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’re heading to Hastings on May Day as we have been told the ‘Jack in the Green’ spring celebrations will be taking place today, but have found ourselves caught in the middle of another old, just as important, English tradition. Balding mods and rockers, the first youth rebels in the land – now with pension book 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 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 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 woodland foliage, 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, and the pubs in Hastings Old Town down below us spill out with Falstaffian revellers. 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 though – 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 held-up phone to get face, flowers and both arse cheeks in the selfie. We decide it’s time to leave. We start the slow crawl out of Hastings, leaving the pretty old part – with its black fishermens’ huts, its funicular railway, its resting, beached, barnacled old boats – back past the bikers still there on the front. 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, blown into a bowing 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.
The Londoner finds the high streets of Sussex pretty much the same as the ones they left behind back home really. Kids rumbling and clacking around on skateboards, repeating failed tricks over and over again in the golden triangle between Costa Coffee, Cafe Nero and ‘South Coast Gifts’. People standing at hole-in-the-wall cashpoints, embarrassed that they might be thought to be holding the queue up outside the Natwest bank – loudly flapping their hands, blowing out cheeks, clicking fingers to show how it’s not their fault. Hastings may differ marginally by still having some non-chain shops: the letters having fallen out of the name on the shops sign 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. I can feel Giristroula’s disappointment as she eyes the Priory Shopping Centre – these sort of indoor retail centres are rare back in her home. They are, 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, like the libraries of Britain – vital places where I had myself whiled away thousands of dead hours when I had nowhere else to go and which 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 here, how sitting around in a shopping centre might feel better, might make you feel something is going on, what with all the clean lines and glass, the food courts, the lights and the people moving around, cleaners polishing the chrome. But, of course, nothing really is going on. The Priory Centre – built over the old Sussex county cricket ground: a cast iron statue of a batsmen now on the spot where the wicket was, 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. I tell Giristroula to expect something more unique, more British, more peculiar ahead of us on our tour. And really hope it to be true.
I don’t know if this is travelling – it doesn’t feel like it yet – but I can feel that I’m starting to stare at things. Looking harder at places and things I hadn’t really bother to look at before. I had earlier pointed out the castle – put up by a conquering Frenchman in 1066, knocked about later by an English king so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of a different gladiatorial Frenchman, bombed later still by the Germans. I had 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. We continued on through the town.
Despite my family coming from London, and me having grown up and having spent pretty much most of my time there, 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 his marriage and children, came up with some mad money-saving scheme back in the early 70s of moving us down from London to Hastings to live. I have read that Hastings, more recently, is the place where people suffering bankruptcy are re-located by the government when they have lost their homes – I imagine this only adds to the new town’s feel of depression, the seedy nostalgia, the self-deception and failure, which you can’t help notice swirling around the place like chip papers. My father’s great plan for our family didn’t work out of course, and we soon returned to London but still, I must have had the very first few months 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 that we have something, however small, in common. “Mmm,” she says, looking distractedly out of the car window. “Pyrgos is pretty ugly too…”
So Hastings then. It seemed a curious town. Likeable – but not entirely so. From what I saw it seemed a strange mix of artists, hipsters, drunkeds, mobility scooters, cheap renderings, regeneration and dead-end boredom. People who had moved here who hadn’t quite been able to make it to Brighton, and others determined to make Brighton come to Hastings. But it seemed a perfect place to be on this first day of the coming summer. As a grey twilight falls over the sea, however, there’s little time to dwell too much on where we’ve been as there is, of course, still a whole country to go. We continue on. Pressing westwards.