Sussex
Brighton rocks

It's the grande dame of seaside resorts, a place synonymous with the dirty weekend, bank holidays and pleasure palaces. Julie Burchill on a town that's always up for it

Julie Burchill
Saturday August 28, 1999
The Guardian

Sometimes you got dragged into a story yourself and when you finally woke up out of Brighton, somewhere back in the rest of England, you wondered whether it had been true, or whether someone had been stringing you along. And then you realised that it didn't matter. Brighton was the sum of its stories.

As Nigel Richardson observed in Breakfast In Brighton: "There were old stories - crinolines and cat-gut condoms - and public stories - mods and rockers and dirty weekends - and as many private stories as pebbles on the beach, for everyone you met had a yarn about Brighton.

"Everyone got worked up at the mention of the place, saw seagulls wheeling, saw again the glittering light, and called up a sinuous narrative in which, likely as not, sex hung heavy in the air."

Jarvis Cocker, long ago, sang about Sheffield Sex City, but the sexiest place in England is, without doubt, Brighton, my adoptive hometown of four years. Not only is it synonymous with the Dirty Weekend as no other seaside resort, but 99% of the people you meet here came for a dirty weekend and never went home.

It is a town of runaways, who went as far to the edge of England as they could without fleeing into exile, and hideaways - the tiny "twittern" passages which link the streets in the Old Town, and which are so convenient to dodge into if you're out walking with someone you shouldn't be. Sometimes, in the summer, everyone seems young and tall and a brilliant kisser. This is a town where no one need go without.

Every person who loves Brighton gets a fierce thrill of almost sexual possessiveness when, having escaped the armpits of London, the soft underbelly of Surrey gives way to the plushness of the Downs - concealing, then revealing, glistening Brighton itself, the glinting pink jewel in the crown of Sussex. It is typical of Brighton that it should choose as its setting the county of Sussex - unlike certain other Home Counties, so lovely, so soft, and relatively unblemished by small minds and sour overspill. And also, it's got "sex" in it.

Forget all those London-on-sea quips; Brighton's character is the complete opposite of the Smoke's. London is less a city than a repository of ambition, and living over the shop, as it were, makes people soul-sick after a while.

But Brighton is a machine for living in, for thriving rather than surviving. (Nevertheless, thousands of Brightonians are forced up into the belly of the beast every day in order to maintain their lifestyle: "London prices, Brighton wages" is one of the few complaints you will ever hear about this town.)

But the relief on their faces when they pour off the south-bound trains between six and eight every evening is wonderful to see; no matter how many times they've made the journey, they still look like refugees arriving in the Promised Land. The thrill of escaping London never wears off. This may be because, even under the sun, London looks like a city with permanent post-coital triste, while even shimmering in the rain Brighton looks like a town recovering from a multiple orgasm.

Brighton swallows things; its character is so robust, so rollicking, that a lot of what we call Brighton isn't really so. Comic Steve Coogan and Norman Cook/Fat Boy Slim live on Shoreham Beach ("Millionaires' Row"), which is way to the west of Hove (where I live), but we all say we live in Brighton. To the east, the most beautiful lido in Britain - Saltdean - is officially another town, but it feels like Brighton: a place in the sun, eternally up for it.

There is social deprivation in Brighton, as there is anywhere, but it is a fact that things are easier here if you're homeless or a refugee. That's why the old Art Deco Embassy Court building is full of heartbreakingly handsome Somalis, and why the streets are scattered with beggars who found London too harsh. Brighton even has a nicer class of panhandler than London: I've never encountered that "Give me your money!" crap they pull up there, and if you hand over more than a couple of quid they're very likely to query: "Are you sure?" Even the Whitehawk Estate, supposedly the roughest place in town, sits high on a hill next to the famous racecourse, with a heart-stopping view of the sea.

Brighton isn't a bit flat, not like Norfolk; it's all ups and downs, valleys and views. My friend Laura says there are two streets in Brighton that are literally impossible to walk up unless you have an athlete's stamina because they are so steep.

