Okay, okay. I wrote this a couple of weeks ago but have only just got around to editing, finding pictures and posting it. Many apologies for extreme tardiness.
Today I watched Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God - be Back by Five. Its good, you should watch it. Its all about high school friendships and the places we find ourselves, unexpectedly, ten years later. But it's just as much about Coney Island.
Have you ever been? Not many people I know have. Its a very difficult place to explain. It has all the decaying charm of any seaside town, but double it, add some fading magic and several ghosts. That's bascially Coney Island. I love it.
Maybe its partly that it was the first day I spent in New York, late September a few years ago in glorious sunshine. We got there early and nothing was open. Its a long subway ride from the centre of the city and we thought we might have made a massive mistake. We spent an hour or so walking along the boardwalk, went to the Aquarium, and when we came out everything was getting going and the place was really filling up. I think it was at that point we got swept into the Freak Show, after watching someone hammer a nail into his brain up his nose.
The freak show was great, it cost maybe six dollars, I think, and it was worth every penny. Mostly it was kind of burlesque circus acts - Heather Holiday, a tiny sword swallower/contortionist, Serpentina who danced with a massive albino... snake of some kind, Angelica who breathed and twirled fire, all compered by Donny Vomit who did a few tricks and reminded me of my first boyfriend, and there was also the Black Scorpion/Lobster Boy who did tricks and comedy based on the fact he has 'lobster claw syndrome' hands. It wasn't slick or glamorous, it felt like a bunch of misfits were doing this because it was somewhere they could fit in. Of course, that was probably part of the act itself too, they probably do it because they make a heap of money at it over a summer. But it felt really honest, in a way that La Clique in the West End for four times the price, despite having slickness and glamour in bucketloads, didn't.
Maybe it was partly that I'd read The Electric Michelangelo, the second section of which takes place on Coney Island as the young tattooist from Morecambe escapes there and falls in love with the Tattooed Lady. His Coney Island, if not exactly in the heyday (it has been in gradual decline almost since its boom around 1900) is certainly considerably less decrepit than it is today and Sarah Hall's exquisite prose (really, you must read it) made me fall in love with somewhere I'd never been.
Maybe its partly that the seaside is in my blood. I spent the first ten years of my life in a crappy seaside town, Southend-on-Sea in the 1980s. Okay, its technically on the River Thames, or the Thames Estuary, which could be one of the reasons its got all the tackiness and not much of the rustic charm of the real seaside. Goodness knows what percentage of my childhood weekends were spent rollerskating along the promenade, walking along the World's Longest Pier (its so long there's a train back), paddling in the 'sea'. And how much of my pocket money I spent on the rides at Peter Pan's Playground, now Adventure Island.
I don't really like rides. I'm a wimp, I'll be the first to admit it. To this day I haven't been on a ride on which you go upside down. I don't mind going fast, I don't mind spinning round. I'm not great at going high, and I'd rather stay upright if possible. But my favourite 'ride' was The Crooked House. When you walk in, you can't see anything, not even the floor, it's pitch black. You kind of shuffle along until you come to these lit-up dioramas in which the 'Crooked Man' is shown in various domestic situations - feeding his cat and shaving are the two I remember - he might also be sleeping in one of them. He is terrifying, although its hard to say why. It could be that his head swivels all the way round a la Exorcist while he is shaving. Then there are some crooked stairs and crooked mirrors and then you walk outside to a teddy bear band playing in the daylight, and the steps back down seem crooked because they are straight but you've just spent ten minutes getting used to wobbly ones.
Okay, I can't explain it, just that it held a certain grim fascination for me, like this waxwork...
In Went to Coney Island... a recurring question is, if you are going to wash up anywhere, why here? And the responses echo each other: 'At night, they turn on the lights on the Wonderwheel. it's pretty.' Its an answer that explains nothing, of course. But I understand exactly what they mean.
I can see the sea (real sea!) from my dining room window now, I sat on the beach today and just watched the waves for a while. Since I've lived on the Sussex coast, the West Pier in Brighton has been collapsing. I must have moved here shortly after the fire in 2003 which effectively put the nail in the coffin of the redevelopment plans. I don't think it looks romantic and striking anymore, I think it looks really sad. But for me, that's sort of how a seaside should be.