I love Brighton too, and I recently revisited the town to take a ride on its latest attraction. The BA i360 tower (such a dreary name) was opened by the 95-year-old Duke of Edinburgh on October 28 2016. I have a feeling it will not be around long enough for me to enjoy a ride in its lift-with-a-view at the same age as the grand old duke.
The best bit of it lies on the ground. Two kiosks from the Victorian West Pier, now a blackened shadow of its former self stretching out into the sea beyond, have been restored and sit elegantly on either side of the tower. Their original architect rejoiced in the name of Eugenius Birch and I can imagine his admiring mother on seeing these elegant beauties saying, “Eugenius, you”.
The ride up the tower itself is a bland experience of the “once is more than enough” variety. They sell English champagne on board (the local Nyetimber, www.nyetimber.com) on the false premise that all the world loves bubbly. I don’t. At weddings and similar grand events I find myself glass-less when others are way down the road to giggly. I am thinking of starting an anti-champagne movement. Our slogan will be, “Bubbles explode. They damage your health.” At the same time I intend to run a hate campaign on social media against processed orange juice.
My son thinks the new tower is a sign of a shift in Brighton’s culture from bohemian to conventional. I fear he might be right. The town’s football team looks set to climb into the Premier League this season. Not something a Glastonbury or a Totnes would ever aspire to.
For much of its history, though, Brighton has had an alternative style. Its Royal Pavilion was built for the sybaritic roly-poly Prince Regent, subsequently George IV, to dawdle with his Catholic mistress Maria Fitzherbert. He set a trend. Many a man subsequently came down to dawdle with a mistress, in effect creating the original home of “the dirty weekend”.
More recently the town has become the uncrowned gay capital of England, and the Brighton Pavilion constituency has the country’s first and only Green Party MP. It looks and feels different. It always did.
Down the Lanes
For dinner on my first night I meet a friend at a restaurant called Semolina (www.semolinabrighton.co.uk), and the culture kicks in straightaway. At the next table are four men (two couples) and a single woman. One of the men introduces her as, “My favourite female person”. The food too is off-centre: a delicious starter of cured gurnard (it’s a fish, stupid) on slices of blood orange garnished with capers, and a main course of hake with a saffron and mussel “broth”.
The making and having of fun has been a major preoccupation of Brighton for years, and the anticipation of fun seems to hang in the ozone-soaked air. Helped by extraordinary shops like Boho Gelato (www.bohogelato.co.uk); the Lollipop Shoppe (www.thelollipopshoppe.co.uk) which (you guessed?) sells lighting and furniture; the inevitable Rock Shop (42 King’s Road) where your name gets stretched from one end of tooth-destroying candy to the other; and the iconic Choccywoccydoodah (www.choccywoccydoodah.com), where my daughter once bought a wedding cake after a consultation that was more like a séance – “I see you with brown icing, my dear”.
There is also fun on the streets – the music, the causes, the strange languages and, not least, the “Before I die” board, where passers-by chalk up what they want to do before the grim reaper calls. Their desires seem surprisingly surreal (“See racism extinct”) or mundane (“Go to New York”).
The next day I decide I want some Indian food in this cosmopolitan metropolis where anything is possible. But the Indian restaurants that I check out (the Curry Leaf, www.curryleafcafe.com, and the Chilli Pickle, www.thechillipickle.com) are down tight little back streets (“the Lanes” for which Brighton is famous), and I feel the need for some spray and a sense of the sea. (Anyway, I have to admit to a more general problem with Indian restaurants – “Love the food; hate the ambience”.)
So I head back to the prom, to Riddle & Finns (www.riddleandfinns.co.uk), underneath the arches between the piers. My friends say it’s the best seafood in town. But it’s small and fully booked – even on a Thursday. So I continue on to a place that caught my eye when I was up the i360. Alfresco (www.alfresco-brighton.co.uk) is Italian to the core and right on the beach. I choose a fresh lemony pinot grigio from Venezia and a lusty sea-food pasta to accompany it. Delicious, and elegantly served.
There is another side to Brighton, of course. First, there are its bourgeois parts, and most of them are called Hove, the name of a westerly borough. Straight-laced locals when asked if they live in Brighton tend to say, “Hove, actually”. Then, too, the town has its darker underbelly. The homeless are all too evident and drugs are a recognised problem. But then Dave Allen was a chain-smoking alcoholic…and great fun. I loved him too.