If you live in Sussex, as I do, you soon develop a single-word understanding of the towns which dot the county's badly over-developed coastline. Brighton is racy. Eastbourne, genteel. And then, next major stop on the eastward road towards Kent, there's Hastings, where a 13-year- old girl has just been senselessly murdered in the most horrific of circumstances. What's the word for Hastings?
The easy version is "seedy". That's what you'll be getting right now from most people who claim to know the town, and like all cliched short- forms there is a strong degree of truth in it. But seedy implies a total characteristic, a status quo and a direction, a reliable assessment of conditions that may even have contributed to the death of Billie-Jo Jenkins. I'm not sure that this is accurate enough. Maybe, in the circumstances, "schizophrenic" is better. Does Hastings really know what it is?
Drive in from the west and the A259 slices through Bexhill, five or six miles away, and then enters the grim outskirts of St Leonards, a conurbation which is to Hastings what nearby Hove is to Brighton - just another name. What you notice, diving down towards the sea, is a series of grim, corrosive out-of-town shopping stores that have taken the heart out of many towns in this part of the world: pre-fabs mostly, a poor enough gateway in any case.
Then there are the roads themselves to consider. It sounds silly but these things matter if you live in the area, they affect the local character in a very special way because the A21, plodding north to London, is a slow and difficult route; the same goes for the west to east link. The result is that Hastings seems to turn in upon itself, it feels isolated, and from only a little way out you tend to view the town as another country entirely.
So, I might go shopping in Eastbourne or nip over to much more exciting Brighton. Rightly or wrongly, I wouldn't bother with Hastings. Sad, but true.
Then there is history to consider. It is easy to dismiss things that happened in times past because murders happen now and the Victorian architects who gave Hastings a bit of taste, a bit of character, did so whole lifetimes away. But theirs is the framework - ornate, mock-grand, hard to keep clean and fresh - against which modern events must take place. It is the gothic, contributory frame surrounding both the crime and local society itself, and Hastings is seedy. It is seedy because many of its buildings are old and uselessly big and anyway are badly cared for, and this means large houses have been snapped up at cheap prices and turned into bedsits; hotels have struggled and closed; and this means an influx of young down-and- outs (more under-21s live here than anywhere else in Sussex); and this in turn means a problem with bottle-in-a-bag merchants on the streets. And petty crime. In Hastings - "1066 country" don't forget - history lives.
And then there's modern history, too. In the Seventies, Hastings was one of the dumping grounds for London overspill - masses of council tenants came down and settled, bringing their own problems, their own readjustments. There is drug dealing here - not, insist the local police, more than other south coast towns, but enough to contribute to the general reputation, the overall atmosphere of dreary malaise.
At this point, people who live in Hastings will be raging, because the town is fiercely defensive about itself; yet anyone who visits cannot fail to see the scars and marks of a problem. On the seafront there are boarded-up hotels; in the shops you will find dayglo signs shouting "Everything under pounds 1". The area that separates town from beach is cut by the main road and seems drab, smoke-choked, ordinary. Many of the estates and side streets rising up from the coast are ruined by flaking paint and rotting window sills.
Most people would be interested, but not surprised, to learn that this town has a higher than average suicide rate: 18 per 100,000 population per year, against an average of 12. Surroundings do have an effect on the direction and feel of a town; and in Hastings you have proof. And yet, and yet ...
At the start I used the word "schizophrenic". Really that's just a badly used medical term, skewed to carry the message that there is real evidence that Hastings has a split personality. If you want stark visual proof, go and stand in the smart, pleasant road where Billie-Jo was murdered with a metal tent spike in the back garden. Look up at her house. It is well-cared for, middle-class, and pleasant. Billie-Jo was painting the patio doors when she was attacked while her foster father, a deputy headmaster, nipped out to collect two other children from music lessons. But Billie- Jo is said to have told her parents she thought she was being stalked, and a prowler had been spotted in the garden. Smack next door a very similar house has been boarded up and its windows covered in protective mesh. It seems shocking, outlandish. Two houses, two entirely different messages to a passing world - one smart and self-contained, the other alarmingly ready for trouble. Incidentally, in the pleasant park opposite these two houses there was a drug-related killing a year or so ago: more proof of that hard to pin down, contradictory feel that is the hallmark of Hastings.
Multiply all this and you have a town in which certain sections have been battling for improvements over the past three or four years against a difficult legacy. We local outsiders have viewed it with a kind of distant amusement because we don't have to go to Hastings, do we? The fact that they are desperately trying to lure new investors, to redesign the centre, build new shops ... well, until there's a murder we don't bother to consider the implications. No need. But a murder is so unfair you have to be fair. And being fair you have to say that the town has spent pounds 50m on a new shopping complex in the centre, which should open (with really, really terrible timing) in six weeks' time; they have redesigned the town centre itself, too, and stuck in more pedestrianised areas, making a bit less of a contrast between the old town - a few hundred yards of quaint, narrow old streets to the east of Hastings - and the grim, brash, modern shopping parades next door. They have even been handing out "painting grants" so that Victorian houses near the centre can buff themselves up. It's the sort of thing we've all been reading about in the local papers but until now it hasn't meant much. Now it does. Tourism, by the way, is rising. Unemployment, at just under 10 per cent, is falling. In June, Lordy Lordy, the Queen herself is scheduled to visit Hastings.
So what is the real truth about the town? Arguably, that it has been at war, and you could even say with some justification that Billie-Jo was one of the casualties. Hastings has been attacked primarily by a history that, coupled with civic laziness, has bequeathed a legacy of the worst of modern trends: that bad, choking, isolating road system, the big, badly- maintained buildings; the overspill problems coupled with the inevitable fun-seeking pressures suffered by any seaside town hereabouts. A few planners and developers have been fighting back but when you visit the town you know they haven't won yet. Maybe they will in the end, but at present the character of this once-great seaside resort is elusive, defensive, split.
The final judgement is a matter of reality. Would someone like me, who lives a bare 25 miles away, bother to go in to see what all the changes are about, if I didn't specifically have to. The truth is, I don't know. I think I should, but I'm in two minds about it.
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