Pier Review: A Bookish Journey

By Jon Bounds and Danny Smith.

It was decided on the trip that out of the two of us I would be Hemingway and Jon would be Orwell, it was one of those stupid car games you play. By the same chalk I was also Ford Prefect, Dean Martin, and Pace, from Hale and Pace. I really wanted to be Orwell but I’m not too mad I got Hemingway.

I can’t remember if it was the idea of Pier Review that led Dan and I — on the way to the clouded clarity of the third pint — to drag our mate Pete along to the pub to make sure he was involved. It may have been that we wanted him to come and take photos, or it may not have been Pier Review at all that made us summon him: it may have been that time we decided to launch a magazine.

But the point is that — both times — we had an idea and went out and did it. Even if in this case from concept to final execution took the best part of six years. One and a half years not doing it at all, then (having done it) two years writing it, then one year selling it and another massaging it through the digestive system of publishing.

There’s a quote by Hemingway that goes

“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That’ll teach you to keep your mouth shut.”

I think we can skip the time spent not doing it. It looked much like me not doing anything else that I was eventually going to do: a mental ‘needing a wee’ dance, jigging on the spot and getting snappy with anything that postponed the inevitable.

The we set up a crowdfunding thing — panhandling having been rebranded at this point — and a website. That was pretty easy, apart from me spelling ‘peir’ wrong the first time I bought the domain name.

Now I’ve never really admitted this publicly before now, but it was my idea for the book. I was embarrassed before, because it was a silly nonsense idea and a, frankly, sub-par pun. That’s not to say I regret one minute of the whole process. I’d just frankly like to share the responsibility with my co-author Jon, and the enabler that is Midge. (Yeah it’s your fault too, mate). Jon wasn’t even in the pub when I had the idea, I don’t remember what the trigger was. but I do remember texting Jon to come to the pub RIGHT NOW. We planned it in grand detail, spent the rest of the night drinking. And then promptly, not forgot about it, but put it in the box marked ‘pub ideas’ and moved on with our normal lives.

But it bugged us, and September came, when we had planned the trip, and we felt bad. Like we were letting ourselves down. So I knew it had to happen next year and I planned hard, properly this time. People, after getting to know me for while, often are surprised that I was able to plan such a huge trip. And rest assured it was me that planned the trip. And that’s okay, I do drink a lot and give the impression that I couldn’t plan a trip to Tesco without there being any casualties and a NASA sized budget. But I have a secret, one I’m willing to pass on. I say to those people “A BIG FUCKING SPREADSHEET” with colours and links and formulas and everything.

The doing it, we’ve pretty much documented in the actual book, a sustained release that went by too forcefully and left drips everywhere. Everything in the book actually happened, and in that order. Lots of other stuff happened too, and some of the best of it was too meta-textual to print.

That thing was epic, not in the surfer internet speak “epic whatever lol”, I mean like fucking Gilgamesh or Beowulf it had addresses, links to websites, each piers relative distance to each other according to Google maps. I even sorted a formula for the amount of money we would need for petrol based on the average fuel consumption of Jon’s make of car. Which of course turned out to be so so bad.

There is probably less disparity between the epic poem Beowulf and what actually happened in Scandinavia 2000 years ago than that spreadsheet and what actually happened on our trip. I’ve mentioned the formula, it said it would cost us £241 in petrol, now Jon wasn’t keeping track of the money but we can be pretty sure is wasn’t anywhere near £241. We did visit all the piers on the list. Although it was only when our agent read the book that we found out we visited two in the wrong order and ended up doubling back on ourselves, and I missed a day. In my spreadsheet I forget to put a break in one of the rows and we had to find somewhere to sleep on the fly because Midge wasn’t up for driving a fifth of the country 48 hrs straight.

And we did it, it was hard, fun, weird, sad, funny, awkward, but we actually did it. And then came the hard part.

Another Hemingway quote “Write drunk, edit sober.”

Shortly after we did Pier Review I moved to Brighton, and in the five-ish months I was there I wrote my half of the book. I was at the time working in a club on the beach. My shifts would start at eight in the evening and finish at eight in the morning where one of two things would happen. Either A, I would go home and be back in for 12 the next day. Or B, the staff would go out, to either someone’s house or an after club club (which is a thing now). To say that I “wrote drunk” would be underplaying my hand somewhat. But Hemingway never said “Write drunk, high, or in a state of near hysterical tiredness”. Editing sober however was a little more achievable, I’m dyslexic and find editing on paper much easier, I do remember the sober joy of finding a office supply place, giving them a memory stick and walking out with nearly a ream of paper, single sided, double spaced. and sitting down with a big red pen and realising that most of it was terrible terrible nonsense.

