You simply must go to Brighton, you’ll have such fun. Oh, we love Brighton! That’s what they say, isn’t it? Goody two-shoes Brighton, couldn’t get it wrong if it tried. Happiest place in Britain to live, apparently. Except for the homeless and grim of face; they didn’t look too happy, and there were more than a few. It’s also the ‘unofficial’ LGBT capital of Britain, in case that’s your thing. So off we went, after years of Wifey badgering me for one of those magical weekend breaks. The only other time I’ve been to Brighton was for a car crash overnight stay with an unhinged ex. I recall us not getting on very well and me trying to rescue some sanity by leaving her in a bedroom huff (not something I would do lightly) while I ‘refreshed’ myself on the beach. You can interpret the act of ‘refreshment’ any way you please but I can assure you it didn’t involve a member of the LGBT community. And that visit, some 15 years ago, also left me with the impression that Brighton could do with a bloody good scrub.
In that sense it hasn’t changed a bit. Brighton might be hip and bubbly and skip along with bums and balls and all the trimmings but it is still a curiously stained and dishevelled town. The pavements are painted with the ghosts of pools and puddles and slicks of unidentified spills: beer, wine, oil, piss or blood, it doesn’t really matter; someone, somewhere is missing something. Boarded up shop fronts and failed hotels are splattered with clumsy, artless graffiti; the tags of disenchanted, trapped youth and British seaside boredom. Even spots where the chaos is planned, roadworks and so on, seem more casual as if someone has started off with good intentions and then just let things slide, distracted by bright lights and better things. And that is why Brighton this time round appealed so much more – obviously the company had massively improved too and the weather was rather jammy – the trick it has mastered is not being a bit grotty but rather not particularly caring that it is a bit grotty. Don’t worry about the stains, just enjoy yourself and maybe you’ll leave a stain of your own.
And there is much to enjoy in Brighton, or certainly there is at the moment, at the dusk of a long, strange summer before the ravages of winter and recession and that pesky virus take their toll. I’m not sure I’ve ever strolled past quite such concentrated stretches of restaurants and pubs and takeaways and cafes. They seem to be everywhere and where some have clearly been redundant for many, many seasons most seem content to at least try to muddle through. And of those most a decent handful are positively thriving; the very fine tapas place that opened for lunch at one was filled by quarter past and we were stuffed and merry by two. Our evening spot ‘The Coal Shed’ was bustling and served a glorious steak (the bill wasn’t so glorious) though our waitress was overfamiliar to the point that we may as well have pulled over an extra chair and bought her a bowl of chips. Old school Brighton is represented by places like the ‘Regency Restaurant’ which wasn’t much more than a tarted up greasy spoon whose main ingredient seemed to be endless rounds of cheap sliced bread, served any way you please and in a choice of up to two colours.
When you’re not eating shopping is your next distraction. The plebs satisfy themselves with the high street shops but the students, hip types and dicks like us much prefer to stroll along ‘The Lanes’ and revel in the wondrous world of small independent shops where you can be crippled by candles, dubious leather, tie die handbags or upcycled bric-a-brac you never knew you needed because you’ve never ever needed it. ‘The Lanes’ form a narrow network of veins where the gesture of social distancing isn’t even attempted and where quirky, plant based burger vans and vegan juice outlets litter the streets with their tables and chairs. We sampled a record shop where to my horror the chap at the counter couldn’t tell a customer a single track from ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ album, which in my book deserved instant dismissal. I came away with the soundtrack to ‘Bagpuss’. Like the food outlets, small businesses might be suffering at the moment but these ones seemed to be doing alright. I suspect the drugs trade is pretty buoyant too, or at least it was when I interrupted some kind of exchange in a pub toilet and then couldn’t piss from fear for the next five minutes. Drugs and coastal towns, love and marriage, etc etc.
We all know Brighton is famed for being open minded and those of varied persuasions are abundant and shameless in the best possible way. Short, tall, fat, thin, hairy, smooth; it’s all very hard to miss and one assumes that there are still a few embedded, twisted homophobes tucked away, chewing on their own bile, being eaten alive by bitterness and confusion. If so then they’ve chosen the wrong place to see out their days. Emboldened by far too much wine our jolly little gang found our way to the gayest pub in the village (or at least one of them) where we were greeted by a top heavy, cartoon bird of a lady belting out a set list that eventually boiled down to a series of Adele impersonations. Dotted about the place were all kinds of creatures great and small and Wifey and our mutual friend even found a soul mate called Lisa, whose carefully arranged hair and makeup could not hide a muscular chin and a physique that could have shamed a sheet metal worker. It was as much fun as you could have in a pub in Brighton, despite a suspiciously sticky table and a carpet so grubby it was only one biological leap from being able to order its own drink.
We left, despite my advice, much later than was sensible and tottered back to our hotel – as quintessential a seaside hotel as you could get: well past its prime and in need of a serious cash injection, but still breathing because it faced out towards the Channel and the salt stripped, graveyard bones of the original pier, and somehow just about managing to look less awful than some of the competitors. Being Brighton the reasonably recent bathroom refurb did not offer a stand up shower but instead a bath to share with a Jacuzzi function and doubtless also the vapour trails of many a sordid act locked into the silicone sealant. Our bath was hot, foamy and mercifully quick and then followed by a morning stroll along the sea front to the replacement pier which, shock horror, could also do with a bit of TLC. I’ve never really understood piers; I don’t get the appeal except a slightly stiffer breeze and an increased likelihood of gull swoop. Bracing sea air is all very well but when it’s accompanied by the smell of chip fat and what might have been semen the health benefits start to be questionable.
I liked Brighton. Very much. Enough to want to go back again someday at least. It oversells itself, or perhaps I mean it punches above its weight; whichever seems more like a complement. This is no quaint seaside resort with pensioners in wheelchairs gazing out to sea as their hands, resting on the tartan rugs across their knees slowly turn blue and quiver gently in the salty air. Brighton is about fun, that’s the big draw, but it’s a fun that can be measured favourably only because everywhere else is so bloody miserable. And because of this Brighton can still charge a fortune and just about get away with it. It certainly needs a proper mop and polish (I suspect the waxing has already been done) but then I wonder if that might ruin it. Brighton is a dirty weekend with a Cornetto and a hand job and if you turned it into Lyme Regis you’d just have a string of tea rooms, a stale scone and The Daily Telegraph. Better to have the buzz it has right now and then why not enjoy it? In a couple of weeks it will start to slowly turn grey and damp and then grey and cold and damp and it won’t see a lot of much going on until the spring. We timed it right and got in just in time and I am happy to say I was wrong – I’d recommend Brighton to anyone, anytime, but you might just want to wash your hands when you get home. And that’s got nothing to do with that Covid thing.
G B Hewitt. 23.09.2020