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Breakfast in Brighton
Gollancz 1998, Phoenix pbk 1999

Extract

Meeting Fredda was a major stroke of luck. She lived near the Grosvenor Arms in Brunswick Terrace, one of the grandest Regency terraces in Brighton and Hove, one of the finest petals in that seafront flowering of Venetian vistas that happened in the 1820s. Normally Fredda would rent rooms only to actors but she made an exception for me. Within a few days I had moved my things into a room in the attic of the house, at the front, with three small, shuttered sash windows looking out over the beach and sea - if I raise my head from my keyboard, I can just see the horizon, the point where the sea meets the sky, beautifully silver where the sun is bursting through the clouds.

Fredda’s house, and the Regency development of which it is part, was where the fabric and spirit of Brighton achieved dazzling harmony. In the eighteenth century Brighton was still a fishing hamlet with snub nose, freckles and an awkward name: Brighthelmstone. One night the seagulls went to sleep and when they woke up their little town was cool and knowing, ingeniously sexy. Norma Jean Baker became Marilyn Monroe. It was one of history’s great makeovers. Getting pissed in the Grosvenor, I had stumbled into the heart of the place.

The Grosvenor Arms was good at that. It was the size and shape of the pub, but more than its size and shape, which drew people together. The Grosvenor was small and looked screamingly dainty from the outside, with its white facade decorated with pale blue raised plasterwork and a bay window of frosted lights which glowed orange from 11am onwards. You measured it in your mind’s eye as you crossed Little Western Street towards it and if you hadn’t been feeling crapulent - in other words, if you hadn’t been in the Grosvenor the night before - you would have fancied your chances of leaping and touching the window-ledges of the first floor, it was that compact.

The door was open in licensing hours, exhaling gusts of laughter and hops, Roy Orbison and barking dogs, on to the windy little street that ran down to the sea. Affixed to the ceiling at the back end of the bar, in full view from outside, was a single red spotlight. This functioned as a stage light on the few occasions in a year that drag shows were put on in the Grosvenor, but it also acted as a lure for the unfortunate person who found himself outside rather than within the bar, seemed to turn your brain into a heat-seeking missile and itself into a point of perfect heat.

Try it yourself if you don’t believe me. Try walking along Little Western Street in the twilight, hearing the pub before you see it, and then seeing in the corner of your eye that light of infernal seduction. The seafront is just a few seconds further on down the street, and on a velvety sort of evening it’s just possible that the prospect of the green half-light and calm seas might keep your feet moving, but chances are you’ll feel yourself instead falling sideways, pubward. This is perhaps why that door is left open in drinking hours, to prevent cuts and bruises in your involuntary haste to be inside rather than out. At any rate, I learned early on in my summer in Brighton that you didn’t walk lightly down Little Western Street after midday; after dark was fatal. And so, if you had work to do or errands to run, people to see, vows of abstinence to keep or books to write, you devised a route which avoided the pub.

 
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