Thursday, 31 August 2017

Brighton by Night

I first visited Brighton in 1975, as a stop on a long drive from Southampton (where I was still living with my parents) to South London (where I was weekending with a girl friend). We had a look at the sea front, and the still-impressive ornate West Pier, which at that time was closed but very much a candidate for a complete restoration, had the will and the money been there. It wasn't anything like the sad burnt-out skeleton (and offshore hazard) it now is!

But Brighton didn't strike me then (nor on revisits afterwards) as much of a place. It was disappointingly short on style and elegance. It seemed tired and tatty, and even sleazy. Winos and street beggars abounded. Rust, grime and peeling paint could be seen everywhere. It had the lively Palace Pier, but there was nothing very special in the way of shops or facilities. I felt it was trading way too much on its 1950s 'London-by-the-Sea' image. It was like a self-conscious Brighton Rock film set, and it was oh-so-easy to imagine illicit couples sneaking down here for a classic Dirty Weekend, with a daytime trip to the races included. You'd come here for an abortion. You'd come here to dispose of a murdered body in a suitcase.

Admittedly it was also the destination of the London-to-Brighton Vintage Car Rally each autumn, and another film, a charming one, Genevieve, sprang to mind. And there was of course the exotic and wonderful Brighton Pavilion - although the associations that went with that - the fat, petulant and spendthrift Prince Regent and his snobbish entourage, and his not-so-secret and adulterous liaison with Mrs Fitzherbert - couldn't be dismissed. Then there were the incongruous and dingy high-rise tower blocks that were to become even more sordid in later years. And associated with those, the menacing practices of landlords like Nicholas Van Hoogstraten. Brighton felt haunted by crime. You'd be careful here.

But it was still head-and-shoulders above every other South Coast resort, and a magnet for the well-off as well as the have-nothings. Plenty of people thought it an amazing place. A place where they could be free, and live as they liked. By the time I'd moved to Sussex in 1989, it was definitely on the up. Some new buildings had appeared. The Marina was fully-developed. The drunken and abusive winos had been moved on, although the sullen homeless still slept in odd corners in their malodorous sleeping bags, and begged aggressively at times. But the atmosphere wasn't dangerous any more. There was still street crime, but it was petty and not obviously organised. It had become a reasonable place for a night out, for hen parties, and tables for two in interesting restaurants. But I was glad that I didn't live there.

As the 1990s progressed, Brighton began to transform itself into a modern city with a definite appeal for the international tourist. And there was something else hitting the news. It had become the Gay Capital of the UK. And not only was it a place for gay people. There were other groups, such as Goths; and some of them were suddenly visible on the streets. If I saw any of them, I thought them very daring. Even in Brighton, it was still not quite the right time to be 'different'. And a few people did come to harm. I recall the murder of a gay man on the eastern sea front. Clearly it might still be unwise to walk alone in certain places after dark, whether gay or not. If visiting Brighton at night, one stuck to the well-lit city centre, and clearly safe places like the Pier and The Lanes.

I was still only an occasional visitor. I didn't become a regular one - using Brighton as my social and shopping hub - until late 2008. Then, with my old life disappearing, and with new friends to see, for a few years I travelled into Brighton at least once a week, sometimes three times.

But life moves on, and nowadays I don't socialise in Brighton more than twice a month, and I rarely go shopping there. People I once knew have dispersed to other cities, or to other sets of friends, and most of the old bonds have slackened. There are other places to shop in Sussex just as good. Some favourite haunts of mine, such as the Museum and Art Gallery, have begun to make a steep admission charge. But it's mainly because driving into Brighton, and getting parked, has become such a hassle. The city's 'green' policies seem designed to alienate car drivers, and discourage anybody from outside the city from going there. In short, Brighton is now Too Much Trouble, and I only visit it when I really feel I want to.

