Brighton

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Virginia Woolf once called Brighton a “love corner for slugs”. Keith Waterhouse said it had the “air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their inquiries.” The explorer Richard Burton said the only good thing about Brighton is “the bad morals of its visitors.” Then there was Noel Coward, who quipped: “Ah, dear Brighton—piers, queers and racketeers.”

But what did they know? Brighton may have once been a smugglers haven, a den of vice and crime, a mecca for beer-soaked stag-dos. But it is also a place of beauty – miles of pebbled beach, promenades and one of the most spectacular piers in all of England. It's got two universities, one of the most beautiful royal palaces in the country (now a museum), held England's first gay marriage and has the biggest festival of arts in the UK outside of Edinburgh. It is also the only place in the the country with a sitting Green MP.

It's a wonder, then, that there aren't more books written about Brighton. But that's not to say there are none. So here, from Graham Greene (obviously) to Nick Cave and Julie Burchill, here are five books that capture the city's unique atmosphere; the fun, the vice and the beauty of what the Poet Horace Smith called "The Queen of Watering Places".

Brighton Rock by Graham Green (1938)

This, in some ways, is the definitive Brighton novel. Certainly the most famous. But it should not be read by anyone hoping to be lured by the seaside town's stretching stoney beaches, flashing arcades and beautiful seafront promenades. No. Graham Greene paints such a punishingly bleak picture of the town's seething criminal underbelly that – when it was adapted to film a decade later – producers were obliged to run a statement after the opening credits:

“Brighton today is a large, jolly, friendly seaside town in Sussex … But in the years between the two wars, behind the Regency terraces and crowded beaches, there was another Brighton of dark alleyways and festering slums. From here, the poison of crime and violence and gang warfare began to spread … This is a story of that other Brighton — now happily no more.”

A gang war is raging through Brighton's dark underworld. Seventeen-year-old Pinkie is a man on the run. Already hard-bitten and ruthless to the marrow, he's killed a man in cold blood, and he'll do anything to get away with it. Only, some very bad people are now on his tail.

This is not a book that needs a hard sell – it's a staggering work of genius whose reputation does more than enough enough talking; a character study not only of a murderous psychopath but also of a town brought to its knees by gangland crime.

High Dive by Jonathan Lee (2015)

In September 1984 an unassuming Irishman checked into the Grand Hotel Brighton under the name Roy Walsh, and planted a time-bomb in the bathroom of room 629. Twenty-four days later, it exploded, tearing through the hotel as it hosted Conservative politicians in town for their annual party conference. It turned out to be an assassination attempt on the life of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Of course, she narrowly survived the blast and delivered a barnstorming keynote speech later that day.

Jonathan Lee's thrilling fictionalisation of the lives of three people at the centre of the atrocity paints a moving and highly evocative picture of the most shocking moment in Brighton's modern history.

Flip-flopping between Belfast and Brighton, it follows Dan, Walsh's shadowy accomplice; Freya, the hotel's young receptionist; and her father, Moose, the hotel manager, in the days leading up to the blast.

Written with a poet's flair (“The sun, not knowing what was appropriate, had risen this morning as usual”) and pinpoint historical accuracy, it is way more than just a smoke-and-bodies terrorism epic. It is a thoughtful, insightful and deeply-human retelling of one of the most brazen assassination attempts against the British establishment, as well as a revealing exposition of Brighton's giant hospitality trade.

Made in Brighton by Julie Burchill and Daniel Raven (2007)

In 1995, the writer and op-ed hell-raiser Julie Burchill upped sticks, sold her London home and moved to Brighton. The place had such an effect on her – its old timers, new comers, the hippies, the hookers, the holidaymakers; its bafflingly bureaucratic council – that she and her husband were moved to write a book about it.

What emerged was not only a deeply personal portrait of a seaside town “that has always been at the vanguard of Britain's cultural evolution,” but also a "cold, hard look at the changing face of Britain, using the seaside vista of Brighton as a focal point".

Topics range from the "stoppable rise of new media", to health, hen-parties, and the "respectable thrill of over-reacting to architecture". Oh, and there's also a chapter on Jordan [aka Katie Price], then Brighton's most-famous resident: "Even porned up to the nines there is something unnervingly classy about her. Brighton's like that; it has real depth and soul, which is why it can afford to seem trashy and fun."

Yes, it's over a decade old, so there are sections that now feel a little dated (particularly the stuff about New Labour). But read as an analysis of the personality of a town, it has an intimacy that drags you in, from the personal stories, to sex, pop music, history, politics and class. A searingly engaging insight into an pulsatingly modern town.

The Death of Bunny Munroe by Nick Cave (2009)

Like Burchill, Nick Cave is Brighton royalty. The legendary artist, screenwriter, director, author and rock star lived in the seafront town since moving to the UK in the 1980s (though he left for Los Angeles in 2017 after his son tragically fell from a cliff in the area). And it was in Brighton that he set his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munroe.

Bunny Munroe is an anti-hero Martin Amis would be proud of – a misogynistic, sex-obsessed, drug-fuelled creep who cruises the town in his yellow Fiat Punto selling beauty products door-to-door to lonely housewives in his search for the “Valhalla of all vaginas” (he usually sleeps with his marks).

His exploits make for a series of hilarious, sometimes wince-inducing, set pieces that veil what is essentially a profoundly tragic novel that ends, as you'd expect given the title, with a gruesome final reckoning. But before that, we get to ride shotgun in his Punto through the streets of Brighton, past its piers, ice-cream joints, stretching promenades and cigarette-butt eating seagulls, in a guided tour no open-top bus would ever give you.

Unexploded by Alison MacLeod (2013)

Canada-born Alison MacLeod is a professor of contemporary fiction at the University of Chichester and has lived in Brighton for more than 30 years. Which is to say, Brighton runs through her like the words on a stick of rock.

She knows the town back to front, and its history past to present. And in this beautifully crafted novel about a marriage struggling in the shadow of war, she will transport you back to a Brighton few living residents still remember.

By 1940 the Channel Islands had already capitulated to the Nazi onslaught. And for Brightonians, their town was Hitler's inevitable next stop. Their fear was “airborne, seaborne – rolling in off the Channel,” as McLeod puts it in her Booker-longlisted novel, "… as if the nerves of the population ran like thin fuses through the cliff-line's strata of chalk and flint".

It charts the travails of Geoffrey and Evelyn Beaumont, and their eight-year-old son Philip – all terribly English and stiff-upper-lipped, which is largely why their marriage is failing. Bank manager Geoffrey has been drafted in as superintendent of a camp “for enemy aliens” on the town's race course. But when Evelyn begins reading to some of the prisoners, she forms a friendship with one that will shatter the life they all know.

Not just a gorgeously written story about the human need for connection, it is a fascinating window into wartime Brighton – a gem of period detail.

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