Dr Johnson didn’t like Brighton. His friend Mrs Thrale had a house in West Street, and in the earliest days of Brighton’s popularity, more than 200 years ago, the Great Lexicographer would come to take salt-water baths in Pool Valley and be cantankerous beside the sea.
That same Pool Valley, interestingly, is now where the Jet Link bus to Gatwick and Heathrow turns round, while Mrs Thrale’s house in West Street jumps and winces to the beat of the Paradox Club. Oh yes: the venue for this year’s Labour Party conference is where it’s all happening. This self-styled “place to be” is currently in hot competition for city status, the seafront between the piers has been elegantly “Miamified”, the shops are great, the club scene healthily unhealthy, and the town boasts media companies, internet providers, an Arts Club with salsa nights, not to mention zooming property prices and a stampede of celebrities.
Yet somehow, despite all this seething activity – even when you know and love Brighton, and live here happily – you can still appreciate why Dr Johnson made his acid observation that Brighton is a place that makes you want to hang yourself but provides no trees from which to suspend the rope.
It is Brighton’s rising reputation as a magnet for famous people that irritates me. It seems rather belittling. If a town has to keep saying “We’ve got Derek Jameson, you know”, or even “I hear Steve Coogan’s moved down, but nobody I know has ever met him”, it is obviously having to try too hard. When I moved to Brighton six years ago, oddly enough it was not the access to Nick Berry and Dora Bryan that drew me here. Quite the reverse: I liked the anonymity and freedom of Brighton, the sense that people come and go – and leave no trace.
Surely it is no coincidence that we have a topographical feature called The Level, and indeed a famous band called the Levellers. Every day (and night) of its history, Brighton has dealt in supplying the basic entertainment of strangers, with absolutely no questions asked. The tide comes in, the tide goes out. Thus Brighton’s famous association with casual sex, lost weekends and dead bodies found in trunks; but thus also its contented community of anti-social writers bending the bean over the keyboard, happy to be left in peace.
But now it’s the sodding place to be, and all these famous people are turning up – how do we normal Brightonians deal with that? Does it make us proud and vindicated, or resentful and chippy? Well, some are proud. But me, I’m about as chippy as The Plaice to Eat on the August bank holiday.
Take the case of the magnificent Julie Burchill, who, since moving to Brighton, has seemingly never stopped writing about the joys of Saltdean Lido. Is anyone comfortable with this? Anyone who lives here? No. For one thing, such fanaticism contains the seeds of its own backlash, which is dead scary, because when Burchill decides she doesn’t like you any more, she can be really, really horrid. For another, her apparent assumption that Brighton has never seen a writer before, and that this is a small water-feature with just one large fish in it, makes the many other byline journalists in the town spit on the floor when you mention her name. When I asked the broadcaster Simon Fanshawe to mention a few of Brighton’s current celebrities, he obligingly faxed me a list, and what do you know, tee-hee, Burchill wasn’t on it. It was an omission that spoke volumes.
Life was much simpler when Brighton was the place not to be – when you told your friends you were moving there and they said: “For God’s sake, the house prices can’t be that good.” In those days, you had only to cope with Chris Eubank poncing about town – although that was strange enough, I grant you.
I will never forget my utter confusion at Madison Square Garden last year, when our famous Hove resident received a round of enthusiastic applause from the international boxing fraternity – because, blimey, in Brighton, we all run the other way.
Truly. That’s the learned response. “Quick, Chris Eubank’s coming! You dodge in that doorway, I’ll escape down this manhole cover!” From his security-gated mansion in Hove, Eubank makes majestic forays into town, you see – driving ostentatious American vehicles with polished chrome and novelty number plates (I KO) and leaping out when you least expect it. It’s very unnerving. The Brighton Evening Argus once ran a hilarious story about a local woman whose home had a damp patch resembling a well-known face. “I’ve Got Chris Eubank Coming Through My Wall” was the unforgettable headline. And although this was a spooky, one-in-a-million kind of occurrence, I reckon everyone in Brighton knew exactly how she felt.
So I hope and trust the likes of Steve Coogan and the Fast Show‘s Mark Williams choose Brighton as a place to disappear into. Perhaps that’s the real point behind the “place to be” campaign. Go to London to be famous (if you must); come back to Brighton just to “be”.
Fat Boy Slim is the Brighton paradigm. Ask yourself: do you really have any idea what he looks like? I once spent a train journey to London with Simon Fanshawe and a bloke introduced as “Norman”, and I expect you’ve already guessed where this is leading. I’ll admit I didn’t take to him enormously. I was appalled that he had deserted Brighton and Hove Albion for Manchester United just to please his girlfriend. Man’s a quisling, I thought. Well, he only turned out to be Fat Boy! And that’s the sort of celebrity who suits Brighton. Just gets on with it, reads the latest issue of Heat on the train, doesn’t care who likes him, marries Zoe Ball.
So why did Brighton make Dr Johnson want to kill himself? Well, some Brightonian annoyingly introduced him just as plain “Sam” – that’s my theory. Then another load of bored Brightonians hid in beer barrels to avoid having to recognise him. And everyone who didn’t live in Brighton drove him bananas by asking him repeatedly what Julie Burchill was really like.
It’s so hard for people who care about these things. Personally, however, I shall resist self-murder for the time being, mainly because I get so much pleasure from writing “She lives in Brighton” at the end of my dust-jacket biogs, in the full knowledge of the fine tradition enshrined within those words.
Open 25 books at random, and there will always be one that reads: “After being discharged from the Marines for improper conduct, the author played bass guitar with Fluorescent Orange Candy, qualified as an aromatherapist, changed sex, spent seven years in Gado Gado, changed sex again, and discovered he was an incarnation of Catherine the Great. He now lives in Brighton.”
Besides which, unfortunately, there still aren’t any trees from which to do the deed.