Tom Hodgkinson hits the pubs and galleries of the idling seaside town
When I was young, my Dad would sometimes say, after Sunday lunch, “Let’s bomb down to Brighton!” My brother and I would get in the family Morgan for a drive down the A23 to play pinball machines on the pier and eat fish and chips.
And today the thought of Brighton still evokes a sense of excitement and freedom, a break from toil, a sense that work has been suspended and that pleasure is the priority.
The 13.59 from Victoria pulled into Brighton station at 3pm and I emerged into the sunlight in front of the station with my bicycle. It was warm, seagulls flew about, and there were vast crowds of people coming and going, most of them under 21, all smiling, and many with blue hair.
My host, the multi-talented author, impresario, radio presenter and musician David Bramwell, had sent me directions to his place up a hill on the other side of Brighton. Unlike most of London, Brighton is quite hilly, so I spent a lot of time pushing the bike rather than riding it. On the way I saw a large number of what you might call Vintage Mums – smiling young women in overalls and DMs, and 1930s specs, pushing pushchairs.
I found an off-licence called Southover Wines. It had a dour exterior but a fantastic selection of beer inside and two very young and very cheerful staff. I bought six cans of Session IPA by a Sussex brewery called 360º.
A beaming Bramwell opened his door. We got in his car and drove up a hill to the Castle Hill Nature Reserve by Woodingdean. It was windy but warm and we traipsed along old chalk tracks for an hour. We tried and failed to find the ghost village of Balsdean where Shirley Collins once saw the ghosts of Roman soldiers.
I looked over the city of Brighton and thought about Quadrophenia and those brilliant Brighton residents Fatboy Slim, Carl Cox and Nick Cave.
Later, in David’s yard, we drank some of the craft beer. It was nice and grapefruity. Then supper with David’s partner Anne Rupert who works for the artistic collective Blast Theory.
We sat at a picnic table in the pub’s large courtyard, which is fringed with booths.
We four middle-aged men put away a vast quantity of a craft beer called Ripper and discussed middle-aged men topics like the nineties and home renovations.
Link was the art director for Loaded when it launched, and moved to Brighton in 1999. All three said they loved it and would never want to live anywhere else. The four of us staggered out at midnight.
The annoying sound of seagulls crying woke me too early, maybe six in the morning. Why do seagulls get up so early? Do they do that every day? Are you allowed to shoot them? Plus I had a hangover.
David was also feeling rough. We went for breakfast at a place called Village, a lovely bohemian café in a Victorian pub with a piano, cheerful young staff and a dreadlocked proprietor.
It doubles as a bakery selling sourdough and croissants. David said they thrived during lockdown by selling stuff through a hatch at the front.
It’s so nice to see an independent business doing well, and again, I think about how rare these places are in London, which is dominated by the boring chains, Starbucks and Prêt, as they’re the only ones who can afford the rents. Seems that in Brighton it’s still possible to live free.
David had Welsh rarebit with bacon and I had two poached eggs on toast which came with dill. Good coffee too.
David got a call from his bandmate saying he was late for practice. So we parted and I went to that well-known part of Brighton, North Laine, “laine” meaning “field”, to meet Jon Link again, and go and see his art show.
North Laine is a mass of pedestrianised streets packed with pubs, cafés, clothes stores selling Hawaiian shirts and vintage stuff, bric-a-brac. Again, loads of people on the streets, including unsupervised young kids. Very few cars in evidence.
Link’s studio is near The Dorset pub. He gave me a nice box of Modern Toss motivational pencils and we walked along the sea front. Lots of big men with tiny dogs. The sea looked lovely and green under the sun.
One new addition for me was a gigantic tube stretching into the sky. It’s called the British Airways i360 viewing tower, is 162 metres tall (taller than the London Eye – take that, London!) but the price of ascent was £16.50, so I decided to wait for another day.
Next stop was the Whistleblower, a lovely small art gallery in a mews run by black-haired Dan Hipkin, who looks a bit like he might be a member of Radiohead. The previous show was by Stanley Donwood, and the current one is Jon Link’s NIBHEADZ. These are semi-abstract paintings of heads which he photographed while wandering round Brighton.
Back to North Laine and to a Fuller’s pub called The Basketmakers at 1pm for lunch with Brighton resident, literary critic and writer of the “Down and Out” column in the New Statesman, Nicholas Lezard. Nick rarely has any money, but is full of hilarious stories, and so the deal is that you pay for lunch.
He tries to get himself taken to grand restaurants that serve oysters and cognac. Wary of this, I asked him to suggest somewhere that sold simple sandwiches in order to avoid a massive bill. He said, “You can buy me a complicated sandwich at The Basketmakers.”
Again, a friendly place. We sat outside in the sun next to a large group of middle-aged men drinking beer and having a laugh.
There’s a palpable sense that people here are actually enjoying their lives, rather than being locked in a joyless and never-ending competition for more money.
And people actually smile at you in Brighton, which is nice but somewhat disconcerting to someone accustomed to being shouted at and generally told off while cycling in London. Sadly though, the pinball machines all seem to have vanished.
I had a mackerel sandwich and a lemonade while Nick ordered a steak sandwich and two pints of London Pride. All good.
Nick told me about a recent tragic incident. He’d bought himself his annual treat of a Bacon Double Cheeseburger from Burger King. He was standing on the pavement, and had just taken his first bite of the precious burger, when he was aware of a sudden flurry of feathers in his face.
“Next minute, the bloody seagull and his mates are piling into my Bacon Double Cheeseburger on the street,” he complained. “It cost me a fiver.”
He said he’s enjoying Brighton; it’s full of life and independent shops, unlike his last habitat, which was London’s Marylebone.
“I love it here,” he said. “Apart from the seagulls.”