The most dramatic example of this comes 15 minutes' drive from the centre of town, in a place on the Downs called Devil's Dyke (no jokes, please), where you can see scores of tiny towns spread out like patchwork. You get there by going up Dyke Road, which was the cause of much merriment to my friends when I first came to live here, and which, unbelievably, finishes in Queen's Square. Only in Brighton.

Our gay friends, with their lovely pink pounds, are responsible for much of Brighton's renaissance, gay sex and illicit straight sex buoying up the economy without missing a beat. Although it is most obvious along the esplanade between the two piers and around the pubs and clubs of Kemptown, know locally as "Camptown", on a hot evening, it is fair to say that most of Brighton is devoted to pleasure.

After the closing of Shoreham Docks and the marginalising of the fishermen, Brighton is very much a place that is rather than does . Like all places where people have lost their means of production and have been told to concentrate on providing rest and recreation, a slightly hysterical, self-immolating air can hang over the town sometimes, a feeding frenzy of fun which can feel not quite wholesome.

All along the Western Road and North Street - the two thoroughfares that link Hove at the one end to the Palace Pier at the other - post offices and banks are turning into restaurants by the dozen.

But as the closing steps in the danse macabre of capitalism grind on, I can't think of a better place to be. And, despite the fashionable veneer, there really is something for everyone of the five million tourists who spend more than £150 million here every year. The two piers sum up the two other Brightons you can always find here, apart from the pubs, clubs and drugs epicentre of the southern hemisphere.

The Palace Pier represents the family day-out Brighton, which it would be such a shame to lose, and which gazes wide-eyed at the kissing seahorses and the feedable manta rays in the Sea Life Centre before being sick down its Stussy top after going on the Terminator after one too many toffee apples.

The Volks Electric Railway, just past the Palace Pier, makes a 15-minute journey between the raucous, jolly day-tripper's Brighton and, at the other end, what I think of as the Ghost Brighton, scruffy and deserted and untouched by the huge Lottery windfall which has so changed the seafront between the piers.

Ending at the deserted Aquarium, past the long-closed Black Rock Lido, almost reaching the hellish Marina, where the factory outlet shop is king, passing the allegedly nudist beach where sad old men sit and look at lonely young men behind a built-up shingle to protect them from the prying eyes of the clothed, this is the one part of Brighton that could happily have played host to one of those arch-miserabilist eighties videos by the Smiths or the Pet Shop boys.

No one likes it here - except me - and it doesn't go out of its way to attract anyone. Yet, as journalist Charlotte Raven has pointed out, its neglect gives it a bleak beauty which the stage-managed seafront - the Artists' Quarter, the Fishing Quarter, the volleyball courts, performance area and art works - no longer has, making it a supreme prompt for human narratives in all their richness and strangeness. At this end of the esplanade, you'll also find Duke's Mound - a vast sloping piece of scrubland where Dorothy's Friends gather after dark.

At the other end of the Brighton seafront, just before Hove's manicured lawns take over, stands the West Pier, the grande dame of Ghost Brighton. This is the only Grade 1-listed pier in the country; its continued dereliction is a monument to the mañana mentality that can make Brighton both refreshing and depressing.

Opened in 1866, it was the pleasure palace of the South Coast, as Patrick Hamilton described it in his first great novel, The West Pier. Messed about with over the centuries and closed completely in 1975, it has been a source of bitterness and recrimination in this easy-going town ever since. A couple of years ago, there was talk that restaurateur Oliver Peyton was going to buy it, and a £30 million restoration programme is in place, but as time passes it is becoming less of an issue.

Part of Brighton's specialness lies in a certain amount of noble rot, and perhaps the West Pier remaining as it is marks us out as being something more than a busy, bustling, go-ahead little town, like Swindon, Reading or Milton Keynes.

The West Pier, and Brighton itself, is most affecting in the early morning, just before the dustcarts go out; then the town really does look like a raddled, ageing beauty, making itself ready to face the day after a hard night's entertaining.

But like the alley cat Mehitabel, Brighton is toujours gai, and never sits around wringing its hands over what might have been. There are thousands of trippers coming in search of food and sex, and Brighton must trowel on the slap and make sure they get its good side.

Apart from London, Brighton has more restaurants per person than anywhere else in the country, and there is a fair amount of chi-chi cheesiness in the food racket here as there is in many elements of Brighton life. When I first came here, I lived in the Lanes, the mesh of 30 or so streets that make up the ravishing Old Town. You could buy a thousand types of sapphire bracelet there - but you couldn't get hold of a lightbulb.

For the same reason, avoid anything with a French handle and instead go to Blind Lemon Alley in Middle Street for the tiniest room and the most sumptuous burgers; English's in East Street for seafood and bickering on the red-velvet banquettes, feeling like Larry Olivier and Vivien Leigh; Sun Bo Seng, also in East Street, for the best Chinese (can you resist Drunken Fish and Four Heavenly Vegetables?); and The Latin in the Lanes to experience a truly great restaurant which just happens to be Italian yet is not an Italian restaurant.

Preston Street, off the seafront, where every address is a restaurant, is also the location of Nishat, the best Indian and Goan food outside of India or Goa, but they restrict them selves to takeaways and deliveries only. If you really cannot resist a starched-napkins-and-sommelier experience, avoid the intimate botes and book a table at the Arundal restaurant in the Metropole Hotel, which is as good as that particular schtick gets.

While we're on the subject of the Metropole Hotel, a word to the wise: if you're looking for a nice, big, swanky seafront hotel for the weekend, stay here. Don't stay at the Grand. The Grand has five stars, but I've yet to find out what they're for. The food is bog-standard, the rooms drab and poncey and the attitude of the staff suggests they trained at the Hyacinth Bucket School for Jumped-Up Jobsworths.

The world's great hotels have one thing in common: they treat civilians like stars, and stars like civilians - my friend, wearing a Marks & Spencer dress, was once checking into a tiny room at Blakes of Kensington when Jack Nicholson shoved in front of her. The girl behind the desk apparently fixed him with the hardest of stares and said: "Sir, the lady was first, I believe." That wouldn't happen at The Grand; the minute you walk through the door, they've got your salary down to the last 10p, and treat you accordingly. I stayed in the Presidential Suite there once, and words fail me - the carpet, which was frayed, ended under the sofa, which looked like something my grandma would have chucked out. There was no balcony! Truly, a seafront room without a balcony is a crime against both geometry and theology.

The Presidential Suite at the Ramada, on the other hand, is stunning, red-and-black lacquer Chinoise, with a bath big enough to entertain teen band S Club 7 in. But like The Grand, it is let down by its alleged "swimming pool" - "hip bath" more like it. I have never seen a swimming pool smaller than The Grand's - swim there with a stranger of the opposite sex, and it's hard to believe you won't get pregnant.

The pool at the Metropole, on the other hand, is gorgeous, with a beautiful mural of the seafront at one end. Or, if you fancy a more intimate billet, stay at the Sussex Arts Club in Ship Street; if you ask for the Claremont Room, you can sleep in the very best bed where I laid my head (and then some) for the first two years of my life here.

As for the best sex in Brighton - what can I say, kids? I'm taken. But if I see you at The Blue Parrot, you can always buy me a drink. Ciao!

The practicals

Trains from London to Brighton take 50 minutes from Victoria. Call National Rail Enquiries (0345 484950) for prices and journey details from connecting towns. Double rooms at The Sussex Arts Club (01273 727371) cost from 80 per night, the Stakis Brighton Metropole (01273 775432) from 118 per night at weekends.

Useful links
This is Brighton provided by the Brighton Evening Argus
Guide to Gay Brighton
Jon's page on Brighton

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