The End of an Era

Sadly today will be the last day of trading for the West Pier Market on Brighton beach. My friend Pete has run a bookstall there for 20 years. He posted up this Penguin cover on facebook to mark what truly is the end of an era.

Brighton book stall

I moved away from Brighton eight years ago, and I can’t imagine Brighton seafront without Pete and his books. I’d bought many from him over the years, and then sold them all back again when we got rid of all our stuff and moved to Wales. Of course I’ve wasted no time in replacing them – browsing secondhand bookshops is one of my greatest pleasures. It saddens me how bookshops keep shutting, falling prey to the internet, and I’m as guilty as anyone on that front. But even secondhand book shops are in decline, thanks to the rise of kindles and readers.

I used to sell glass-painted goblets and mirrors at the market myself – that’s how I met Pete, and there was great camaraderie between the stallholders under the watchful eye of Alexis, the Joan Collins of the West Pier, who kept us all in order. While I can’t be there today to raise a glass to the end of the market and Pete’s stall, I thought I’d jot down some of my memories of the early days.

As well as running the book business, Pete is a musician. One day, a star-struck Japanese fan had made a pilgrimage to Brighton just to catch a glimpse of her idol, the market’s very own indie pop sensation, Pete. She was so star-struck she kept her distance, and took photos, swooning occasionally. Every time he tried to approach to break the ice and restore a little normality, she’d run away, and then edge back to stalk from a safe distance. Not many of the other stall holders could work out why a young Japanese girl seemed to be taking such an interest in Pete and his bookstall, the heady world of indie music having not yet entered the mainstream.

The summer of 1997 was a scorcher, and being heavily pregnant it felt great to take a dip in the sea at the end of the day. I was always slightly anxious about coming face to face with the legendary conger eels that lived under the West Pier, and who doesn’t hear John Williams’ iconic theme from ‘Jaws’  when they’re about to step into the sea? On one occasion, I was heading back to shore after swimming out to the end of the pier when I saw a gloved hand sticking out of the water, fingers outstretched towards the sky. The shock froze me, but I approached it, unsure whether there would be a whole body or just a limb attached. It was a glove bobbing in the water with air trapped in the fingers.

If browsing through a market is fun, it’s nothing to sitting on the other side of the stall watching the world go by. Brighton is populated with a multitude of fine eccentrics, and whiling away an hour or two in the company of a complete stranger regaling you with tales from their interesting life was a real pleasure.

I remember scrutinising the skies on market mornings, trying to decide whether an overcast sky threatened showers or looked likely to clear. Getting rained off was no fun, but an abandoned day that turns out sunny was always tinged with regret. As long as it was dry and not too windy, I really enjoyed the hubbub of the seafront, and while selling glass-painting and briefly, hand-made soap, was not my life’s work, it kept me going and gave me time to work out what I wanted to do when I grew up (which is still a work in progress). Many of the stall-holders were creative people – artists and musicians for whom the market allowed them the freedom to create, while also supporting themselves.

west pier market

west pier market brighton west pier market brighton

The market will make way for the new development of a great glass elevator, the i360, designed by Marks Barfield architects, the husband and wife team behind the London Eye.

i360 west pier brighton

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