We noticed the first one buzz past us somewhere along the A259. An outrider, leading the way. Then another one. A third. A fourth. Soon a whole swarm was passing the car. Bikers. We are heading to Hastings on May Day as we have been told the ‘Jack in the Green’ spring celebrations will be taking place today, but we’ve found ourselves caught in the middle of another English tradition, just as important. Balding mods and rockers – youth rebels now with their pension books in hand – flocking in huge numbers to the coast to make-pretend it’s 1964 forever. After explanations to Giristroula about the other, 60s, weekend, Battles on the Beaches, and about mopeds that are decorated and worshipped – and not used just to scoot round small Greek islands to pick up watermelons – we make our slow way down the Hastings front. We pass through the growling heavy British Norton motorbikes and the whiny hairdryer mopeds. The proud, aged poseurs leaning up on the sea railings, squeezed into leathers or pot-bellied under Fred Perrys.
We head into Hastings Old Town and up onto Castle Hill. On the green fields high above the town there is another large congregation. Drunker and bawdier. Slightly more pagan, slightly more mystical. Everyone appears to be painted green with blazing garlands of flowers in their hair. Music and singing as hoary old green bearded men sit on kegs of beer with giggling, plump, not-so-young nymphs on their knees. Kissing and boozing. There is a depraved, feudal feeling up here as the people of Sussex celebrate the coming-in of summer. I point out the Morris dancing to Giristroula, thinking she’ll be amazed by this odd, peculiarly British past time, but she looks fairly ambivalent.
“Eh, we have this in Greece,” she shrugs. “Up in the mountain villages, at apokries time, when we have festivals before Lent. Bells and costumes and hitting sticks and all that kind of thing… But I guess not quite as civilised as this…” she peers at the prancing group. “Or quite as organised…”
The main event of the Jack in the Green festival arrives – a nine foot man made of leaves and branches and all kinds of woodland foliage stuck on him, wearing a faintly sinister grinning green mask. It’s a striking sight. The green bouncing crowd excitedly surround him, chanting, throwing their arms in the air. More kegs of ale are passed over the crowds’ heads. Jack is then attacked to the ground by the crowd. Slain to ‘release the summer’. He still looks in better shape than some of the people around us – one man lays passed out, face first on the turf, his trousers round his ankles, a knot of daffodils planted between his buttocks. His friend lies next to him, struggling to get the angle right on his phone to get face, flowers and both arse-cheeks in the selfie. The pubs in Hastings Old Town down below us spill out with more Falstaffian revellers. We decide it’s time to leave the festivities.
It’s a slow crawl out of the old side of Hastings, leaving the pretty part of the town with its black fishermens’ huts, its funicular railway, its resting, beached, barnacled old boats. Back past the bikers still there on the front. I’d pointed out the castle and told Giristroula of all the meaningful episodes in Britain that happened in a year ending ’66: Battles, Great Fires, World Cup wins. She took it all in, politely uninterested. Down on the beach a man is renting out windbreakers. Giristroula, only used to the hiring of sun umbrellas on the scalding sands back home, stares as an old man tries to open up his deckchair, the material getting caught by the wind and blown into an arch of striped canvas.
The previously sun-baked day is shifting. The Hastings clouds lower. A man wearing large bulky headphones swings a metal detector sadly over the wet muddy sands beyond the thickly pebbled beach. We carry on into Hastings nondescript, neglected-looking, new town.
Hastings centre looks pretty much the same as what we left behind back home really. Long streets with every house a different sort of sadness in it. Kids rumbling and clacking around on skateboards, repeating failed tricks over and over again in the golden triangle between Costa Coffee, Cafe Nero and Boots the Chemist. Hastings may differ marginally by still having some non-chain shops – ‘South Coast Gifts’, ‘Del Boys Discount Store’, ‘A.R Tackle Fishing Shop’. The letters having fallen out of the names on some of the shops signs so you read them as if you’re suffering hiccups. Greece has also held firm, for now, like some King Canute, against the tide of multinational stores. So I feel Giristroula’s disappointment as she eyes the Priory Shopping Centre. These sort of indoor retail malls are rare back in her country. They are though, of course, common terrain for me. A staple backdrop of every British town: part shopping experience, part drop-in centre for the lost and the under-employed. A place of refuge for those who would otherwise trudge round the streets. The miserable masses, of which I was one, who save up a trip to the “big Sainsbury’s” each week, just to feel something. Shopping centres where I’d spent half my life; libraries, where I’d spent the other… Libraries – similarly vital places for us out-of-action folk to while away the dead hours when we have nowhere else to go – I would now see, as we travelled around the country, sadly, slowly, being closed down one by one as austerity Britain takes hold. Unlike the Greek, I understand the people who’ve taken a day-out to the Priory Shopping Mall. How sitting around here might feel better than staying at home, might make you feel something is going on, what with all the clean lines and glass, the food courts, the lights, the people moving around, the cleaners polishing the chrome. But, of course, nothing really is going on. The Priory Centre – which has been built over the old Sussex county cricket ground: a cast iron statue of a batsman now on the spot where the wicket used to be, hoiking a crossbatted shot over a branch of Poundstretcher – doesn’t seem much of an expression of Hasting’s civic pride really. More a quiet howl of self-loathing.
Hastings is a place where people suffering bankruptcy are re-located by the government when they have lost their homes. This only adds to the new town’s feel of depression and seedy nostalgia and self-deception and failure, which you can’t help notice swirling around the place like chip papers. Despite my family coming from London, and me having grown up and spent pretty much most of my life in the capital, I was actually born in this town. Even though I know nothing of it. My father had been sent to boarding school down in Sussex and later, after marriage and his first child, came up with some mad money-saving scheme back in the early 70s of moving the family down from London to live round here. The great plan didn’t work out of course, a few months after my birth we returned to London, but still, I guess I must have had the very first seasons of my life here in Hastings. As we look out at the crumbling white façades of tall houses, standing in the street like slightly decaying teeth, Giristroula says it’s similar to her place of birth, Pyrgos, down in the Peloponnese in southern Greece. I’m pleased at this. Pleased to hear that we have something, however small, in common.
“Mmm,” she says, looking distractedly out of the car window. “Pyrgos is pretty ugly too…”
It seemed a curious town, Hastings. Likeable, but not entirely so. From what I saw it was a strange mix of artists, hipsters, drunkards, mobility scooters, cheap renderings, slow regeneration and dead-end boredom. People who had moved here that hadn’t quite been able to make it to Brighton. Others that seemed determined to try to make Brighton come to Hastings instead. I saw an advertising board sitting in the window of Hastings Tourist Information centre housed in the brutalist Aquila House on the seafront: ‘Hastings – Talk It Up’. It was a good place to be on this first day of the coming summer though. As a grey twilight falls over the sea, however, there is little time to dwell too much on where we’ve been as there is, of course, still a whole country to go. So we carry on. Pressing westwards.