But I really wanted to the other evening. It had been a very hot day. I had stayed indoors all afternoon, to keep in the shade. Now it was cooling down a bit, though still very warm. I decided to leave my evening meal until late in the evening, and meanwhile go off to catch the sunset at the Devil's Dyke on the South Downs. This done, I drove on into Brighton. I didn't expect to park - it was the Late August Bank Holiday Sunday, after all! - but as it happens, I found a space to leave Fiona quite close to the sea front. OK then: the gods have willed it that I should have a space. Let's go with that.

I turned towards the Royal Pavilion first. It was beautifully lit up with yellow and mauve lights. Out came Tigerlily: I was going to have an orgy of photography, the camera on my phone being a remarkable low-light performer. Conditions were perfect for it.

Extraordinary. Even Indian tourists, taking pictures like me, were astonished. Remarkably, no persons walked into any of my pictures. I think the Royal Pavilion looks much better at night than during the daytime. It's such a pity that the splendid interior can't be photographed. They don't allow it. So misguided.

From here I strolled to the seafront, through part of The Lanes. It was seething with people, walking around, outside restaurants, spilling out of pubs. If you love life, and love buzz, it was intoxicating.

Some shops were open, but the big-name fashion shops were now shut for the day. Their window displays still made a good picture.

Then suddenly I came out onto the sea front, with the Palace Pier to my left and the western promenade to my right. At beach level, deafening noise drifted up from a string of club-like eating places. The lights of the Pier and the fairground carousels lit up the beach and the sea.

It was fascinating to look down on the revellers.

A sobering note was struck however by two armed police officers quietly patrolling along the promenade. I say 'armed' because they were both carrying - ready for firing - two automatic machine guns. It gave me a shock, and I wondered if they were hoaxing, but I quickly dismissed the idea. It was the Bank Holiday weekend. Brighton could so easily be a terrorist target. All those crowds... I shot them in the back as they passed.

It meant a return trip of over a mile, but I saw, in the distance at Hove, the new tall tower of British Airways i360, which is a big glass pod that carries paying customers up to the top of a very high concrete observation mast.

It opened last year, but I had never seen it close-up, nor finished, nor at night. It was worth the effort to see it in action. Despite the growing darkness, Tigerlily captured some nice shots as I drew closer. The pod travels up and down only very slowly, the 'flight' apparently taking 25 minutes. It was descending as I approached.

It looked exactly like a flying saucer making a landing.

On a clear night, the view from the top of the mast must be spectacular. I looked the price up on the British Airways i360 website. A 'senior' (a person aged at least sixty - that's me!) would pay £13.50 if queuing and paying cash on the day - as you might if wanting to make absolutely certain of fine weather for your 'flight' - or £12.15 in advance online, taking a chance on the weather. Well, as a one-off, if the night were clear, I'd be prepared to shell out £12 or £13 for the ride. You could take photos. (There would have been no deal if they didn't allow it, of course) I wondered what the precise connection with British Airways the airline was. The website explained that they were an independent company, but had struck a 'partnership' agreement with British Airways for five years, which allowed them to use the name and logo.

Well, this was a venture that had been long in the planning. It was a replacement for original plans to restore the adjacent West Pier, plans that had to be abandoned after the by-then shamefully decrepit pier was wrecked by a storm in 2001, and was subsequently the victim of a fire.

Having witnessed the 'landing', I walked back towards the very-much-with-us Palace Pier. On the way, a succession of big seafront hotels.

And at beach level, plenty of beautification and smartening-up. All done in the last year or two, surely.

But I also passed an old Victorian shelter that hadn't yet been tarted up, with broken glass; and, dimly silhouetted against the light from the Grand Hotel opposite, the outline of a man with a backpack.

He wouldn't necessarily be just resting his feet. He might be planning to use the shelter as his makeshift bedroom for the night.

And so to the Palace Pier. It was packed with people. What an atmosphere.

Here in a couple of pictures is the difference between places like Mablethorpe and Brighton. Mablethorpe:


No contest. I definitely know where I'd like to be, were I a mermaid! With these side-by-side photo opportunities, it pays to poke your face at the right hole, otherwise the results can be hilarious. It's not intended for two girls together, as here - not that it matters one bit, if you just want a laugh:

The Pier has it all. A view back across the lit-up sea to Brighton, for one thing:

It has places to eat, brash or half-posh.

