View from Vitalia: Of piers, ‘brogrammers’ and waste disposal

There is a seaside town in England that simply defies comparisons, and even a short visit to it is always a discovery

A long-time critic (and a long-suffering victim) of the British rail network, I am happy to report one recent positive development: inauguration of the relatively fast and – again relatively – punctual Thameslink train service between Cambridge and Brighton.  The rolling stock is nice and new, the open-plan carriages are clean, and the toilets are decent, at least for the time being. What’s more, the train’s route runs via the town where I live, so I can now – on an impulse – hop onboard and in under two hours find myself not just “beside the seaside”, but also in Britain’s quirkiest and most romantic town, which my former Daily Telegraph colleague and friend, writer Nigel Richardson, aptly described as not just a town, but a state of mind and “the antithesis of England”, no less, in his best-selling book ‘Breakfast in Brighton’.

For Nigel, Brighton always remained a kind of a childhood dream, a place where one can escape the general dullness of everyday English life, and although my own Brighton experiences have so far been limited to just half-a-dozen short visits, I am in full agreement with him here and can only add that to me it is by far the most ‘European’ (or un-English, if you wish)  – read dynamic, tolerant, innovative  and technologically savvy – place in the UK.  And it must have been like that many years ago too, for as far back as in 1829, WM Thackeray described Brighton as  “a clean Naples ... brisk, gay (not in the modern sense, though that would still be very relevant – VV) and gaudy, like a harlequin’s jacket.”

My first visit to Brighton was over 20 years ago in my then capacity as a reporter/presenter of the now-defunct BBC Radio 4 ‘Breakaway’ travel programme. A short radio documentary on Brighton we were to record was part of the series on decaying British holiday resorts. I wouldn’t specify which resorts (that would have been unfair after all those years). Suffice it is to say that in the mid-1990s almost all Britain’s holiday resorts were in deep decline. All, except for Brighton, so recording an episode here would have been a mistake, had we not decided to broadcast it as one positive example to somewhat brighten up (Brighton up?) the otherwise overwhelmingly gruesome picture.

It was late August and not too warm, but Dave Harvey, the series producer and a  native Brightonian himself, was determined to record me on the beach – taking a dip into the ice-cold sea. I agreed to do it on condition that a large shot of vodka would be waiting for me on the shore.

“ I need a loud splash and a scream, Vitali,” the producer instructed me cynically (if not to say sadistically), as I was standing up to my knees in the freezing water, ready to take a plunge, whereas Dave himself, with a  microphone,  was safely positioned on the beach, about ten metres away – that was why both the scream and the splash had to be sufficiently loud to be picked up by the mike he was holding. 

A small crowd of onlookers gathered behind Dave’s back to witness my torture.

I closed my eyes and jumped in with a yell, hoping it would be loud enough not to require another take. The water was actually not as cold as I had expected and I splashed happily in the opaque grey-ish waves for a minute or so until I spotted multiple pieces of some shaggy brown matter floating cheerfully next to me. The moment I realised what they were, I magically teleported myself back onto the beach within a fraction of a second... A shot of vodka and the muffled applause from the watching crowd were not enough to get over the shock... As it turned out, I was bathing next to the pipe disgorging sewage into the sea - a practice that has ceased since then.

Yet even that unfortunate experience failed to reduce my admiration for  Brighton.  My next trip to the town (or to the city if we count Hove in) a couple of  years later was to research a travel feature for the Telegraph. To get  to Brighton from London, I joined a flock of daily commuters – a boisterous lot who would normally spend the whole 50-minute train journey from Victoria in a (now, like the ‘Breakaway programme, sadly defunct) bar carriage. It was like a pub on wheels, with the travelling patrons nursing their pints while standing in the narrow aisle, often while also holding shopping bags and dry-cleaning.

On that occasion,  I was put up at Brighton’s oldest and properly ship-shaped Old Ship Hotel, with its famous Assembly Rooms, where Niccolo Paganini himself once gave a concert. My room was facing the once beautiful but now semi-ruined West Pier (it collapsed several years later, in 2002) – an engineering marvel, which I had a chance to visit in the company of a restoration worker the following morning. We both had to wear hard hats, although lifebelts would have  been more appropriate, for negotiating the pier’s rusty carcass we often had to hop over the sizeable pools of sea water – and after my previous trip’s ‘bathing’ experience (see above), I did not quite fancy another involuntary dip in the brown balls’ company.

The remains of the pier looked spooky, with bats nestling under the holey roof cornices of the once magnificent Victorian theatre, its threadbare rusty supports painted white by munificent sea-gull droppings... There was something beautifully ghostly about the slowly collapsing structure, and it was with sadness that I learned about its eventual demolition in 2010.

I paid several other brief visits to Brighton after that one, yet here I want to tell you about the latest – about a month ago – when I used the new direct train service (see above) as my transport, and the new ‘Secret Brighton’ guide book by Jonglez publishers as my guide. Since it was technology (i.e. the Thameslink train) that was to take me there, it was only natural that I decided to focus on the town’s new and old technological sites.

One of them was next to what remained (just a shrunken iron carcass) of the West Pier. Called British Airways i360, it was by far the tallest and the loudest architectural statement on the Brighton seafront – a 162m observation tower, with a fully enclosed circular viewing pod, going up to the 132m mark, then down – to allow for the 360-degree all-encompassing view. Interestingly, the glass passenger pod was built by POMA - the same cable-car manufacturer that designed the London Eye capsules.

