The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Land + People

With its hotels of pink and saffron and grey stucco, its delicate ironwork balconies, its famous lanes and its snug flirtatious restaurants for savouring shellfish Brighton: is violently brought to life by the sea.

Thundering waves of typhoon force roar across the Promenade and shatter the milliner’s windows on the other side of the road. But no one is upset — quite the reverse. Hardy citizens take the opportunity of buttoning themselves into tarpaulins and going for a breathless windy walk to watch the spectacle. Such storms never keep the all-the-year-round bathers from their morning dip, and the Christmas Day bathers are a popular objective for morning walkers on their way to Christmas service.

On the Brighton piers all periods meet and jostle joyfully. Here, way out above the roaring sea are booths which hide fortune tellers, and a-real live theatre playing repertoire. The piers were created for the English en féte, and what the English en féte want is to eat shellfish and candyfloss and toffee apples in the open air in a high wind, and spend their pennies having their fortunes told and being agreeably hortified by the old-fashroned slot-machine performances. Though there are American “Whirligigs’’ and “Crackerjacks’’ the crowds around the old English machine do not diminish. Some of these “What-the-Butler-Saw’’ models have been in operation eighty years or so and are carefully wound up by hand by the attendant.

Fortune-telling never fails to inveigle us. Here you may consult the Lady Palmist, a lovely four-inch doll in a handsomely appointed 1870 sitting-room. Madame Binnie, six loot tall and real will give you a full reading over a red table, hidden, but not completely, behind Nottingham Lace curtains, where a drooping stuffed cockatoo perches. Or, if you want to be modern, you can invest in twopennyworth of “Electric Crystal Gazer’’ or “Ultramodern automatic Palmistry’’ where electric lights flash up and down as you put your hand on a bed of tickling steel knobs.

On the Promenade in the wide avenues running down to the sea, cheap cafes and top restaurants flourish next door to each other; puce-pink Brighton Rock is sold beside subtle Balanciaga models. Many Brighton pubs and places of entertainment date from the 1870s and have their names and attributes spelled out in splendid gilt lettering of a quality and style seen nowhere else. It can only be described as Brighton-Mermaid.

Besides the eighteenth-century squares and the Regency terraces, besides the modern bars and new blocks of spanking up-to-date flats, Brighton still keeps her opulent Edwardian hotels. Here in the vast, high-ceilinged rooms the mantle-pieces are set fifteen feet up the walls and surmounted by vast mirrors, which reflect each other across the distances. Waiters -amble. The armchairs are suffocatingly comfortable. Life comes to a drowsy standstill. Here one may see amazing relics of the British Empire: purple-faced ex-generals with ramrod spines and stern faded eyes which have forgotten how to focus; tall imperious old ladies who came out well before 1900, marching like Caesar’s armies in the morning room, followed by their nurses who look in much less robust health than their octogenarian charges.

The waiters fly to serve such women, who have the steely eye of command and for whom the modern servantless England does not exist. On bracing Brighton air they outlive all their families.

Brighton continues to attract artists. Turner worked here for years and there must be some of his watercolours lying unrecognised in dusty Brighton attics, for he was as careless as he was prolific.

All Brighton turns out to watch the annual Old Crocks Rally — the London to Brighton Veteran Car Race. Aged and infant, film stars, and cafe waitresses, politicians and street photographers, all throng the Promenade to watch the first gallant arrival shoot and puff past the tape. We understand perfectly (do they?) why contestants should come all the way .from South Africa and New York to take part. This is an Occasion.

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