Sunday Telegraph, August 2014
A few years ago, a kindly film producer took an interest in one of my novels – a novel that was set on the Isle of Wight in the 1860s. He suggested a visit to key locations on the island, and invited both the appointed screenwriter and the appointed director. This was very exciting. I met the three chaps from the ferry at Yarmouth, and drove them all over the West Wight, for the purposes of assessing the views and gaining inspiration for the script. We visited Tennyson’s home at Freshwater Bay (when it was still a hotel). We had tea at the nearby Dimbola Lodge (former home of the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and now a little museum). Of the many interesting moments of this two-day trip, I will always remember my dithering over whether to recommend dinner at either a) a marvellous little pub in Freshwater or b) a slightly overpriced hotel at Yarmouth. Fortunately, the screenwriter came up with a simple test for choosing. “Which will serve arugula?” he said. And thus, the huge mistake of taking these sophisticates to a humble village pub was averted at the very last minute.
And then the director, who was Swedish, asked if there was any chance of visiting Shanklin (the other side of the island), because he had studied English there as a teenager. It was clear that memories of Shanklin had a strong romantic charge for this lovely man; meanwhile his English was so idiomatically impeccable that we all felt we should go and see where he had learned it. On the way to Shanklin, he said he particularly remembered the pier, and we were just beginning to hope that revelations of a sexual nature were on the cards when we turned a corner and looked down on Shanklin – and it was oddly pierless. “Where has it gone?” he said, in dismay. Of course, I felt responsible, but I couldn’t help, and in any case I needed to concentrate on the driving. “You’re sure it was here?” said the producer. Well, a few inquiries soon revealed that the 1987 hurricane had, quite famously, done for Shanklin Pier – it had been demolished ages since. We all felt dreadful. And then this lovely Swedish man uttered the astonishing words, “How green was my valley!” – and went off to find some lavs.
Naturally, many people have been having “how green was my valley” moments about another beloved pier in the past few days. For me, Eastbourne Pier represents many things – not least, it’s where my sister (who died in 2000) requested her ashes to be scattered, so it has become the site of annual pilgrimage. However, for me there are other associations, too. Principally, the arcade on Eastbourne Pier is where I developed Infant Cynicism Syndrome – a condition that definitely scarred me for life. On childhood holidays in Eastbourne, you see, while my parents sat in deckchairs reading paperbacks (wearing straw hats), I would roam the arcade alone with a heavy handful of pennies, making mental notes, and slowly confirming my secret suspicions that all the machines were rigged. There were particular machines that involved gambling on miniature horse races, or car races – and it didn’t take long to establish (shockingly) that once the bets had been placed, the machine always arranged for a winner that either paid out nothing, or paid out the least that it could!
My parents weren’t the sort to pay attention to my excited conspiracy theories, but I pursued my investigations regardless. There was a shooting gallery machine that was rigged in a transparent way: if you took the twenty targets in turn, the 19th target would, consistently, not go down (and you didn’t get your money back). However, if you started with the 19th target, you could then take out all the others, and beat the machine! Looking back, I realise that while I was discovering all this, other children of my age were seeing the Baptistry Doors in Florence for the first time, but there you go. You play the hand you’re dealt. I did try to warn other Eastbourne holiday-goers that the machines were fixed, but oddly they never cared. This was either because they couldn’t shoot straight in any case, or because losing money in small amounts was pretty much the point of being there, or because I was a very weird little girl. Nevertheless, it’s hard to accept that the arcade on Eastbourne Pier has now gone up in flames. How green was my valley, indeed.