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“Do I partake in the existence of gulls?”


The Stade in Hastings, a recently repackaged public open space, (adjacent to the new Jerwood Gallery seen in the background, a hoped for regeneration tool in itself, but at £7 admission not packing them in, although locals get in for less ) created for events but rather dismal when empty except for seagulls and the odd passerby. Still it would have been much worse with bollards and hanging baskets and the surroundings are still mainly those of the working fishing community.

First stop on a visit to Hastings to investigate Coastal Currents, an art festival to finish the summer season. I seem to have missed most of the events apart from Open Studios, as far as I can make out from the impossibly designed booklet. However Open Studio events are always an excuse for reaching parts of places most visitors don’t normally find.

Having not visited for about 10 years I am interested to see how coastal regeneration has affected Hastings. I am following in the footsteps of Iain Sinclair, a long-term, part-time resident. As Hastings features in his quasi autobiographical/fantasy Brighton Rock type novel Dining with Stones I shall pillage it as a source of quotes to posthumously accompany this walk and stalk.

“He said ‘I need a new beginning, virgin territory. In London I am written out. I’m sure that Hastings will provide an abundance of mysteries among its steep steps and narrow alleyways.’ “

“The man had a fatal attraction to the picaresque.”

“My eyes hurt, the glare of the midday sun. The sea, with its reversed-loop sound, was all skin: wrinkled, feathery.”

Art installation or seafood leftovers?

Survival or revival?

“Up among the layers and levels – narrow steps, skewed chimneypots, secret gardens, bowed fronts, terraces…”

“My reflex scepticism was charmed by the seascape, views into tall ceilinged houses, New Orleans balconies with ornamental ironwork, the past….”

Unimprovements.

“Flagged passages plunged towards the railway station. Robert Louis Stevenson called them ‘wynds’. A good name. Suggesting twist, the labyrinth, with a chill breeze always at your heels. Steep steps vanished into the rain.”

No rain today. I think wynds is a Scottish term. In Sussex they are often called twittens!

One of several bizarre sons of Hastings was Archie Belaney, later known as Grey Owl, the erstwhile Native American writer and conservationist. Grey Owl has the dubious honour of being one of the few notable Hastings individuals not mentioned (as far as I could tell – I may have missed a reference) in Dining With Stones, notable in itself for the number of writers, real and imagined who are mentioned. A grey plaque on a grey villa nearby pinpoints Grey Owl’s childhood home.

A less literary reference.

“How the English love things when they are no longer there.”

“Cunard Court – from the kitchen I could gaze back on the Old Town, the cliffs, the pier; the sun, on good days, rose over that skeletal structure, polishing its black bones.” 

“Cunard Court, a Thirties (De La Warr Pavilion era) block that looked like a beached ocean liner.”

In reality Marine Court in St Leonards, seaside retreat of the author, just glimpsed towering above the black vitrolite of its hull, now home to cafes, art galleries and here, one of the open studios, an appropriately surrealist collage maker.

“The charm of the natural landscape, woods, modest charms, sylvan glades, the full Keatsian apparatus, was attacked, denuded, improved.”

“In Hastings everything connects with everything.”

“Sniff creosote and ozone, sit by a half open door, freshening a large blue mug of tea.”

Bohemia is alive and well in St Leonards - living the Augustus John and Dorelia life.

(the best Open Studios experience: tea and company courtesy of Sineid Codd, Peter Quinnell and Claire Fletcher)

“At the day’s end, when the fading sun had moved on towards Pevensey Bay and Beachy Head…”

“When it was all over did he slip away to the station?”

Hastings seems to me to have retained its scruffy, eccentric, nature accommodating asylum seekers and benefit victims, ex Hackney arty types and other Londoners, ever a topographically challenging delight with something for everyone. I’m sure Iain Sinclair can still sleep happily at night (or not as the case may be).

(All photographs by Diana Hale, all quotes from Dining With Stones by Iain Sinclair)

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