It has horses.

It has cows. All kinds!

You can get your fortune told. Though unforeseen circumstances had made the fortune-teller close up for the night.

But this chappie was available. Zoltar speaks. A good man at the Brexit Negotiation Table, I'm thinking. Especially in that snazzy yellow blouse.

You can try your hand at one-armed bandits. Three of you together. (This is 'family entertainment' again)

You can win (they say 'collect') genuine 'shimmering' unicorns, in three different varieties:

How a furry unicorn can 'shimmer' beats me, but I'm scarcely an expert.

And of course there are the rides. Dodgems, driven by people I hope never to meet on the open road.

A traditional helter-skelter.

A fairy-tale carousel.

The queue is not for the carousel, but a gut-wrenching ride called Air Race. People queue for ages, and then pay big bucks, to ride on this. They'll regret it.

And here's another ride in the same vein. The saps.

I've recently discovered (at pilates) that pronounced up-and-down movement induces nausea and dizziness in me. It's akin to sea-sickness. Clearly I'd be mad to try any of these rides, and must henceforth and forever be only a spectator. Even a comparatively gentle ride through this establishment might make me puke...

...if I don't die first of abject cold fear. I rather fancy that Brighton Pier's sophisticated Horror Hotel is way more scary than Mablethorpe's yawn-provoking House of Terror.

You just know it is.

Further rides await, each more testing (some would say 'thrilling') than the last. The roller-coaster is one.

I've never been on a roller coaster in my life, but I know that I would black out and die. And who would care?

This next ride is the worst. The Booster. Four seats at each end of a long rotating bar that swoops around in a fashion designed to spray onlookers with vomit, pee and crap. And yet, people gleefully make their wills and get strapped in. Like this girl, who is doing it alone.

The horrible thing about this one is that having filled the seats at one end of the long bar, they hoick you up into the clouds while they fill up the other end.

So you are left high up there for several terrified minutes, as if they have forgotten all about you. 'What a great view you get,' some might say. But what if, like me, you have a phobia for heights? And must have your two feet firmly on the ground to remain sane? I'd be a gibbering, wimpering jelly up there. And then, just when you might be getting accustomed to it, the arm begins to move, and gathers speed, and...

How many Gs do they subject you to? How many before your heart gives out, or you become brain-damaged? Or at any rate you suffer so much internal injury from the appalling physical stresses that you are never the same again?

I turned away. I had to. In any case, I'd remembered those armed policemen. If there was going to be a bomb, or a shooting, it would start soon. Let's get away. It was with a sense of relief that I left the Pier behind. Across the road were two clubs that I'd not been to for a very long time. One was Bar Revenge. I'm sure it was called something else when I last went in there, just the once. It had been a scary experience. Lone men in sunglasses were scattered about in the semi-darkness, drinking quietly, fiercely watching the girls. You felt their hot eyes on you. You were very, very glad to be with friends and not alone. Now it seemed to have a different clientele.

Why was it called 'Bar Revenge'? Did you take your two-timing boyfriend or girlfriend in there to extract a satisfying retribution? Did you plot a dire retaliation against a friend who had turned against you? Next door was Charles Street, which I seem to remember used to be a venue for drag acts and the like. Back in early 2009, this might greet you at the door:

Now it seemed to be just an ordinary club, although the rainbow lighting suggested that Charles Street might still be a place for Brighton's LGBTQ community to gather:

It was just gone ten, and I was getting peckish. Time to go. I was wary of passers-by as I walked back to Fiona, but made it without problems. Twenty minutes later I was home. Within half an hour I was tucking into a steak dinner.

It had been a good way to spend an evening, but I wouldn't want to repeat it in a hurry. There's something not quite right about Brighton. It can excite you, but it doesn't put you at ease.