I’m in an attic in Brighton, trying to wedge the window open wide enough to allow the slimmest breath of air to slip unnoticed into the room. It is, in fact, a lovely hotel room – a copper-bath-and-artisan-crisps type of hotel room, and not some grim boarding house – but even so, in this muggy weather I might as well be in a garret with peeling wallpaper, drinking warm gin from a smeared glass.
Outside in the still night air, voices carry up from the square below. Shouts and raucous laughter, someone apparently trying to start a sing-song. It’s 4am and I could get quite cross about this, but I’m wide awake anyway as all the gulls of the south coast have gathered on my balustrade in order to beat their wings noisily and shriek at each other, and at me.
I give up on sleep and pick up my book, which also suits the mood and location and time of night. It’s Matthew Sweet’s Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema, much of which is about the seedy and neglected side of the British film industry. It’s packed with anecdotes of cocaine-fuelled mischief, beautifully profiled men in make-up, a nightclub for bisexuals called the Fifty-Fifty, car crashes and shootings, spectacular blow jobs and ridiculous toupees, orgies and rapes, mistaken identity and bigamy. And that’s just the early chapters on the 1920s.
The book fizzes with gossip, packing more material into each page than would fill entire other volumes. In one single paragraph, for instance, a film director called Stuart Paton is blinded in a bizarre accident, has his sight restored, discovers that his wife has eloped, is pronounced dead, then comes back to life on the mortuary slab. If I wasn’t awake already, this book would do the trick.
I learn that Ivor Novello, who I’d always thought of as a songwriter, was actually better known as a British matinee idol of the 1920s. He’d become famous in 1915 when his song “Keep the Home Fires Burning” became popular during the war – although conveniently written out of that story is the fact that the lyrics were by a woman, Lena Guilbert Ford, who was killed in a Zeppelin raid, “allowing Novello to take the applause alone”.
In one of the stories about him, Novello has a hit with a stage play written especially for the Theatre Royal Brighton, and that brings me back to where I am now, as I came here in the first place to take part in a literary event at that very theatre. On my dressing room wall was a poster with Ivor Novello’s name on. It feels like everything is connecting and linking up.
I was only meant to stay for a night, but one thing led to another, and here I still am, four days later. Brighton has that effect on you somehow. The last night of my stay, in the sweaty privacy of my room, I strip down to my undies, pour a vodka and watch Brighton Rock on BFI Player. The film depicts a Brighton of “dark alleys and festering slums” which, the titles assure us, “is happily, no more” – although one of the joys of watching it here is noting how little has changed, how much still looks the same.
There are the narrow Lanes, which I walked down only this afternoon, there are the Regency terraces, even more faded now, and there is the Grand hotel, seemingly invincible, once bombed to smithereens but now rebuilt and restored. The salt air from the sea rusts and weathers everything so the place never quite looks new, never quite looks clean, never quite shakes off that familiar mixture of tawdry gloom and glamour.
The atmosphere of the film is all anxiety and menace – a blind man sells matches and razorblades, the funfair is a nightmare, there’s an ever-present sense of violence just below the surface. Faces loom and leer, smiles are too tight or too bright, everything seems pushed down, repressed, building up to a fever pitch.
A kind man from reception has brought an electric fan up to my room and, angling it towards the window, I finally manage to get a breeze moving through the air. The film has finished, and the shouting outside hasn’t started yet, nor have the gulls arrived to beat their wings at me. I should probably go to sleep. Or have a port and lemon.
Next week: Kate Mossman
This article appears in the 03 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion