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Brighton Beach in England

Martin Morrell

Photo: Martin Morrell

The early 19th century was a rather permissive phase in British history, and Brighton epitomized it. In turn, the period was the making of Brighton. The enduring legacy of those times is Brighton's reputation as a place dedicated to fun. The prince gathered smart and entertaining people around him. The royal circle was known for its profligacy and absurd bets: two of George's associates once had a wager over who could eat more. Being true nobles, they didn't deign to compete themselves, but laid money on the eating abilities of two servants. One of the gentry was not even present at the match; he received a message informing him of the outcome: "Your man beat his antagonist by a pig and an apple pie."

They were also known for their style. One of the prince's favorites was Beau Brummell, the brightest of the Regency dandies. Brummell was said to be so fastidious about the cut of his clothes that he had one specialist make the fingers of his gloves and another do the thumbs.

AS IT HAPPENED, A NEW PLAY ABOUT BRUMMELL was being performed at Brighton's Theatre Royal the day I visited the pavilion. I bought a ticket and went, a little uncertainly. The omens were mixed. Brighton has a good reputation for the quality of its entertainment, and its arts festival, held each May, is the biggest in England. But I had heard nothing about the play. The auditorium was half-full. Worse, I was trapped in the middle of a row, with all avenues of escape cut off before the intermission. I needn't have worried. I was drawn into a funny and haunting drama that depicted Brummell as a curiously modern figure, famous above all for being famous, whose bequests to the sartorial world—starched neckcloths, foot straps to prevent trousers from creasing—were as influential as they were trivial. His fate was sealed when he slighted the prince after a falling-out. Pretending not to recognize the regent, Brummell asked one of the prince's companions, "Who's your fat friend?" The prince was very sensitive about his weight and never forgave Brummell, who died penniless in France in exile from his many creditors.

Coming out of the theater, I saw the domes and minarets of the pavilion illuminated against the night sky—and a couple of nearby palm trees struggling to survive the British spring. I walked back to my hotel along the waterfront, inhaling the sea air, glad that my bathing experiment was behind me. Two piers demarcate either end of Brighton's seafront—one is Palace Pier, the other the beautiful West Pier, which has been closed since 1970 and is crumbling into the waves as Brightonians figure out what to do with it. An electrical fault meant that the red fluorescent letters at the entrance to the pier spelled out WEST PIE.

The derelict pier has long been a symbol of the town's decay. While some feel its successful regeneration would complete the resurrection of Brighton, others have grown to love the pier just as it is: a giant model of Miss Havisham's mouse-infested wedding cake.

Brummell's heirs are the mods who have made the city their spiritual home. They first emerged in the 1960's, working-class youths with a penchant for flashy scooters and custom-made clothes. Today they are a small but visible presence in the city. At Jump the Gun, a shop on Gardner Street, the manager, Dizzi, continues to live by mod principles. He has an obsessive eye for fine tailoring and detail that would have made Brummell proud. Dizzi grows lyrical as he describes the side vents on a three-button suit.

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