First published in Black & White, 2004
It’s a Saturday night in Brighton’s West Street and the beast is waking. Shrieks of rifle-toting Essex girls in fluffy combat bikinis rent the air – brides-to-be strung with L-plates and jaunty veils as they totter on kitten heels to the next round of vodka jellies, trailing shiny balloons in the shape of cocktails and penises. I, only hours off the plane from India and still swathed modestly in salwar kameez, can’t keep my eyes off them – all that goosey pink flesh. It’s not until I catch myself gaping at a group of playboy bunnies in suspenders and fluffy tails that I realise no one else is batting an eyelid.
Brighton has long been synonymous with sex. The city’s most famous monument, the onion-domed Brighton Pavilion, sprawls lasciviously amid beds of overblown roses and lush lawns. The Pavilion, which began its life as a Sussex farmhouse, was transformed into the Mughal playboy mansion of the Prince Regent, who was later crowned King George IV, in the early nineteenth century. Secret tunnels, one of which was said to be wide enough for a horse and carriage, allowed the prince’s female entourage, including his mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert, to swan in to the prince’s decadent soirees in true cloak and dagger style.
Home of the dirty weekend since an eighteenth century physician first extolled the health-giving virtues of the seaside (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), Brighton has held onto its raunchy reputation, despite an influx of flush London sea-changers and its recent city status, which joins Brighton at the hip to well-heeled Siamese twin town, Hove. Saturday nights throng with groups of clucking, bucking ‘hens’ and ‘stags’. Most are from London, drawn to Brighton by the heady combination of anonymity and anything-goes.
Artists, rebels, crims and misfits, thriving on the town’s louche and laissez faire reputation, flocked to Brighton during much of the twentieth century. Lewis Carroll wrote Alice Through the Looking Glass from his home in Kemp Town’s Sussex Square; Laurence Olivier lived in Brighton’s Royal Crescent and Oscar Wilde and Bosie favoured a frolic on the seafront.
In the post-war years, homosexuals, still persecuted by the long arm of the law (and their prying neighbours) in other parts of the country, sought refuge in Brighton, where the annual Sussex Arts Ball sent cross dressers and drag queens into a tizz.
In his evocative 1938 novel, Brighton Rock, American writer Graham Greene unveiled the ugly underbelly of the seaside hideaway, with his tale of a sociopathic teenage gangster, set amid the racetrack gangs and black market spiv culture of 1930s Brighton. In his autobiographical Ways of Escape (1980), Greene describes Pinkie and his cutthroat pals as creatures of his imagination, unlike the streets they haunt.
Though Nelson Place has been cleared away since the war, and the Brighton race gangs were to all intents quashed forever… even Sherry’s dance hall has vanished, they certainly did exist; there was a real Nelson Place, and a man was kidnapped on Brighton front in a broad daylight of the thirties … his body was found somewhere out towards the Downs flung from a car.
The Boulting brothers’ 1947 film of Brighton Rock, a British noir classic which starred Richard Attenborough as Pinkie, also assures its audience that the town it depicts is “another Brighton of dark alleyways and festering slums … crime and violence and gang warfare … now happily no more”.
Indeed the days of the razor gangs and the Brighton trunk murders, in which butchered bodies began turning up in travelling trunks (the first was discovered checked into the cloakroom at Brighton railway station after the attendant noticed an unpleasant smell) have faded into legend. However, Brighton has never really shrugged off its shady rep.
In fact it was a May Whitsun weekend on the Palace Pier (the same time and place that Pinkie’s mob killed newspaperman, Hale, in Greene’s novel) that another teenage menace was unleashed, decades later, proving little had changed in the ‘new’ Brighton.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Battle of Brighton, when gangs of mods and rockers roared into town to have it out on the beach, inspiring The Who’s album, Quodrophenia, and the 1979 cult film of the same name. Brightonians still love a bit of rough and thousands gather on a windy midsummer night to watch Quodrophenia, being screened as part of the annual Stella film weekend. The screen is bleached by the streetlights and obstructed by a small encampment of demountables and fences, protecting the speakers and projectors from a repeat performance of public insanity.
In 2002, a free beach party, organised by Brighton local, Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, caused chaos by pulling a crowd of 250,000 people, to the horror of local authorities. Upcoming public events were cancelled after a young Australian woman died when she fell from a railing onto the promenade in the crush. But tonight’s crowd are all drinking and larking good-naturedly – cheering as the onscreen violence erupts and the boy gets his girl (in a stairwell).
These days, Brighton appears to be all class, with its stylish hotels and shops, hot club scene, fabulous food and a world-class arts festival. But unlike many of England’s weekend-away destinations, Brighton is far from twee. It has a gritty authenticity that no number of facelifts or makeovers can erase.
Film stylist, Justine van Traa, moved from London down to Brighton three years ago with her husband and two young kids. “It’s an escape on so many levels,” she says. “Having the ocean there; the slower pace. Loads of our friends have moved down here because they want out of the madness of London, but at the same time it’s not a total withdrawal. In Brighton, you can still get it if you want it. It’s a pretty hip place.”
Glenda Clarke is another immigrant. She came south as a student and, “like half the population of Brighton”, never moved back to London. Clarke has been taking people on guided walks around the city for more than 20 years, including ghost and murder walks and a popular Quodrophenia walk. “The North Laine may look like Covent Garden these days but 150 years ago, it was a very poor area,” she says. Indeed, most of the tarting-up of central Brighton has taken place in the past five to ten years.
