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Brighton Beach in England

Martin Morrell

Photo: Martin Morrell

Drako's short-term memory was damaged as the result of two serious car accidents. "The tape recorder in my head has been broken since my second coma," he told me. "I love saying that: 'My second coma.' " He leaves notes around the flat reminding himself to carry out routine tasks, such as feeding his cat, Sado. The most important thing he must remember has been tattooed on his arm. TRUST UNCONDITIONAL ABSOLUTE, it reads—words he said came to him as he emerged from the second coma. Because of his remarkable appearance and his damaged memory, I suspect it would be impossible for him to live by any other code.

"Drako turns heads in Brighton," said one of his friends. "But he's safe here. He'd be stoned to death in small-town England."

In a sense, this is Brighton's perfect moment. The city is striking a temporary and almost ideal balance between its bohemian identity and the tendency toward gentrification that brings better restaurants and hotels in its wake.

LIKE ALL SEASIDE TOWNS IN BRITAIN, Brighton is awash with indistinguishable bed-and-breakfasts, but the fruits of its current boom are sleek new town-house hotels such as Nineteen, and ingenious, witty establishments like the Hotel Pelirocco. With its themed rooms, the Pelirocco continues the town's enduring motifs of humor, sexual license, and frivolity—I stayed in Lenny Beige's Love Palace, designed by a spoof lounge crooner. It had a velveteen bedspread and a copy of The Joy of Sex placed thoughtfully on the bedside table. Another room, Betty's Boudoir, comes complete with a leopard-skin bedspread and a tub built for two.

Brightonians wince when you say "dirty weekend," but the phrase is as much a part of the city's folklore as Greene's novel or the pavilion, evoking the image of an adulterous couple signing false names in a hotel ledger for a seaside rendezvous. In fact, Brighton's tawdry side is playful and unserious. There's a long resort tradition of "naughty" postcards, which usually involve double entendres and cartoons of buxom women.

Playful sexuality, individualism, and fanatical concern with appearance are all elements at Vavavoom!, a Brighton burlesque show that performs at different spots around the city. Its founder, Stella Starr, organizes events based on camp subjects like Voodoo or James Bond. "For the Biblical Epic evening I did the dance of the seven veils with a papier-mâché head of John the Baptist on a plate," Stella told me with a tinkling laugh. At another event, she danced on a life-sized model of King Kong's palm and concluded the set by playing the bongos with her breasts. But the ingenuity of the organizers is consistently matched by that of the clubbers who turn up in costume. At an Undersea World event, a woman dressed as a mermaid was carried in by six bearers, swishing her mechanical tail. "I've no idea who she was!" Stella said. "She didn't stand up the whole evening."

Brightonians worry that true bohemians are being priced out as the city grows more and more fashionable. I don't think they should panic just yet. At one Vavavoom! night, a taxi driver dropped off his fare and liked what he saw so much that he went home, got changed, and came back. "He had on a dress with puffy sleeves, fluffy slippers, and a flower in his hair," Stella said, bemused. "I can't imagine where he got it all from."

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