We noticed the first one buzz past us somewhere along the A259. Some 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 to see the centuries old ‘Jack in the Green’ spring celebration, but have found ourselves caught in the middle of another old, important, English tradition. Balding mods and rockers, the first youth rebels in the land – 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 decorated and worshipped – and not used to scoot round small Greek islands to pick up watermelons – we make our slow way down the front. We pass through the revving machines and past the proud, aged poseurs leaning on the sea railings, and 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 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 feel to proceedings 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 very 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. Winter festival time. Bells and hitting sticks… But 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 assorted foliage, wearing a faintly sinister grinning green mask. A striking sight. The green bouncing crowd excitedly surrounding 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 attacked to the ground and slain to ‘release the summer’. He still looks in better shape than some of the crowd around us – one man lays passed out, face first on the turf, his trousers round his ankles, a knot of daffodils planted proudly between his cheeks. His friend lies next to him at arse level, struggling to get the angle right on his held-up phone to get his face, the flowers and both buttocks 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 and 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 in some sort of wonder 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 really.
Kids rumbling and clacking on skateboards, repeating over and over failed tricks 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 and how slow the machine is.
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 chain stores and I 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 – places where I had myself whiled away thousands of dead hours when I had nowhere else to go – places that I would now see around the country sadly, slowly, being closed down one by one.
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 – does not seem an expression of Hasting’s civic pride particularly. 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 know that I’m staring at things. Looking hard at places I hadn’t bother to look at before.
I had pointed to 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 her of all the meaningful episodes in Britain that happened in a year ending ’66: Battles, Great Fires, World Cup wins. I don’t know what I was trying to say really. Giristroula seemed to take it all in. Politely uninterested. We continued through the town.
Despite my family coming from London, and me having grown up and spent my whole life there, I was actually born in this town. Even though I know nothing of it.
My father had been sent to school down in Sussex, and later, after his marriage and children, came up with some mad, aborted, scheme back in the early 70s of moving us down from London to here in Hastings to live and to save money. (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 adds further to the new town’s feel of depression, which you can’t help but notice swirling around the place like chip papers).
My father’s great plan for our family didn’t work, 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 that we have something like this in common.
“Mm,” she says, looking distractedly out of the car window. “Pyrgos is a pretty ugly town too…”
So Hastings then. It was a curious town. Likeable – but not entirely so. An agreeably seedy place to be on this first day of the coming summer. But, as twilight falls 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.