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Can Everyone Stop Slagging Off Brighton, Already?

17 October 2019

From Crime Reads:

It’s a sad fact, but from its earliest days as a resort in the late 18th century, the seaside town of Brighton has been treated pretty unkindly by literature, film and art. If I didn’t live down here on the South coast of England, I reckon that on hearing the name “Brighton” I would conjure up any number of depressing images, among which would be sad, guilty couples in Graham Greene novels coming to the out-of-season seaside to be even sadder and guiltier; characters in Carry On films sniggering over sexual innuendos on the Palace Pier; Walter Sickert’s defeatist pierrots performing in the garish Edwardian footlights; and Sixties mods and rockers in the film Quadrophenia brutally smashing deck-chairs over each other on the beach. But mostly, I suspect, I would think of Brighton’s famous fictional criminal underworld: of Bob Hoskins in the film Mona Lisa being chased by mobsters, and of the young Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock having his cheek slashed by a razor, and looking incredibly annoyed about it. As an outsider, I would think of Brighton and automatically wince at how tawdry it is. Somehow or other, that’s how it’s always been.

Nowadays, the observable reality of Brighton is somewhat at odds with this received notion. It’s a thriving seaside destination, home to many media types and rock icons, famous for being only 50 minutes on the fast train from London.

. . . .

So why, over two centuries, have writers consistently shaken their heads and warned the world against visiting this cheery resort? Writers have continually told us, both implicitly and explicitly: bad things happen in Brighton. Nowadays, the first thing anyone sees in bookshops down here is a wall of moody, sinister black-and-white images of Brighton landmarks as depicted on the bestselling crime novels of Peter James—books with foreboding titles such as Not Dead YetDead Simple, Dead Like You, and Not Dead Enough. We love Peter James, of course: he’s very popular, he’s well respected for his excellent research vis-à-vis police procedure, and he’s hugely admired for the way he keeps finding new ways of using the word “dead” in a book title. But for obvious reasons, he is not a great publicist for a pleasant, crime-free visit to the seaside. If you’ve ever picked up a book thinking, “I wonder if anyone actually dies in this?” it won’t have been a novel by Peter James.

The beware-Brighton cautionary note, however, predates Peter James by a couple of hundred years. It was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) that struck the first, heavy blow against the town, when the flighty young Lydia Bennet begged to visit Brighton and then fell almost automatically into sin, dragging her devastated family after her. Even before that, Dr Johnson had famously warned his friend Mrs Thrale, who owned a house in West Street, that living in Brighton would make you want to hang yourself, but good luck finding a tree. Thus, from the very beginning, it was somehow built into Brighton’s reputation that behind the thin, bright façade of the gay seafront lay dismal vice and despair. This was a town where immoral people came to get away with things; where no one was innocent. As the writer Keith Waterhouse so beautifully put it: “Brighton has the air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their inquiries.”

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4 Comments to “Can Everyone Stop Slagging Off Brighton, Already?”

  1. It’s forty years since I lived in Brighton and things have no doubt changed a lot but when I was there it was a rather staid and conservative place and definitely did not live up – or rather down – to its reputation in books and films.

    As for Lydia Bennet, the problem was never Brighton but the temporary camp full of redcoated officers. Not that Brighton was totally safe in regency days as a young lady was ill advised to find herself alone with the Prince Regent in his Chinoiserie palace.

    • As for Lydia Bennet, the problem was never Brighton but the temporary camp full of redcoated officers.

      That was my take. She could have gone anywhere: Manchester, London; it didn’t matter so long as there were hot officers.

      I didn’t realize Brighton was supposed to have any sort of a reputation. Besides Jane Austen, I only know the town from the Queen song, “Brighton Rock,” and I mainly just care about the rockin’ guitar solo. I have a weakness for guitar solos.

  2. To answer the original question, no, what fun would that be?

  3. Okay, this is weird. About a week ago and for no reason I can determine, YouTube started suggesting a bunch of documentaries about life in the UK in the early 1960s. One of the documentaries was about the Mod vs. Rockers “riots” on Brighton Beach of May 1964. Very strange to see the same thing pop up here.

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