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Seeing a cat in a window was my Proustian moment, taking me back to the pub of my youth

The Green Dragon! The years roll away with a crash, and suddenly it’s 1984 again, and I’m getting pickled. 

By Nicholas Lezard

Now that I no longer live on the crest of one of its highest and steepest hills, I find that Brighton is a very strollable city. There’s not much else to do, mind. But it has curious alleyways, higgledy-piggledy areas, and, always, the sea, which I have now seen more of in the two months I’ve been living in the Hove-l than in the 16 months before.

It is lovely to see people walking hand in hand (I would have taken a melancholy envy in the spectacle in earlier months, but not now); pleasant to nod in friendliness to the crusties sharing a bottle and a spliff (Brighton seems to be reeking of the stuff these days, more than ever before, more even than Bristol; it’s as if smoking dope has become a legal obligation here); delightful to see a crowd watching, rapt, as a dog the size of a handkerchief chases a whippet round and round the sandpit; when the whippet stopped and turned and touched noses with the tiny dog, everyone watching either clapped, cheered, laughed or went “Aah”.

All this with the backdrop of a brilliantly clear sky, the sun setting in flames behind the gutted West Pier. (Naturally, as I am writing this I have just come back from a walk on one of the dankest, most depressing days of the year, one of those hollowed-out days in which the sun seems to have set an hour early. And why is it that one of the most poignant and haunting sights in the world is that of a school building with its lights shining out into the murk?)

But the longer I stay in Brighton, the more I like it. I was very taken with a phrase in Alec Marsh’s piece on the decline of London in this magazine a couple of weeks ago: that of the interviewee who, at one point, said that “London is the capital of nothing”. I tried to think of something I missed about London, something I can’t get anywhere else, and all I could think of – apart from children and friends, of course – was the British Library, and I can’t go to that anyway at present.

In fact, we can’t do anything much. And right now, what I’m missing most is the pub. During one of my walks last week, I noticed a cat sitting in the window of a pub, and, as one does, went over to commune with it. (Even if a pane of glass separates you, it is soothing to the soul to commune with a cat.) After a couple of photographs, the cat indicated that it had had enough of my company, so I stepped away and noticed the name of the pub for the first time: the Green Dragon.

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[see also: Every trip to Waitrose is a lesson in humiliation, but I keep going back for more]

The Green Dragon! The years rolled away with a crash, and suddenly it was 1984 again, and I was with my friends Toby, Shan and Roger, getting pickled in one of the finest pubs I had, at that tender age, ever been in or imagined. I am afraid that it was not a moment of Proustian clarity: like the 1960s, if you can remember being in the Green Dragon, you weren’t there. I have dim impressions of deep happiness, a throng of misfits and maniacs, most of them off their nuts on substances which were not alcoholic. I have a notion that there was sawdust on the floor, but that might have been the remains of the previous night’s furniture.

When I moved here 18 months ago, a friend suggested a drink at a bar called “Office”. Who, I wondered, calls a bar “Office”? Is the idea some kind of lame joke along the lines of “I’m just going to the Office, ho ho”? Inside, the place was empty and soulless, all stripped pine and rubbish expensive lager and 14 brands of designer gin. We sat in the tiny beer garden because the inside was too depressing.

As I left, I had another look at the exterior. I felt gears and wheels in the memory interlocking, as the geography of the street impressed itself upon me. Could this be the place where… where… could this be the ghost of the Green Dragon?

It was an awful moment. The cries of a hundred speed-addled bikers moaned out to me from across the decades. Later on, I learned that the clientele, those of them who were still alive (there was a murder there in the Nineties, which precipitated its decline) had largely decamped to the Basketmakers, or the Caroline of Brunswick. Or the Wick. “The Wick,” a friend wrote to me, “was a great old pub till someone got shot in there,” which shows that Graham Greene’s Brighton hasn’t been sanitised out of existence.

So the Green Dragon is back. Good. I looked through the windows more closely. A great improvement on the soulless minimalism of “Office”; but it won’t be the same again. A look at their Facebook page tells me the renaming happened last December; how they must be suffering now. I weep for Brighton’s pubs. And the pub’s cat is called Betty. 

[see also: In lockdown, video calls taunt me with showcases of other people’s homes]

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed