Brighton Beach Memoir
New York–based, Anglo-Irish humorist Simon Doonan sings the praises of Great Britain's most glamorously gritty seaside town.
Last fall I bought one of those super-trendy Moncler puff jackets. This will really wow the folks, I remember thinking as I inserted myself into this somewhat age-inappropriate garment and hopped onto the platform at Brighton Station. I was home for the holidays in style, or so I thought. Later that same day: Terry Doonan and I are taking a wind-lashed constitutional along the Brighton Esplanade. Terry, an 82-year-old World War II vet, is my father. I have called him Terry for as long as I can remember. I was originally motivated to do this by a desire to limit the scope of his parental authority. Now I call him Terry because I think of him as a good friend.
"Nice jacket," says Terry.
"Isn't it just?" I reply, affecting a couple of smug Zoolander modeling poses.
SPLAT! A direct hit. Half a gallon of seagull poop.
"They say it's lucky!" says Terry, with undisguised amusement. After cleaning my jacket with paper napkins cadged from a fish-and-chips shop, I toss my unsalvageable cashmere scarf into the nearest trash bin. Seagull poop and cashmere. What a perfect metaphor for Brighton—the ultimate combination of elegance and grunge!
Like an aging socialite who has done something ever so slightly common, Brighton has, and always has had, a high-low chic. This city has been a louche getaway ever since the Prince Regent (later George IV) and his mistress, Mrs. Fitzherbert, were cavorting round the Royal Pavilion two centuries ago. Clandestine shenanigans are as much part of the Brighton landscape as the dreamy terraces of white Regency town houses that line the seafront. The doilies-and-scones gentility normally associated with British south-coast resorts such as Bournemouth and Worthing is totally missing from Brighton. In 1920, when T. S. Eliot was looking to inject a bit of moral decay into his masterwork, The Waste Land, he didn't have to look further than Brighton. Even as a 16-year-old schoolboy I understood that, when the unshaven Mr. Eugenides asks the protagonist "To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a weekend at the Metropole," he means the Hilton Brighton Metropole. A bit of slap 'n' tickle. A bit of hanky-panky. Playwright John Osborne said he could never have lunch in Brighton "without wanting to take a woman to bed in the afternoon." Keith Waterhouse, another Brit scribe, went further: he said that Brighton looks like a town that is "helping the police with their enquiries"—an age-old tabloid euphemism suggesting that the unsavory person in question is guilty of every crime under the sun and will probably burn in hell forever.
My visits to Brighton are never unsavory. They are, in fact, quite relentlessly savory. Literally. This is due to the fact that I spend the majority of my recreational time gormandizing with Terry Doonan. Having both been raised in the grim pre-gourmet Britain of bubble and squeak, we are anxious to take advantage of the full-throttle Nigella-ization of the Brighton food scene.
Terry's sardonic view of contemporary Britain makes him a stimulating dining companion. He grew up poor in Cardiff, then at 15 ran off and joined the Royal Air Force. After World War II and for the next 40 years, he worked for the BBC in the news department, monitoring Radio Moscow throughout the Cold War and beyond. His gritty journalistic background gives him carte blanche to say things like "What the bloody hell is truffle foam!" wherever and whenever he feels like it. After taking the red-eye from New York, it is my custom to drag Terry to the Real Eating Company, where fresh ingredients are slapped together with a Jamie Oliver-ian laissez-faire behind a gorgeous white Art Nouveau façade. Terry likes to linger over the fish cakes (providing, of course, that the waitress can secure some kind of cushion for his bum, which is bonier than of yore and dislikes being plonked on the ultra-groovy Bauhaus seats). I order the risotto, which the chef obligingly prepares sans beurre. "Fifty-five years old and worrying about your cholesterol! How the hell did that happen?" Terry says.
Sunset often finds Terry and me dining with my sister Shelagh—a Brighton resident of long standing and the reason the widowed Terry moved here from Belfast five years ago —at a fab place called Al Fresco. This reliable Italian joint is located in and around what appears to be a converted Art Deco lifeguard station. Dangling as it does over the pebbled beach, Al Fresco has staggering views of the world's largest kinetic art installation. I refer to the blackened and crumbling remains of the grand old West Pier. After almost 150 years of war, fire, and salt air, this charred and collapsing skeleton now resembles a massive Louise Bourgeois crustacean emerging from the sea. Portions of it tend to drop off in front of your very eyes while you're enjoying a bit of local bream. Ominous, much photographed clouds of swirling starlings add to the Gothic visuals.
On my most recent visit we ate at Blanch House, a preposterously cool boutique hotel in Kemp Town. Located near the other, nondisintegrating pier, Kemp Town is the Williamsburg/SoHo/Chelsea of Brighton. This is the kind of neighborhood where it's not unusual to see a gay woman walking a dog with one hand and rolling her own cigarette with the other, or a tranny in full sequined regalia bursting proudly out of a doorway. My sister lived in Kemp Town for many years, above a gay disco called the Zanzibar. (Whenever I hear the throb of a distant nightclub I think of those long nights spent above the pounding Zanzibar, wondering whether I would die or go insane or both.) The Blanch House bar is chock-full of Wallpaper–reading media types. These are the monied young moderns who have fled London in recent years, driving up real estate prices and making Brighton one of the top 10 most expensive places to live in the U.K., with residential properties running to $1,700 a square foot. The Blanch House restaurant is top-notch. The service is incredible and the all-white Clockwork Orange décor—hilariously incongruous in the context of the rest of the town—reeks of contemporary Las Vegas. The cuisine is a tad contrived in that wacky Vegas-y way, causing Terry to morph into Lady Bracknell, as in "Cardamom fritters?" "Earl Grey ice cream?" "A handbag?"
For a more down-to-earth repast, head to the Forager. "The ingredients are foraged from hedge-rows," I had made the mistake of telling Terry before our first visit. "I'm not eating badger roadkill with boiled privet," he had said. This humble gastropub serves contemporized, organic-y versions of English Sunday lunch—they build it all up into a wobbly Gordon Ramsay tower, with a Yorkshire pudding on the side—in an authentic environment. The foraged components are (much to Terry's relief that day) limited to things like fungi and dandelions. Unlike many gastropubs, this one has made a conscious effort not to lose its original pubbiness: housewives in halter tops showing off their Tenerife tans chat for hours about God knows what with blokes with pipes and dogs. Best news of all: by the time you read this, the new smoking ban will be in effect and you, dear reader, will not emerge from the Forager, as I did, smelling like a smoked kipper.
While Terry is a Forager fan, my favorite eatery is the Gallery Café at the Brighton Museum. Yes, they do a lovely organic chicken sandwich, but the real purpose of coming here is to check out the Moorish-inspired interior and the costume and art exhibits, which are invariably fabulous and, most importantly, rather minuscule. (Large museums always leave me feeling ignorant and overwhelmed.) After a quick skip around this idiosyncratic permanent collection—Alma-Tadema to Frank Stella—I feel like a total genius. And I still have plenty of energy left to attack the Royal Pavilion, which is right next door.
The Royal Pavilion is so totally insane—Queen Victoria thought it was unsuitable and was always trying to sell it to the town—that it makes every other monument in the world, from Neuschwanstein to Versailles, look pedestrian and boring. It is quite simply the most over-the-top publicly accessible building there is. Attempting to describe this orgy of hallucinogenic chinoiserie and exoticism is a complete waste of time. Just go!
History tells us that the Prince Regent spent so much time lolling around the Pavilion and amusing his bouche that he became hideously fat. He relied on massive amounts of corsetry to maintain even the suggestion of a normal shape. The same would happen to me in Brighton if I did not jog. To offset the gastronomical indulgences I take a long run every day along the Esplanade. There are two trails to choose from: I call them the Cate Blanchett and the Heather Mills. The Cate Blanchett involves running—or walking or biking or even skipping—east as far as the notorious nudist beach and the Brighton Marina. Cate Blanchett's former house—I'm not exactly sure which one it is, but I know it's there somewhere because it was pictured in the tabloids when a crane was delivering a massive marble bathtub through her front window a couple of years back—is located in one of the beautiful crescents on your left. The Heather Mills leads west, past the crumbling West Pier and miles and miles of gorgeous architecture until you reach a cluster of white houses with direct beach access and can run no farther. You are now at the Malibu of Brighton, the former home of former happy couple Sir Paul McCartney and Heather "Dancing with the Stars" Mills McCartney. Heather still spends time in Brighton and is frequently spotted riding a bicycle along the Esplanade. (One of the great pleasures of visiting Brighton is getting to say the word esplanade over and over again.)
