Howard Jacobson: The end of the pier is too big a loss to bear

A pier never feels entirely English. Isn’t that what we love – its foreignness, its riskiness?

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Does the name Eugenius Birch mean anything to you? Sounds vaguely pornographic in an English sort of way, or even in a French sort of way as when the French put their mind to the erotic prowess of the English aristocracy.

As part of their introduction to the ins and outs of sado-masochism, Frenchmen bring their young mistresses to London and leave them for a while to the mercies (not that he shows any) of Lord Eugenius Birch. Or at least they do in the kind of novels I developed a taste for when I first went to university and didn't want to read The Faerie Queene.

Lord Eugenius Birch – one glance from his cold eyes and all Michette's resolve to keep herself intact for Hercule turned to confiture.

In fact, Eugenius Birch was altogether more real and more interesting. He was an engineer. Not just any old engineer. He was an engineer of piers. Fourteen of them in all, beginning with Margate in the 1850s and ending with Plymouth 30-odd years later. So we are massively in his debt. The seaside looks the way it looks, actually and ideally, thanks in no small measure to Eugenius Birch. And it wasn't only piers he built. He designed promenades as well, including the very fine one at Eastbourne from which I have sometimes reported dancing to "Achy Breaky Heart" around the bandstand at Christmas, though the bandstand itself was designed by Leslie Rosevere about whom I have nothing else, pornographic or otherwise, to report. Unsung, so many of the heroes of our seaside landscape, men of timber, glass and metal, in ignorance of whose genius we stroll and smell the sea and roll our pennies.

Eugenius Birch must have been a man of imagination as well as iron. He is known to have been a fine watercolourist, much of his work done when he was travelling in Italy and North Africa. It was from such places, it seems reasonable to guess, that he brought back inspiration for his English piers, for a pier never feels entirely English, no matter that it has come to define the English holiday. Isn't that what we love when we go out on to a pier – its foreignness, its extravagance, its riskiness, even?

As a non-beach, non-swimming, non-water person I have always been mad on piers, regardless of the tackiness of their amenities. To be truthful, the tackier the better when I was a boy. What the butler saw machines, amusement arcades in which you would try to fork-lift a teddy bear for your girlfriend and end up getting Smarties, fortune tellers who would see great success awaiting you, on learning which you would rush back to try again for the teddy. More particular in my pleasures now, I am still magnetised by piers. They take me off the mainland without my having to get my feet wet. I walk gingerly to the end and feel I am at sea, on a great ocean-going liner, with the salt wind in my face, but without the seasickness and the tedium of other passengers. Looking down is thrilling too, to where the water eddies dangerously around the wooden piles, a world of green mould and barnacles that always recalls to me the rotting sea in The Ancient Mariner, in which "a thousand thousand slimy things / Lived on; and so did I".

That the water should look so menacing so close to land, that it should remind us of what lies below the pretence of sauntering untroubled pleasure a pier promotes, is also contributory to its excitement. Neither one thing nor another, neither land nor water, neither home nor abroad, neither safe nor perilous, piers sound out some ancient necessity in us. Anthropologists, psychologists and architects talk about transitional space – a somewhere between the external and the internal, between what is tangible and what is of the psyche – and that is exactly what a pier provides. Comedians might have less to say about transitional space, but they occupy it, saying what in normal circumstances would not be permitted, and saying it on a stage which is itself at one remove from normal life.

Put that stage at the end of a pier and you are doubling a comedian's licence to step outside the permissible. I saw Chubby Brown perform on the South Pier at Blackpool some years ago. He made Bernard Manning look genteel. I don't myself see the point of going to watch a comedian if you're going to be offended by anything other than a joke told badly, but Chubby Brown pushed the boat of decency out further than I'd ever seen it go. Which shows how sheltered my life's been. Away from home – cast adrift, you could say – the audience embraced the opportunity to abandon propriety with near hysterical enthusiasm. I don't say this could have happened only on a pier, but the sense of being somewhere where the usual rules don't apply without doubt added to the thrilling consciousness of transgression.

If a pier is an invitation to risk, it is also an invitation to destruction, skulduggery and arson. Which brings me, belatedly, to the occasion for this column. The tragic firing this week of Hastings Pier – another built to the great Eugenius Birch's design. This is not the first catastrophe Hastings Pier has suffered. Fire destroyed it in 1917; storms damaged it badly in 1938; the Nazis bombed it during the war, hating the idea that the English were continuing to have fun. But the cruellest blow it has suffered is neglect.

Many piers throughout the country face the same fate, the result, most of the time, of council procrastination. A businessman puts in a proposal to develop a pier, whereupon the council, out of good motives or bad, worries away at the details, scratches its head over health and safety, considers the interest of other businessmen who for all we know to the contrary have the council in their pockets, and dithers until the pier finally rots away or is burnt down.

The National Piers Society has been warning of the consequence of this inactivity for years. That we have such a thing as a National Piers Society is a tribute to the affection the English feel for these wonderful, but vulnerable structures. They take our imaginations where nothing else made by man can. They are lovely in their sinuousness, at once strong and fragile, an expression of our ambition but also of our limits. All hail Eugenius Birch! But his works will vanish, and we will all be the poorer of soul, if we don't put up a fight to save them.

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