From a fun and a little seedy seaside town, to a banal reflection of what it once was, Mae Losasso tells the story of London-by-the-Sea, or Brighton, her hometown.
I’ve been having the same dream again: walking along Brighton’s promenade in a storm that’s so violent the sea has reached the road, waves arcing over panicked traffic, high enough to swallow the Regency crescents. At some dreamy point in all the chaos, I look over and see the West Pier, long-since reduced to a steely-framed skeleton, heave a last sorry breath and fold itself up like a deckchair. I’m sure a Freudian could interpret my dream, but I’m hardly interested in what it says about my psyche. Because every time I wake up from it, it’s the city I’m thinking about, washed, as it is, in a terrible sense of loss.
I’m that rare breed, Brighton-born-and-bred; the city’s in my bones. Over the last 29 years, I’ve come and gone, and I’ve witnessed the ways that Brighton has changed – small and large, for better and for worse. I’ve watched the carousel turning, wide-eyed plastic horses, teeth bared, stuck in the spin of candy floss and rock sticks, dirty weekends, Regency splendour, Indian palaces, bright lights, kitsch souvenirs, mods and rockers, gay bars and nightclubs, all churning to the sound of a 1950s fairground. Until this year.
Moving back in 2021, after months locked down in London, felt like an escape: fresh sea air blustering from the South, unspoilt downland rolling away to the North, and a warren of winding lanes and childhood memories stretching out between. Only, it wasn’t quite the city I remembered. Because Brighton, it turns out, has a pull for more than just the born-and-breds.
Sandwiched between sea and countryside, it’s little wonder that this so-called London-by-the-sea has come to represent an escape for huge numbers of people who spent 2020 locked into busy urban spaces. While flat-hunting, I stood in long queues for viewings (for viewings!), before offering over the asking price – for rent (for rent!).
I heard one woman describe how she and her partner had had to run from flat viewings to letting offices, with other couples running behind her, all desperate to lay claim to whatever desirable square footage they had encountered that morning.
I’ve seen anti-airbnb posters go up in the windows of terraced houses, as residents fear the loss of their community, while, just around the corner, bespoke company Airhost has set up shop, promising to make short term rentals hassle free. “Join the new breed of landlord,” the company urges, and “earn twice your rental income.”
And as homes transform silently into hotels, coffee shop franchises have moved into the spaces once occupied by funny little bead shops and punk stores that had been there since the 80s.
Another branch of The Ivy has wound its tendrils around what used to be the city’s biggest post office (at almost the same time, incidentally, that the popular gay karaoke and cabaret bar, Poison Ivy, closed its doors); and a brand-spanking new Soho House is underway on the seafront, a parasite clinging to the back of the Victorian aquarium.
So what, you’re thinking, who cares? Brighton’s just like every other city – it’s got to move with the times, it’s got to have its fair share of chains and franchises. And anyway, it should be happy to have a Soho House on the horizon! Perhaps; and then again, perhaps not.
Brighton’s always occupied an odd place on the map, and the recent usurpation of it by London values looks like a new and more insidious threat than your average urban renewal. Here, then, before the storm claims it, is my take on the city I call home – it’s past, it’s present, and its uncertain future.Array
A Dissertation on Seawater
The Brighton carousel (or some version of it) has been turning since the late 1700s, when the Prince Regent chose the seaside city as his fashionable getaway. Suffering from gout – brought on by excessive gluttony – Prinnie’s doctor advised, not a diet, but a dip in the sea.
He’d no doubt read the work of Dr Richard Russel, whose influential treatise, A Dissertation on the Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands, Particularly, the Scurvy, Jaundice, King’s Evil, Leprosy and the Glandular Consumption, advised sea-bathing, as well as the consumption of seawater, to treat all-manner of nasty, eighteenth century ailments.
Trailing in the wake of the Prince, the rich and famous flocked to Brighton. Within a matter of years, the tiny fishing village of Brighthelmstone was blossoming into a bustling town, its population soaring as theatres, taverns, assembly rooms, and markets began to line the emerging streets. In 1787, the Prince Regent commissioned the building of the Brighton Pavilion – a sweet, but conventional little neoclassical affair, erected to house the Prince’s parties and lavish gatherings.