Between eating and jogging there is little time for shopping, which is just as well, since there is not much to buy. This does not mean that you should not take the time to slog through The Lanes and the North Laine, with their charming alleyways of bijoux boutiques and art galleries. Though the strong British pound and the globalization of retail have sucked the fun out of vacation shopping, there is no denying that wandering around the stores is still the best way to mingle with the locals and catch those great snippets of Joe Orton dialogue. The best eavesdropping can be done in Café Revive (you'll find one in almost every Marks & Spencer, including the one here, opposite Churchill Square). Two of my recent overheards: "I draw the line at digging out me own corns, don't you?" and "Our Lilly had it all taken away last week, bless her."
When is the best time to visit Brighton?Much as I love Terry and Shelagh's adopted city, I have to admit it's a bit grim in the winter. May is my preferred month: a visit will coincide with the Brighton Festival and related arts events and carnivals, one of which prominently showcases a mysterious troupe called the Lady Boys of Bangkok. I have yet to visit Brighton in the spring without being assaulted by ubiquitous posters adorned with images of bejeweled Lady Boys. When I asked my sister who the target audience for this show was, she replied, "Hen nights. It's the new Chippendales."
Where to stay?If you are a high-maintenance Four Seasons–loving kind of person, you may prefer to commute from a luxe hostelry in London. (The trip from Victoria to Brighton takes less than an hour and provides endless opportunities for cell-phone eavesdropping.) Less demanding tourists may happily opt for T. S. Eliot's Metropole. Be sure to ask for a front room with a sea view, or you'll end up staring into a car park. If you are a big Thatcher fan, there's always the historic neighboring De Vere Grand. (Remember the IRA bombing that nearly did Maggie in?) Glamour-seeking, boutique-hotel lovers should stay at Drakes, on Marine Parade, which has those oval bathtubs like the one Cate Blanchett was craning into her house, or the aforementioned Blanch House, which offers, among other accommodations, a themed room called Boogie Nights.
What to wear?Despite its penchant for questionable behavior and flashes of cheek, Brighton has always been a stylish town. A dollop of fashion panache is much appreciated. Just make sure you bring a Windex-able outer garment. You never know when the seagulls are going to show their appreciation, too.
With its blend of scruffiness and elegance, Brighton, as they say, gives great camera. The town's shabby-chic glory is showcased in these four films.
Brighton Rock (1947) Based on the Graham Greene novel and starring a young Richard Attenborough, this tale of gangs unfolds in the very un-resorty underworld of Brighton's flophouses and rowdy pubs.
Quadrophenia (1979) Brighton is the scene of a 1960's youthquake in this hormone-driven tale of brawling mods and rockers. Bonus: a primal-scream sound track featuring The Who.
Mona Lisa (1986) Directed by Neil Jordan, this atmospheric drama about a high-end call girl and her dim-witted chauffeur may be mostly set in London, but the seafront locations—and the sleaze-tinged romance—are pure Brighton.
Wish You Were Here (1987) Brit director David Leland's postwar coming-of-age story (which briefly made "Emily Lloyd" a far more recognized name than "Brighton") was filmed in town.
Trains depart from London's Victoria Station twice every hour for the 50-minute ride to Brighton (nationalrail.co.uk ). By car, the town is 45 minutes from London on the M25 motorway. For more information, go to visitbrighton.com.
Where to Stay
17 Atlingworth St.; 44-1273/603-504; blanchhouse.co.uk; doubles from $265.
43–44 Marine Parade; 44-1273/696-934; drakesof brighton.com; doubles from $195.
Hilton Brighton Metropole 106 King's Rd.; 44-1273/775-432; hilton.com; doubles from $160.
Where to Eat
Milkmaid Pavilion, King's Road Arches; 44-1273/206-523; balfresco-brighton.co.uk; dinner for two $120.
Marks & Spencer, 195 Western Rd.; 44-1273/748-128; marksandspencer.com; lunch for two $35.
3 Stirling Place, Hove; 44-1273/733-134; lunch for two $75.
Real Eating Company
86–87 Western Rd., Hove; 44-1273/221-444; real-eating.co.uk; lunch for two $95.
What to See
Royal Pavilion Gardens; 44-1273/292-882; brighton.virtualmuseum.info.
The Lanes and the North Laine
Royal Pavilion Brighton
King's Rd.; 44-1273/321-499; westpier.co.uk.