They said that in a good weather one could discern the outlines of the Isle of Wight 27km away from the top of viewing tower, yet no matter how hard I was squinting at the horizon, I could only discern the sea. But a lot of it…

In general, it was fun – like a slow levitation high up in the air. Even a local tourism brochure calling BA i360 “a satisfying viewing experience” (sic – VV), failed to kill the sheer fun of  it all. My only hope was that the pod wouldn’t get stuck, which has happened twice since its opening in 2014. But everything went smoothly, apart from one nagging thought of mine: could at least  part of the £46 million that went on  the tower’s construction have been spent on the restoration of the West Pier, whose charred remains were clearly visible from above and somewhat spoiled the view? 

I then had a ride on another iconic Brighton attraction – Volks Electric Railway, which runs along the whole length of the town’s seafront and claims to be the oldest operating electric railway in the world (built by engineer Magnus Volk in 1883). Mind you, a couple of electric tramway lines in Germany were a tad older, but none of them is still in operation.

I rode Brighton’s electric railway once before – when recording the above-mentioned Radio 4 programme - and, frankly enjoyed it more then. Why? There could be several reasons.

  1. It was then August, and the weather was much warmer and brighter than during my latest visit – in November (the train carriages, by the way, are open to the elements from all sides, apart from the roof ).
  2. My latest trip fell on post-Halloween, and I did not enjoy being seriously scared when our train was pounced upon in a small dark tunnel by an ‘apparition’, or possibly a zombie, of indefinite origins and gender and with the face hastily and rather sloppily painted pink and green, which didn’t stop me from identifying the attacker eventually as the cashier who sold me the train ticket ten minutes earlier saying that the ride would include some mysterious “Halloween experience”.
  3. On my first ride, I was accompanied by a co-presenter – a charming and good-looking Brighton comedienne (a ‘Brightonianess’? Can’t remember her name now).
  4. The line ended (both then and now) at the local nudist beach, which, for obvious reasons, was not open (or if it was, there were no bathers on it) in November. Mind you, it was entirely deserted even then – in August 20 years ago, but the sheer possibility, even if purely hypothetical, of spotting some nudists was exhilarating for all the passengers, including yours truly.

And here I’d like to take an issue with a respected American monthly magazine that  recently published an article on Brighton as a new Silicon Valley-type technology hub, having introduced a neologism “brogrammer” (meaning “Brighton programmer”, as you might have guessed), and even branded it (Brighton) “just a BBC production of San Francisco”. I fully agree with the technology hub bit, but San Francisco, where they actually banned public nudity ages ago, is simply not the right place to compare Brighton to.

On to the ‘Secret Brighton’ as described in the eponymous Jonglez guide book.

To my relief, the book made no reference to the notorious Brighton Pavilion which I regard as one of Britain’s ugliest structures. And I am not the only Pavilion-hater in history, for even in 1826,  just three years after its completion, William Hazlitt compared it to “a collection of  stone pumpkins and pepper boxes”, whose architect “had at once the dropsy and the megrims”, the latter being an outdated term for depression. 

‘Secret Brighton did include, however, “an exceptional feat of underground engineering”, the city’s 46km-long Victorian sewage system, which after my unfortunate swimming experience of 20 years ago, I simply could not avoid visiting.  Just like another waste-related attraction, mentioned in the Guide – “the house that trash built” , also known as The Brighton Waste House.

That highly unusual building in Grand Parade, just behind  the modernistic complex of  Brighton’s College of Arts and Humanities, was the first structure in Europe, build entirely from dumped and discarded parts and objects, including such outright rubbish as old razors, toothbrushes, DVDs and videocassettes, as well as torn denim jeans, broken advertising banners,  crumbling bricks and ditched husbands (only joking). The peculiar and not-too-romantic structure, put together by the Arts College’s students of architecture and designed under the supervision of an entrepreneurial  graduate of the City College’s Science and Engineering Faculty, struck me as quintessentially ‘Brightonian’,  for neatness and practicality are some of the most distinctive traits of the locals’ character, from my point of view.  It also reminded me of the famous ‘ruin bars’ of Budapest, now one of the Hungarian capital’s main attractions: picturesque, buzzy and quirky watering holes in semi-ruined and previously abandoned buildings.    

I don’t want to create an impression that my latest tour of Brighton was focused entirely around sewage and waste, but to me those two unusual sites came to signify modern Brighton’s undying ingenuity and uniqueness. 

True, almost all English-speaking countries  (USA, Australia,  Jamaica and many more) have their own big and little Brightons. One travel writer (I can’t recall his name, but remember that he was himself a Brightonian)  first travelled to and then wrote a book about all Brightons of  the world. I myself once lived for several months in the eponymous suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and repeatedly visited Brighton’s US namesake in greater New York, now – curiously – populated by the immigrants from the former USSR and known as ‘Little Odessa’. 

Just like WM Thackeray all those years ago, a modern scribe might now be tempted to refer to Brighton as “Little Naples” or “Little Nice”, but I for myself would not be in a hurry to do so. Simply because to me, Brighton defies comparisons.

Everyone has their own Brighton, so hop on a train and discover your own! 

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