But, before long, the conservative structure proved inadequate to the tastes of the excessive prince. In 1815 he called on starchitect of the day, John Nash – famous for remodelling London’s Regent Street – and asked for something a little more, well, exotic.
The result: a bizarre concoction of neoclassical elegance meets Indian splendour, all onion domes and minarets, crouching in well-kempt gardens and furnished with golden, Chinese-inspired interiors.
Little wonder, then, that Brighton would be forever dubbed an eccentric city. Over the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, its reputation shifted from a decorous, if gaudy, day-tripper destination (think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where “a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness […] the streets of that gay bathing-place […] crowded with the young and the gay”), to the national hotspot for dirty weekenders: a jaunt along the pier, a stick of rock to suck on (wink wink, nudge nudge), and a night at the Grand Hotel, before hopping back on the London-to-Brighton.
The evolution of the pleasure pier, in fact, played an important part in the Brighton story – from the Chain Pier of 1823, a rudimentary viewing platform; to the now-decaying West Pier, built in 1866 as a concert hall and decimated by arson in the early 2000s, just before a Lottery grant promised to save it from ruin; to the Palace Pier, a candy-floss and helter-skelter establishment, opened in 1899 and finally enjoying the sickly-sweet monopoly it always dreamed of.
By the middle of the twentieth century, Brighton was known for being fun, if a little seedy; a place you visited but never stayed in for too long, full of cheap, vaudevillian characters and two-bit gangsters brooding in suburban wastelands (think Pinky in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock).
A place called Moons
By the time I was born, in the early 90s, Brighton had shaken off some of its more insalubrious associations. The city was full of Guardian-reading artists living in Fiveways, Green-voting vegans living in Hanover (aka ‘Muesli Mountain’), animal rights activists (Anita Roddick had founded The Body Shop here in 1976) in Kemptown, and other, wilder, miscellanies.
Known as the ‘unofficial gay capital of the UK’, homosexuality wasn’t only accepted in Brighton when I was growing up, it was celebrated. That all sounds pretty standard today, especially by London standards, but it was all very Brighton when I was a kid. The city was doing its thing, in its own slightly weird, but exuberantly colourful, way.
These days, Brighton is often dubbed the country’s ‘hippest city’ (whatever that means) and, apparently, it’s ‘the happiest place to live in the UK’.
On hot weekends, when the city teems with people, it’s easy to forget you’re not on holiday; and midweek sea-swims, followed by a quiet coffee in the lanes, can feel like a mediterranean privilege.
And yet, though Brighton has been a fashionable destination for Londoners since the Prince Regent’s first foray down here in 1783, it’s never felt quite as London as it does now.
Even the swims and coffees don’t feel very Brighton. When I was growing up, the sea was murky, you never swam in it; and for coffee you went to a place called Moons – a tea shop really – that gave you mint imperials with the bill. People were rarely smart or high-flying in Brighton – they were hippies or ageing rockers, and they made a living running shops that sold nothing but cork, or beads, or chillies, or incense.
That funny gaudy carousel
One by one, many of those shops have closed; and that’s OK – such changes are part of any city’s evolution. Brighton itself has been in flux since the 18th century, growing and changing in myriad ways. But it’s always been Brighton; in some form or another, it’s always been that funny gaudy carousel, spinning to the tune of a certain out-of-time oddity.
And it’s that that’s changing now, with every Soho-style coffee shop, craft beer house, paddle-boarder, and British Airways-run attraction (I’m looking at you, i360). It’s not even the big chains – the Starbucks and the Prets and the Waterstones – that descended 20 years ago (though they’ve played their part), so much as the way that everything that was unique about Brighton has been packaged up and sold back to the city as hip and bougie and cool. It’s finally become the epithet that smug Brightoners have been using for years: London-by-the-sea.
Still, for all of the coffee shops and cocktail bars, the city money, and the mass-exodus from London, Brighton hasn’t lost its character just yet. A few of the old institutions cling on, against all probability – the falafel cafe, the record store, the comic shop and the flea markets – but one by one, they’re getting swept away in the storm of high rental prices, diminishing markets, and places like Glitch, a concept space meets hair salon meets houseplant shop meets avocado on toast, which opened last week.
I only hope the coming tempest is gentler than the one in my dreams – if not, Brighton itself may face the same hallowed existence as its once-glorious West Pier.
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