On an overcast day in early March I shed my clothes on Brighton's beach and slithered down the wet pebbles toward the sea, muttering to myself: This is madness. The air was cold and the water was grayish green—imagine the color of a caffè latte that has somehow been lost among the papers on your desk for a week or so. At least, I consoled myself, I didn't have to drink it. But was it clean?
"Oh, no, it's filthy," my companion Brian Behan said cheerily. "It's full of rubbish." Behan is 74 and has swum here naked every morning, rain or shine, for three decades. A playwright, controversialist, mayoral candidate, and the younger brother of the Irish literary hero Brendan Behan, he is typical of Brightonians inasmuch as he's not typical of anything.
"Do I have to put my head under?" I asked, wincing as the water reached my toes.
"Oh, you can't escape that. It's obligatory," he said. "Article One of the faith."
I counted to five, launched myself into the sea, took two strokes, and raised my head above the waves to scream. I think in that moment I relived part of my birth trauma. As I struggled back to shore, ice seemed to be congealing in my veins. I rubbed myself with a towel, and then I was filled with an unexpected sensation of well-being. I felt energized—as though I'd drunk six or seven shots of espresso.
After his swim, Behan's mane of white hair seemed curiously dry considering that he had been advocating total immersion. I didn't point this out. Instead I asked where he finds the motivation to keep swimming. "It sounds crazy," he said, "but I feel that if I stop swimming every day I'll die."
There may be something to this, I thought as we cycled back to town. Brian flirted with every woman we passed, with an energy that belied his age. "Why didn't you take a dip with us, sweetheart?The water was lovely." But the reason I'd wanted to go swimming with Brian is that his morning ritual is a link to the craze that brought Brighton into the modern age, and founded its reputation as a pleasure resort.
BRIGHTON IS UNDERGOING A RENAISSANCE. With something like 400 restaurants, it supposedly has the best food in England outside London. It is newly fashionable to live here, and last year Brighton and Hove (the new, official name) was awarded city status. It's a triumph and a vindication for a place that has been through hard times.
The Graham Greene novel Brighton Rock portrays the city in the 1930's, when rival gangs had made it a sinister and occasionally violent location. Even after it avoided domination by organized crime, Brighton could easily have fallen victim to a less glamorous but perhaps equally pernicious fate: that of being overshadowed by London, only 50 miles away. But the town has always had a robust identity. Cheaper than the capital, less sprawling, sunnier, more tolerant, and energized by its proximity to the sea, Brighton attracts eccentric and strong-minded people—like Behan. Its citizens also have something of a reputation for vanity and self-absorption. It's hard to convince Brightonians that their city of 250,000 is not in fact the center of the known world.
But London's louche seaside cousin, city of scandals, trysts, and intrigues, patron saint of the bohemian, was nothing but a tiny fishing village of no more than a thousand people until the 18th century—and it might have remained one if it hadn't been for sea bathing. If Behan and I had been swimming in the same spot 250 years earlier, we would have had no shortage of company. Bathing in the sea was the health craze of late-18th-century England. It was sparked by the quack doctor (and Brighton resident) Richard Russell, who in 1753 wrote a treatise extolling the health benefits of seawater. It's hard to imagine a modern analogue of Russell's cure (which was generally carried out in the cold winter months). Water as an element was more foreign to our underwashed ancestors than it is to us. You have to picture a modern health guru advancing the case for skydiving to understand how strange sea bathing must have seemed to Russell's contemporaries.