The Third Leader: End of the pier

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A small disaster, in such a year, but one not to be ignored: Southend Pier has been on fire again. That's the way it is with piers; they weren't built with safety in mind. They weren't built with anything sensible in mind, apart from attracting visitors to our infant seaside resorts. They were built to amuse and amaze, an amiable ambition which makes them cherished.

People get attached to piers. They will tell you that they are the perfect example of the serious energy that the Victorians brought to the most frivolous project, and of that brazen confidence which, in this case, simply colonised the sea.

They will say, too, that anywhere with a coast quite so dotted with such obvious follies can't take itself too seriously, a point lost or perhaps proved by the bottom line Britain of the 1980s, when they all seemed destined to disappear after the next fire or through neglect.

They will claim, too, that the groups who fought to save Southend and the rest of them have been the most important single force in the recent renaissance in community action: that's the way it is with piers.

They invite pride, prompt fancy and capture memories, melancholy and not, of bracing Bank Holidays and pinging, roaring arcades, of sugar and salt on the air, of lost shows at pier ends, from Priestley's jaunty, innocent Good Companions to the big brash names at Blackpool; from Tony Hancock brightly beginning at Clacton to Osborne's Archie Rice desperately ending on another; to Orwell on his way to Wigan's joke.

That's why piers are important to us. Indeed, you might say we are, in a way, Europe's pier. We say: Save the Southend one.

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