We wrote separately, from our own notes. Me more slowly, at home, various homes, and sometimes surreptitiously while I should really have been working. it took about 18 months for me to finish, at that point I was emailing Dan almost pier by pier willing myself towards the conclusion. In truth, what happened at (or what I wanted to happen at…) Pontins in Southport took me ages. It was the top of the quest, the crucial part in the Hero’s Journey, and I couldn’t really remember any of it bar the taste of the sofa bed I slept on without sheets. I was trying to sculpt the real events into a classical story shape, and what happened in Southport couldn’t stay in Southport. If the journey was a quest then the quest was for an understanding of our place in a world where the class system had shifted underneath us while we were trying to rise above it. Like letting your feet off the sand as a wave rushes in: I’d ended up a little further out than I’d thought and the sand was shifting. England changed while I was trying to find out how I’d changed, and I think the Punch and Judy man packed up and went while I wasn’t looking. You’ll have to read it to see how I did finding it.

So it was with triumph, and half of a lunchtime sandwich in my mouth, that I sent an email to Dan from my desk on a campus in Oxfordshire. It was entitled “my half of the fucking book”, and then he didn’t read it or respond anywhere near quickly enough for my liking.

We wrote separately, although we couldn’t help sending each other the drafts. Well, I sent Jon my drafts in the hope that he would send me something of his back. And decided to lash the two halves together. By that point Jon lived in Oxford, and I was back in Birmingham. So I went down for the weekend. We locked ourselves in Jon’s shed with warm non-alcoholic lager and Jon’s dog Poppy for moral support. And surprisingly knocked it out in an afternoon.

One of the inspirations for the book was a book by Bill Drummond — conceptual artist, pop genius, and congenial everyman — and irritatingly loud self-declared sex symbol Mark Manning. You can see why we thought that was a good match. Bill is a bit of a hero of mine and I was incredibly chuffed when he gave us a quote for Pier Review. He said it was the sort of book he’d like to have written. He hadn’t read it at that point though. Anyway, Bill said once that the reason the third part of the Bad Wisdom trilogy had never come out was the sheer time it took to edit the two different accounts of their journeys together. That bit wasn’t hard for us. Maybe they needed a shed and a dog to help.

Bill also told us that they’d spent part of their research for that third book in Blackpool. It is indeed — as Drummond once erected a sign in Hull “twinned with your darkest thought”.

I don’t know what other people do at this point but we quickly sent our cobbled together manuscript out to people to read. We really had no idea if it was a book. If we’d have been self-publishing (which we never considered) then at this point we’d have probably done another edit to check the spelling and then sent it up to the internet. It would have been around 120,000 words long and to be honest nothing like as good as the book is now.

Those early readers were all positive enough to keep us going, but critical enough to actually help. Gavin especially made me think about what was going on in the middle of the story. We’d got pretty pissed off with travelling the country in a small car looking at piers and I think it was in danger of transmitting that to the reader more directly through reaction to our writing than what we were experiencing. We put in some more jokes, and stopped telling you quite as much when it rained.

This was perhaps the most crucial part in making the book something worthwhile, there were loads of edits at other times that made it better but his early honest feedback was hugely important in shaping it as something that people other than your mates would like to read.

We’d read that the way you get a book published is to get a publishing agent, and there’s lots of advice online on how you go about that. Granted, most of it contradicts itself, and is written by people who don’t actually have agents, but it’s there. It’s a huge task, writing summaries, half page, full page, intro, cover letters, and each agent wants a different combination of those things. So guess what? I MADE ANOTHER SPREADSHEET. This time with colours and tick boxes and links to the google docs. And, after being told “no” a few times we were told “let’s see the rest of it” and we were signed. And then our agent, after asking for different pitch documents and making us go back and halve our word count, sent it to publishers and it was their turn to tell us “no”.

Joanna, our agent definitely agreed with our attempts to make the middle lighter, nudged us some more in that direction. She also picked up on something that we perhaps hadn’t noticed as we were too close to the experience: we switched tenses all the time, from the immediate present, to the far past, to a sort of present past where we would reflect on our current experiences. We needed to sort that too.

For some reason, piers seem to be popular with the media: we got featured in the Guardian and the Daily Mail Online (first comment “on benefits”, which for Midge was bang to rights) and also got invited to go on Radio 4. We were studio guests on Saturday Live, which is a magazine programme usually presented by cool vicar, the Reverend Richard Coles. He was away tending to his flock, but the other presenters made us very welcome, I got to quote Laurie Lee and Danny was the first long haired man to jangle his jewellery at the BBC since certain events, and one who was much less sinister.

Bruce Oldfield showed us a picture of his dog. It wasn’t as good as mine.

We went on the radio, I’d just got back from India the day before with what was being diagnosed at the time as TB (it wasn’t). I remember being impressed with carpets, trying not to cough, and everybody being nice, but not much else.

When you’re pitching a book to publishers, if it’s actually your agent doing the work, you mostly just do other things. And every so often you get a snippet of text about why the market isn’t what it was, or how difficult this sort of book is to sell these days: “a few years ago, yes”. If you’re hopping from one foot to another on an idea, squeeze it out as soon as you can: there may never be a better time.

People said no, until one didn’t, and then it was their turn to tell us how it needed to be edited, which happened three or four times. Now I’m a grown up I can take constructive criticism. It’s part of the job as a writer to write for briefs with the chance that an editor with chop it up and paste into their book or magazine as they see fit. But as well as being a grown up, I’m also a sensitive artist type too, and that delicate flower wouldn’t even consider handing the work to another person if I wasn’t sure that it was in some way ‘finished’.

It’s the “but” that stings a little every time. “It’s great…” people start, and every time your brain is screaming “yep. its great, stop talking, great is good”

“Buuuuut…” and it’s always said like that too “buuuut” gah.

The book is better for it though, and I’m especially grateful for our agent Joanna who could see something in the 120,000 word mess we sent.

Then, eventually someone wanted it. And oddly to me they didn’t yet want to see the rest of it. we had months in which to improve the manuscript and write the additional little pen pictures of each pier that Summersdale had asked for. So we did, nothing.

Not too long after we started writing, both Dan and I had left Birmingham, he went back, but this meant that we didn’t see each other anywhere near as often. Good for my liver, perhaps, but it meant it was really easy to kick things along the road a bit. Also, I wasn’t convinced that adding actual pier reviews to Pier Review (which I still think of as more of a novel, that is set on some piers) was the best thing. “Danny,” I said at some point, “no-one asked James Joyce to add little reviews of all the pubs and bars in Ulysses.”

But, in American Psycho there are lots of reviews: mainly of Phil Collins records. It could work.

Weeks of research later, we finally knew a lot about piers, their architecture and especially the number of times they catch fire. I think we knew it was a lot, but it really is a huge amount, especially for something that’s so much like holiday lager (“fucking close to water”, as Monty Python’s Bruces would say). The fire in the holiday camp in Tommy the rock opera, it’s a real pier on fire. And it was probably Oliver Reed’s fault.

There were more edits, we had I think good readers and editors who worked hard to make the book the best it could be. There were back and forths, it was hard not to swear to oneself at the voice of ‘the eventual reader’ who wouldn’t get some bit of finely crafted but obscure, no doubt, prose. It was disappointing to me to lose the text of the Auden poem I recited to Danny and Midge at the top of a windswept hill. It would be good for them to read it, as they weren’t listening. They stubbornly continued to put up our bloody tent.

The discussions did make the book better, and if after all that work there’s a typo in it I’d be really shocked.

There’s one last Hemingway quote that I want to leave you with he said “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.”

I can see why, travelling brings out the best and worst in most people, and it takes a lot to deal with one while remembering the other. But I’d disagree a little, to me the viewpoint is skewed. What it should read is, for me “you will end up loving whoever you take a trip with.”

Now there’s nothing more than excitement. I’ve not yet seen a finished copy, the advanced ones are in the post and should look fantastic.

More than anything else, a book that I, we, wrote will be in actual shops, on actual shelves, to be flicked through, maybe put down again, but maybe picked up, read and enjoyed. I’m so proud of all of us.

And Midge, who’s refused to read any drafts or previews, will finally get to find out what we think of him. No spoilers, but overall it’s pretty positive.

And I know for a fact that that’s true.

You can buy Pier Review: A Road Trip in Search of the Great British Seaside by Jon Bounds and Danny Smith right now.

Cover by Dan Mogford