatever that grand, majestic ruin of a building originally was. I was at home all day, finishing a script against a deadline. I finished at 4 o'clock, just as Lisa came in and said, "I think something's burnt down. I heard them talking in the greengrocers. I think we should go and have a look."
We got down there about 5. As soon as we left the house, you could smell the smoke, all the way up in Kemptown. It was a hazy day anyway, but white and grey and brown smoke was still billowing slowly up into the sky. There were still small fires burning in the midst, and debris falling into the sea. But all that was left was a rusted steel skeleton.
After the ballroom partially collapsed into the sea amid the storms just before New Year, everyone's been waiting to see what would happen. There was still talk of reconstructing and restoring it, just like there has been for the last however many years; certainly for as long as I've been living in Brighton. For the last six years of my life nearly, it's been a symbol of this town for me. A symbol of the town, but never of the city it's now officially become. Maybe a city has no use for a derelict pier, slowly crumbling into the waves. No use for its faded grandeur. Just no use. Ruined Victorian piers are not known for being useful. They just are.
Yes, the West Pier was a symbol of Brighton for me. Something gloriously decaying and impractical, out of time yet stubbornly refusing to be swept away. It was both tragic and majestic, cold and dead, but haunted by memories, or fantasties, of a golden age that never was. Stuck on the end of a place that no longer needed it. I constructed my own fantasies around it, and about the starlings that swooped down there at sunset, nesting among its raddled rafters, giving awesome, yet purposeless, synchronised acrobatic displays in honour of the dying sun, as the sky and sea turned red and gold and green and orange behind them. On such nights it was as though the whole horizon were on fire, and the starlings, like some vast, animated cloud, performed a dizzying dance of death, each swoop and turn as graceful, as heartfelt, and as hopeless as life itself.
They say that as the flames took hold, the starlings still attempted to fly into the heart of the gathering inferno, still blindly driven by their nesting instincts. Maybe this was what they had waited for; every sunset was just a rehearsal, a premonition, a foretaste of the fire for real. How many birds were incinerated, as they headed into the eye of the sun?
And what of the seagulls? The ever-present seagulls in Brighton, whose mocking, cawing cries- so much like laughter- wake us in the night, and follow us down every street? They were strangely quiet today. Those seagulls, that steal away our hopes and dreams, our very souls, and spirit them away towards the West Pier, and present them as offerings to the King Seagull. A huge, distended bird, bloated and grotesque beyond imagining, it's filthy feathers coated with the detritus of a thousand wasted lives, its beak putrid with blood and sperm and tears all shed in vain. It sits amidst its giant nest, a mass of lost, tormented souls and unfulfilled desires, thwarted ambitions and dreams turned bad. In the centre of a decaying, guano splattered ballroom, its demands are never satisfied.That's why you shouldn't feed the seagulls; that's why they follow you, that's why they never give up until they've taken everything. A seagull has no pity.
So, what of them? And what of all those souls, those dead dreams and forgotten pasts? The ones that they all wait for, beneath the pier's struts, the hopeless followers of the gulls, hollow eyed, wrapped in blankets, fuelled on smack and cider, hoping someday that their souls, their hearts, their dreams will be returned. Did they start the fire? Or did some act of grace intervene?
Let me believe that. Let me believe that the fire was started by a spontaneous conflagration of a million lost souls, suddenly combusting and bursting into flame. Dreams on fire. Released at last. Ascending up to Heaven in plumes of smoke, no longer earthbound, but free, free to soar high above, where not even the seagulls can reach them. And the Pier too is free. Never to be reanimated or reconstructed, raised from the dead by witchdoctors and alchemists. A burning offering to the Sun. A new beginning.

Sunday, March 23, 2003


If there's a loose theme to tonight, then it's a fizzing, femme-driven alternative to traditional male rock orthodoxy; this line-up is like Jackie magazine with claws.
Despite the pretentious name, Le Momo are all Pop Art, New Wave action. They obviously know their Krautock too, as there's a dash of Neu! among the Buzzcocks and Rezillos influences, and a vintage synth and drum machine to mark this two boy, two girl combo out from the garage band hordes.
The Blue Minkies used to have a beatbox, but now they have Mo Tucker / Bo Diddley drummer Mickey, against which Betty Bontempi, Jonny 2 Shoes and Jimmy Bullet swing as wildly as ever. Their toytown punk clatter echoes Tallulah Gosh or the Shop Assistants, or a South East England, female fronted Modern Lovers. There are songs about West Street and dirty shaky love, and an onstage chemistry that verges towards vaudeville, as reliant on postures, facial expressions and timing as spontaneous, expletive laden banter.
The last time that Manchester's Valerie played the FreeButt, critics complained that "they can't play their instruments." Now, I've seen plenty of so-called musicians who couldn't play, and they were usually so addled on booze or coke that they could barely stand. This is quite different to the deliberately primitive, untutored guitar style of Valerie's Vicky. Determined to avoid conventional riffs, scales or even chords, she's working intuitively in a realm of pure sound, searching out exactly the right noise to communicate the feeling of the song.
Singer Jo meanwhile is a pure star, with the charisma and attitude of a female Liam Gallagher, coupled with the otherworldly intensity of a teenage Patti Smith. Add in the girl known only as Elvis, pounding her snare to the programmed beats, and you have a fusion of punk, pop and hip-hop that owes as much to Salt N' Pepa as X-Ray Spex.
As the toy instruments come out and Elvis strides into the crowd, still beating her drum before throwing it into the air, it's almost enough to kick-start a new DIY pop revolution. Songs like "All My Heroes Hate Me," and "Everything Happens When I'm Not There," capture the universal teenage experience of boredom, frustration and insecurity. But Valerie are determined to look good and have fun, no matter what. Which is what pop music is all about, isn't it?