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Published: December 21st 2009
‘…largest beach-based fleet in Britain,’ boasts the information sign. With no natural harbour since The Great Storm of 1287, trawlermen have learnt to moor their vessels on the beach. They return laden with turbot, monkfish, mackerel and more, to face a purposeful collision with the shore. Bearded men, clad in oilskins, slide skis under the hulls, simultaneously attaching winch cables. The boats lurch, listing violently, but they never topple. Welcome to my hometown of Hastings in southeast England.
Chip-fed gulls wheel overhead, swooping down and adopting octogenarian posture against an onshore gale. Behind me, the East Hill Victorian funicular (Britain’s steepest) has now ceased to ply up its eroded cliff section. Instead, the red carriages shelter behind shutters - away from the icy, snow-filled gusts - and the track is refurbished in anticipation of summer tourists.
Ear-muffed men, presumably in loveless marriages, pace the beach with metal detectors. Their faces strain with concentration and exposure to blasts of skin-chafing wind, occasionally stooping to discover a rusted Coke tin. It must be wonderful when, every thirty-five years or so, they actually stumble upon something of value - a Roman coin, or a chest of treasure perhaps. Most days must be
just horribly depressing. And I’m not even sure you can count walking at that speed as exercise.
You don’t need me to mention that William the Conqueror - a fearsome, bloodthirsty Norman - landed here in 1066, do you? This led to the famous Battle of Hastings, which must have been in Hastings, mustn’t it? Aha! No. This soldier-culling skirmish took place six miles yonder - in the town of Battle. The site is now just a field, though edged by an extraordinarily beautiful abbey. You can wander around looking daft with an audio guide, imagining King Harold’s eye being pierced by an arrow in the eleventh century. Ouch!
My mother has now arrived at my house for Christmas; she's resting momentarily from her frequent travels between Shetland and Central Italy. She proudly unwraps a brand new laptop and sits beaming over a fragrant cup of Redbush tea, the product of a third teabag squeeze. Is it only homoeopaths and old ladies that reuse teabags? Please let me know.
As my four-geared jalopy ices over in the street outside, Mum presses “on” and the screen lights up. She emits a further little whoop at the Windows jingle.
Then the doorbell dongs and, from lack of UK wintering practice, I open the front door. Two urchins proceed to sing a stony-faced chorus of “We Wish You a Happy Christmas”, halting abruptly and looking at me expectantly. Of course they’re not actually endowed with festive cheer; they want hard cash. Astonishingly, they seem to take my gift of shortbread without quibble. Perhaps they can swap it for drugs.
Mum, meanwhile, is eagerly clutching a 1GB memory stick. Copying and pasting photographs between laptops goes swimmingly, and she even learns how to format the stick. ‘Theoretically, then,’ she begins haughtily, ‘one could use the stick again.’ Yes, my mother has mastered the digital age, it seems.
Now, since when did Christmas trees start costing £35? Having cancelled the festive season for the last ten years - far preferring the tropics to numb toes - I can quite see how my proffered five-pound note might have looked a little out of date. But I can’t bring myself to pay such an exorbitant sum. It looks increasingly as though I’ll have to retrieve the plastic monstrosity from the attic. Keep it quiet, though, would you - I don’t want people
knowing I’ve got a fake tree.
While Mum very kindly completes the Christmas shop (minus the tree), I take a revivifying stroll on an icy, pebbled beach. Instantly, I see weak-limbed women in their fifties, long plastic spoons dangling from their sleeves. How many cups of tea do we think they can make from a single teabag? The spoon is then raised like a trebuchet, and a tennis ball is flung a considerable distance - considerably further, in fact, than a measly, mottled arm alone could throw. Intellectually-challenged dogs run hurriedly after the balls, delivering them back to their mistresses, only for the whole process to begin again. Not once does a mutt think: ‘Do you know, I’ll retrieve that in a minute - when I’m ready.’
Heading home, up a slippery incline, I reflect on what a lovely place Hastings can be. It has its problems, like anywhere else: drunks and divorcees etc., but that’s mainly just my ex-girlfriend! On the plus side, we have titillating topography (one can walk miles along the cliffs), high-quality live music (of every genre), and, of course, the sea. Without gazing at the sea on a daily basis- and checking for
pugnacious Dutch war frigates on the horizon - I would be a different man.
Art galleries abound, too. This lively little town - of oh, 85,000 or so - has attracted many creative characters over the years. One could say it has drawn artists - ha ha. One particular artist is so creative, actually, that, at seventy years old, he has a three-year-old daughter. ‘Sorry, she’s four,’ he adds. ‘Must remember that.’ On the way out of the gallery, I nod at his wife that I assumed was a daughter.
For now, it simply remains for me to wish you all a Merry Christmas. Myself, I’m having a quiet evening in the Old Town at a Burlesque performance. Scantily-clad, spherical creatures will be saucily stripping. Yes, I thought I’d take my mum. Happy New Year everybody..
P.S. Mum says: ‘what you do you mean, COMPLETES the Christmas shopping? When I arrived, there was only a jar of pickle and twenty-five bottles of beer in your fridge.’ Yeah, well, that’s a perfect guy’s fridge isn’t it?
P.P.S. Mum has abandoned touch-typing on the keyboard…because it gives her backache. Figure that one out..
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