I have been thinking about Hove a fair amount recently. This is not a sentence I expected to be writing in the autumn of my life. Then again, with the alleged link between old age and Hove – it is said to be packed with the retired – it seems inevitable. For those who don’t know my neck of the woods, Brighton and Hove are two distinct towns which happen to be run by a unitary authority; and there is no gap between the two. An under-informed newcomer to the area would blink if told that the two are different not only in name but in spirit.
But the longer I live here, the more the Geist of Hove asserts itself; or, the more able I am to tune into it. I live about three streets away from its western border, and each time I cross it – to visit a friend, to go to the butcher or the man who cannot repair my watch – I feel as though I have crossed an invisible portal, but one which is palpable and strong, like that between Mordor and the rest of Middle Earth. One does not simply walk into Hove.
Well, one does. It’s not nearly as bad as Mordor, but something changes whenever I walk past Boundary Passage, the twitten that separates the two towns on the northern side of the main road. (Twitten: local dialect for “alleyway”. Don’t say this column doesn’t teach you anything.) The shift is from fun-packed Brighton to genteel and faintly snobbish Hove. Laurence Olivier, when a resident there, is said to have been the one who introduced the term “Hove, actually” to make it clear which side of the border he lived on – a joke that has become so hackneyed that it’s not even said any more. Perhaps because of the unbearable film Love, Actually, which now I come to think of it not only has an execrable script but an execrable title.
During my last excursion to the place, which took me in deeper than I had ever been before – about a mile – I amused myself by substituting the word “Hove” for “love” in titles of popular songs or lines of poetry. “Hove Me Do”. “When You’re in Hove with a Beautiful Woman”. “Hove is not Hove/Which alters when it alteration finds.” I stopped doing this when I remembered that bloody film.
It wasn’t always like this. In the early years of the 19th century, there was a pitched battle between smugglers – Hove was brimming with them in those days – and excisemen, whom the smugglers successfully fought off. The authorities responded by building a customs house next door to the pub where the smugglers did most of their business. And The Man won: a mere 200 years later, Hove is a byword for propriety, while Brighton is… well, Brighton.
I struggle to imagine what kind of crimes are committed in Hove. I suspect a very white-collar version of smuggling: fiddling your taxes or expenses, that kind of thing. In Brighton the crimes are so frequent and baroque that I imagine it is quite hard to get arrested. Go further east, and you come to Kemp Town, which could rename itself Crazytown without many of the residents objecting. (I strongly recommend, if you can get hold of a copy, Ian Marchant’s novel In Southern Waters, a picaresque work that beautifully captures the atmosphere of the place.) Needless to say, when I first visited Kemp Town, I felt instantly at home, whereas in Hove I feel the twitching of a thousand curtains, a thousand people saying “Tsk”. We are conceived in Kemp Town; we live in Brighton; we die in Hove.
I think about this after a phone call with my mother. I am not allowed to say how old she is, but it falls under the category “f*** me, that’s old”. She still has her wits about her but what with one thing and another, conversations with her tend to revolve around the same subjects until something takes them into a new area. One of the questions she always asks me is, after nearly three years here, “So where are you living now?” “Brighton.” “Do you like it there?” “Very much.” “Do you think you’ll die there?” This isn’t exactly how she puts it but I’m not an idiot, I can catch her drift. Not that I need her help to hear the roar from time’s winged chariot as it closes in on me.
I think some part of her question is based upon her cosmopolitanism; the two places she has lived in since leaving her childhood home, New York City and London, have made it hard for her to see the point of anywhere else, with the possible exception of Paris. Until as recently as 2017 I would have agreed with her; but then London spat me out, so screw London. I have done the thought experiment of going back to live there and I think to myself, “You know what? I don’t think I would.” I mean, come on, I’m looking out of the window at a golden twilight, the sea darkening in the near distance. Gawping at this view over the past year and a third has done a lot to soothe the soul.
But would I die here? I don’t know. I don’t really want to think about it. But I might haul myself from my deathbed one day just so I could stagger past Boundary Passage, just to make a point.
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed