Thursday, 6 August 2009

Warning No. 2 - Contains nudity, sex and swearing

So if you are easily offended, please look away now.

'Brighton is still very gay and full of balls', it's been said. And it was to Brighton that I betook myself the other day, intending to have a mouch round the shops. And mouch I did, in a very slow and idle manner, rather characteristic of Brighton itself. The short walk from Brighton Station to the North Laine area (one of the more interesting bits of the city) is rather dull, characterised by employment bureaux specialising in the hiring of medical staff, second-hand shops dealing in old banknotes, stamps and model railway bric-a-brac, and rather seedy-looking newsagents selling unpronouncable Polish beers, but the traveller is ultimately rewarded, of which more later.

Just before you arrive at North Laine, and almost opposite the Cuttlefish Organic Hairdressers, you encounter a rather dour-looking building on the way there called The Galeed Strict Baptist Chapel. In what way is it strict, I wonder? Does the minister with his carefully-tonsured chin beard and black stove-pipe hat look daggers at any latecomers as they sneak into the back of the chapel? Or do they take a fierce delight in having the temperature of the baptismal pool close to freezing point? Or does the congregation indulge in an orgy of tutting every time a gaily (without connotation) dressed individual saunters past? In any event, I wasn't about to find out, so I toddled on to the shops.

I suppose North Laine would describe itself as 'trendy'; possibly 'off-beat'. It's certainly that. It contains a myriad of small shops that provide more quirky goods, services and foodstuffs than you can shake a shamanic fortune-telling stick at. Do you want to buy a 'Bananaman' t-shirt? Have yourself tattooed? Get a tarot reading? Toast the fine weather in a glass of wheatgrass with added guarana (I thought that was the stuff seagulls are always depositing on my car...or is that guano)? Or even buy some vegetarian shoes? Then North Laine's your spiritual home. And if you should get the urge to dress as a pirate, a parlour maid, a burlesque starlet, complete with tassels, or even a bumble bee, the necessary items can be found in this small area of Brighton.

At this point, I'm afraid I have to express a rather childish delight in the variety of greetings cards to be found in North Laine. Clearly at some point, a group of tanked up students got together round a table littered with lager cans and empty KFC boxes and said, 'Now, what can we do to offend the maximum number of people?' and came up with a variety of ideas: a doctor, white coated and stethoscoped, exclaims, 'Here's my diagnosis - you're a wanker.'; another card notes, 'You're a genius! Pity you're such an arsehole...'. There were many other cards of an equally diverting nature, but I would blush to repeat them here...

Having had my fill of North Laine, I took a walk across Old Steine, past the Victoria Fountain and War Memorial with its sadly green and stagnant pool of water, and into St. James' Street, Kemp Town. Now, Kemp Town, the brochures will tell you, is home to Brighton's gay 'community'. I'm afraid I have always felt rather uncomfortable with the notion of splitting the population into separate 'communities' - The Bengali Community, The Chinese Community, and so on - it's something the media does all the time, and creates the assumption that every member of that 'community' thinks/feels/acts in the same way. Clearly not so. Within the 'gay community' (which makes up around a quarter of Brighton's population) there must be Conservative and labour gays, lesbians who like a drink or who have chosen to be teetotal, gay men who collect stamps, spot trains, hate Judy Garland. Anyway, be that as it may...

Kemp Town has a village feel. Most of the shops are small independents; the cafe, the barber, the Bona Foodie grocers. I wasn't sure whether this latter shop was Italian owned, or whether this 'Bona' was Polari for 'good'; Polari was a kind of slang devised and used by gay people in the 1960s, when homosexual acts in private were still a criminal offence and gay people needed a means of communication that excluded 'outsiders' - rather like cockney rhyming slang. A good example of Polari can be heard on Round the Horne, a 1960s radio programme in which comedian Kenneth Horne would converse with two gay men - Julian and Sandy - who dusted their conversation liberally with Polari. In my naivety (be fair...I was only ten years old!) I just though Julian and Sandy were two men who spoke funny. Sadly, I didn't meet either Julian or Sandy in Kemp Town; but I did encounter some curious incidents. I saw a woman carrying an English bull terrier. Then, moments later, I saw another woman carrying an English bull terrier. At this point, I thought 'perhaps it's some kind of fashion statement. Either that or there's a ban on dog leads'. But my latter thought was confounded moments later when I saw a gentleman out for a constitutional with another gentleman...on a lead. I saw a newspaper bill-board with a headline one could only find by the coast: 'Body found near crazy golf course'. And, in a gay greeting card shop, another of those cards that Brighton seems to specialise in: 'It's not homophobia - everyone hates you'. Many of the shops were flying rainbow flags; and this, coupled with the area's quietness after the roaring traffic in Old Steine, meant I felt as if I was in some small independent country; a kind of gay Vatican City within the City of Brighton. But without the Swiss Guard or the nuns.

Nor were there any nuns in Brighton Museum. But there was a pair of breeches (fifty two inch waist) belonging to the Prince Regent (later George the Fourth), worn during his sojourn at the palace better known as the Royal Pavilion. Apparently, 'Prinny' had a hatred of the new-fangled trousers that were becoming fashionable around 1810; so much so that he banned trousers from Court until 1815. It's believed that Prince George's dalliances with sundry ladies was emulated by his hangers-on at the Brighton Court, which led to Brighton becoming a magnet for those intent on affairs, sexual encounters and 'dirty weekends'.

The dirty weekend has become a bit of a standing joke; all rather Max Miller or Carry On. In less enlightened times teenagers would turn up at Brighton B and Bs on a Friday night, claiming to be 'Mr and Mrs Smith', but very rarely fooled the Dragon in the shape of the Seaside Landlady. Back in the 1930s, men who wanted to divorce their wives would rent a room in a Brighton boarding house, and pay a chambermaid to 'discover' them in bed with a prostitute. These days, the dirty weekend is all but defunct. One academic noted that 'people no longer come to Brighton for a dirty weekend; they move to Brighton to have a dirty life'. Interestingly, Brighton Museum also has a small glass case that details the Dirty Weekend. Amongst the treasures it contains are a couple of telephone box 'flyers'. The first features a buxom young woman exhorting us to 'lick my melon's'; clearly a crime against punctuation. The second exclaims, 'Transexual - tits and tackle - twice the fun all in one,' which I'm afraid rather left me lost for words. Not a common occurence.

I was still deep in thought when I arrived at the entrance to The Lanes, Brighton's jewellery and antique corner. But all this changed when I saw an elderly, bearded gent, sitting on the pavement, surrounded by little bits of origami that he was trying to sell for a few pence. I was both pleased and surprised to see him. I thought his business had folded.

Oh, and the chap who said, 'Brighton is still very gay and full of balls'? It was poet Samuel Rogers, speaking in 1829.

14 comments:

Stevyn Colgan said...

Splendid perambulations Mr H. I too am very fond of Brighton's eccentricity ... although it feels like it's trying too hard sometimes these days. Like Eurovision. Still, what a fun day out and it's the closest thing I have to a seaside.

chris hale said...

Stevyn - Thank you for your kind words. Someone said recently that, unlike most other seaside resorts that are, sadly, in decline, Brighton has managed to re-invent itself and is doing very nicely, thank you!

mo.stoneskin said...

I love the Laines, we're moving to Yorkshire in a few months, and they will be missed.

You should have gone into Trafalgar Wines (Trafalgar Street) - assuming you didn't - and picked up some lovely beers. I love that shop.

We nearly bought a flat in Kemp Town, reputation aside, it has some fantastic antique shops.

chris hale said...

Mo - Yorkshire, eh? I look forward to hearing of your adventures north of Watford!

Haven't heard of Trafalgar Wines, but I shall seek it out next time I'm in Brighton.

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chris hale said...

Thanks...I think! Sadly I am unable to read your message!

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

I think your Chinese visitor might have been attracted by some of the Brighton delights! The thing I remember most clearly about walking around Kemp Town was the dog sh-t, liberally decorating the pavements! Maybe that's why the ladies were carrying their little treasures.

Julian and Sandy - now that brings back happy memories!

chris hale said...

Derrick - Not sure when you were last in Kemp Town, but it seemed pretty clean last week. Perhaps it had been spruced up for Brighton Pride!

You don't read Cantonese do you, by any chance?

punk in writing said...

Ah... I must make it to the seaside on my next visit to Blighty.
It's been far too long.

chris hale said...

Punky - Yes! And if you are ever in East Sussex, I absolutely insist that we meet up!

Terri said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your latest post as well as your blog in general. Since I won't be visiting England any time soon, unfortunately, your blog is my substitute ... and a wonderfully descriptive one!

As for your other foreign commenter, Google Translate says the Chinese is merely a list of random words such as "adult cartoon, video chat, beautiful pictures" etc.

chris hale said...

Terri - Thank you. Do you have anything similar in your part of the world?

Didn't think of Google Translator - thanks. Random words, eh? Can't be any more random than the contents of my blog!

Comedy Goddess said...

Good people watching!
PS
I'd listen to Mo. Anyone who uses a pint as a profile is sure to be an authority on where to buy the best beer.

chris hale said...

CG - Yes, people watching! I was paid to do it for thirty years, but now I do it for nothing. Oh, and I think you're right about Mo. Cheers!