As recently as the 1970s, North Laine was living up to its notoriety as the playground of lowlifes and crims. During Clarke’s first year in Brighton, there were two murders around the corner from her house in North Laine. “I must admit I wondered what I’d got myself into,” she says.
Brighton is still known as the ‘pink capital’ of the UK, with most of the gay action centring around Kemp Town, where exotic boutique hotels offering four-poster beds, Egyptian linen and organic Belgian chocolates, or, if you prefer, black satin sheets and private strip booths, jostle with gay clubs and swanky shops – their glossy Victorian facades looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.
On the streets around Kemp Town’s Sussex Square, middle-aged lesbians in overalls and pink mohawks, stroll arm in arm, perusing the gourmet gardening wares, alongside heavily-badged Quodrophenia extras with killer hairdos, and dodgy geezers skanking about for a can of extra-strong cider.
On the seafront, couples sit on the pebbles, watching the kite-surfers leaping and diving over the grey-green chop and drinking ale from plastic cups. And on the fabulously deco Palace Pier, which reaches out across the water like a diamond-spangled digit, tourists ride the creaky rollercoaster and eat pink Brighton rock and fish and chips, as they always have, only these days the mushy peas come with a glass of champagne.
To the east is the nude beach (once a notorious gay beat), and, hunched behind a grey concrete breakwater, the Brighton marina, playground of nouveau riche property tycoons and their princess yachts. To the west is the 130-year-old, heritage-listed West Pier, which has been closed to the public since 1975. The pier was almost swallowed by the winter storms at the end of last year, followed by a series of fires which are being investigated by police. Rebuilding plans have recently been scrapped, to the outrage of local conservationists. It crouches ominously beyond the shore, its skeleton blurred with a shifting cloud of starlings, a reminder of the ravages of time and the follies of man.
But don’t let the seaside vibe fool you – Brighton is no Bondi. This is Britain and everyone is moaning about the weather – it being late July and still raining. “But it was such a great summer last year,” they say, pulling out yet another layer of winter wear. (Last year, as I keep reminding them, was a record-smashing heat wave that killed thousands of people across Europe.)
But while poor old Londoners may come to Brighton for their seaside cure – they’ll get their kit off in Hyde Park during their lunch break, for God’s sake – no self-respecting Australian would dip more than a toe in. While the city plays home to celebrity expats, Nick Cave and Cate Blanchett, both, it must be said, hail from Melbourne. Cave, who lives in Brighton with his English wife and twin sons, headed an all-star line-up of performers, including Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton and Laurie Anderson, in a tribute concert to Leonard Cohen at this year’s Brighton Festival.
In an interview with The Age newspaper last December, Cave described Brighton as an unspoiled St Kilda. “It’s like St Kilda used to be, before they trashed the place with hotels and skaters, a wine bar and all that sort of shit. “I always thought it was one of the most beautiful places in the world. It was from another time, and here is certainly from another time. They’ve resisted any development at all, so it’s pretty much the same as it was 80 years ago.”
Luckily, when the weather’s playing foul, Brighton has plenty of indoor pursuits worth pursuing, with a pub on almost every corner and restaurants offering the best of modern British cuisine a la Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver. The award for the best hangover cure, however, must go to the Prince Albert pub, which serves up a Caribbean Sunday roast to die for – macadamia, pecan and sweet potato nutroast heaped with plaintain, ackee and other unpronounceable delicacies, to a soothing soundtrack of dub and reggae. The chef brings us down some pods of tamarind to chew on and another glass of that rocking house red, to laze away the afternoon with.
With big student and gay populations, as well as all those bright young London creatives who migrate south to get away from the drugs and have kids, Brighton has a thriving and diverse arts scene, with several summer shindigs, including the Brighton Festival, which draws crowds of up to 300,000 and an alternative Fringe the likes of Edinborough; a literary festival; a gay Pride; and several other annual events with their roots in the town’s pagan folklore, such as Burning the Clocks, a winter solstice lantern parade which ends in a bonfire on the beach.
Brighton’s famous clubbing scene has long pulled punters from London, but with new licensing laws allowing bars to open late (the average English pub still closes at 11pm on a Saturday night), Brighton style merchants and local celebs can be seen sipping and strutting at several late night bars mushrooming around town. At the legendary Concorde2, the city’s top music venue built right into the sea wall, where the likes of Fatboy Slim can be found spinning records on regular club nights, we catch sultry New Zealand songstress Bic Runga in a soulful mood. “I like your town,” she calls out to an appreciative crowd. “Last night me and the guys went for a walk along the seafront. It was really nice. Oh and we went to Mrs Fitzherbert’s and had roast chicken.” The crowd roars. “Nice gravy.”
Stepping out, at almost 11pm, into that long summer twilight, there is a tang of salt in the air. The afternoon storms have crept back out to sea and the clouds are lit by a strip of lemon and lapis light, against which the ravaged West Pier is etched in its slow seaward dive. We stop for fish and chips (hold the mushy peas) at some seaside dive and watch the gulls arc across the darkening sky and the wayward brides teetering out for their last night of freedom.