As a child I ran barefoot on the plains of Africa and walked along deserted white-sand beaches for miles. I saw pods of porpoises playing in the surf. They were happy, I know that because they smiled at me. Baby tiger sharks swum around my legs. So cute!
Then it all changed and, at 12 years old, I ended up in London, in flat above a shoe shop in Oxford Street. One day my handlers told me: “Tomorrow we’re going to the seaside.”
We took a train from Victoria Station, disembarked at Brighton and walked for a couple of miles or so. No diamond dust sands here, no smiling porpoises; just thousands of people. Men in singlets and their trousers rolled. Knotted handkerchiefs and ‘Kiss Me Quick’ floppy hats. Women in floral frocks. We rented deckchairs. I ate candy-floss, ice cream and fish ’n’ chips in that order. The seawater was freezing. Then we headed home.
Today, not much has changed. Visitors still come down from the station in their thousands. There have been sartorial improvements. Men now sport tailored shorts, polo shirts and designer trainers. The women seem slimmer, chic, with quite a few wearing make up. Who dresses up and wears makeup to go to the beach? Am I missing something?
The ritual is the same: ice cream and fish n’ chips – for breakfast. Then pints of lager. Most then stream back to the station at five in the afternoon; others, with wheelie suitcases, head for their airbnb lodgings.
A sunny place for shady people
Brighton has always had a raffish reputation. In the 1950s it was where south London villains went when the boys in blue ‘felt their collars’. Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock was set here. Another author, Somerset Maugham, could also have been writing about Brighton when he described the French Riviera as “a sunny place for shady people”.
But behind the glamorous Regency facades there were scrubby terraced cottages, some with chickens or pigs in the back garden. In the 60s, London council planners, with money to build but no land, replaced them with tower blocks. They created dwelling spaces, but no physical infrastructure on the ground for social communities.
In Scotland, Billy Connolly remarked that the demolished Glasgow Gorbals had lovely tower blocks, grass and trees – but no clubs, pubs, bars and cafes. We need these establishments, as well as tattoo parlours, sex shops, massage joints, theatres, cinemas and open performance spaces and yes, some grass and trees. It gives the place colour and character.
Brighton Marina was built in the 70s. It is by the sea. A sea of concrete. With a monstrous multi-tiered ocean liner of a carpark, plus an open-air carpark for all the enormous four-wheel drive ‘Brighton tractors’.
‘From the concrete park you hear the happy sound of the carousel,
You can almost taste the hot dogs and french fries they sell’
(with apologies to The Drifters)
Sooner or later, the Marina, and the Bell Tower industrial estate, just to the north, will have even more tower blocks. Built with the best of intentions for local families, but probably bought by middle-class oldies to let out as airbnbs and add to their pension portfolios.
It’s only Black Rock’n’roll, but…
Now, after lying vacant for 43 years, Black Rock, a prime piece of real estate just west of the Marina, is going to be temporarily developed. It may eventually become a conference centre and concert arena, but before then will include, at a cost of £12m to £15m:
- A play area and seafront classroom. There is an aquarium in Brighton already. And plenty of beach to explore and rock pools not far away at Saltdean.
- Improved ‘connectivity’ between seafront and Marina. You can currently easily walk to the Marina. A better ‘boardwalk’ will only make it a magnet for boy racers. Watch out!
- A ‘pump’ track and sports court. Brighton is already gym-ed out. And there is a seafront sports area not far off. Why another one here?
- ‘Eye-catching’ public art: patronising in the extreme. And graffiti ‘artists’ don’t need official encouragement. That’s the point.
- New public toilets. Ideally useful for those caught short. But likely to be mostly used by by illegally parked camper vans; at least they can dispose of their poop in a more sanitary manner.
- On the plus side, a renovated Old Reading Room and Temple – both lovely neo-classical structures. But a conference centre? What’s wrong with the Brighton Centre where it is?
‘Something for everyone’ is what the planners may have had in mind. But hey, if you want diversity why not build some super-duper luxury apartments? Snapped up by filthy-rich bitcoin-laundering baddies, they could revive something of the 1950s. Money attracts money. Marbella eat your heart out!