You can’t walk far in Brighton without finding graffiti: the sanctioned and sponsored art form type, decorating electrical boxes and shopfronts, the porto-art inhabiting alleyways and laid on hoardings, and the raw, visceral cries sprayed on garage doors, derelict rooftops and railway lines. Each fighting for attention, each with it’s own unique voice. Words and pictures blur in abstract fonts and overlaid paint. One obscuring the other, although there must be some unwritten cultural rules as some of the art i see today has stood untouched for years, whilst other images last barely a week. There are unseen social systems within this space that are invisible to me as a visitor, as an immigrant from a different layer of culture.
Graffiti abounds, but equally, you can’t walk far in Brighton without experiencing the homeless: begging in doorways, huddled under blankets and sleeping bags, laden with backpacks and trailing dogs. This city, more visibly than most, has layers of culture, layers of meaning, from the hipster art scene to the emo kids, fossilised punks and retro cafes, achingly fashionable web design houses to the city commuters from London, drawn by cheaper rent and willing to tolerate perpetually overcrowded trains. In that sense, Brighton is not ‘home’ to anyone, but rather a confluence of co-existing spaces, inhabited, for sure, but not truly claimed, not truly owned. There is little sense of permanence beyond the bare architecture and ever present salinity and seagulls.
‘Faded Victorian’ is the charitable view: purposed and repurposed units, everything wearing a slightly tattered gown, lived in, but not yet worn out. The churches, shops and houses, the sounds of the funfair and the vibrant nightlife, this is a city of drunken fights and bloody noses, no gracious dinning and retirement.
There is an energy, but a pretension too: a desolate girl walks forlornly past the cafe where i sit writing, wearing a wedding dress in the rain. It may be a statement or a protest, it may simply be the first experimentation of flowering adolescence, so it’s uncharitable of me to smile to myself, seeing only slight farce and feeling a vaguely paternal concern that she must be freezing.
Don’t get me wrong: i love Brighton, but i find it hard work. It’s misaligned energies constantly drain me. You cannot settle into one space but rather eternally cross between them. I toy with coming here for a week to write, but conclude that i won’t focus, but rather will bump from coffee shop to hotel lounge, jolted by external energies and distracted by the crowds that you never truly escape here. Writing requires both bursts of energy and times of reflection, and here i feel only energy.
At the clock tower, convergence of four shopping streets, an impromptu monument to the fiftieth homeless person to die in the city consists of a small pile of pebbles, some candles, rain tattered posters and a line of police tape instructing us ‘do not cross’. Fifty seems a lot: a year, a decade, ever? Part of me despairs: i suspect the fifty dead are not the men my own age, aggressively begging as i walk past, but rather the silent majority in parks and on benches hidden away at night. It is cold. Bitterly cold. I would not want to sleep out here tonight. Fifty suddenly seems like a number you could reach all too easily.
I guess that, as with so many things, it’s a matter of perspective. The people i see on the street are at one far end of the scale, but lined up behind them are those in hostels, those squatting on floors, those staying with friends, those whose relationships have broken down, those whose parents threw them out for proclivities or desires, those who struggle, those forgotten or unloved. Those like you or me, but one or more rungs down the ladder.
I recently read Sudhir Venkatesh’s book about the subculture of New York, ‘Floating City’, which documents the prostitutes and porn shop owners, brothels and drug dealers, but with an affection and understanding that penetrates way beyond my monochrome view of the street. He paints portraits of people, coherent communities that operate to self proposed rules and within their own system of values: layers within layers, culture within culture, truth within truth. The city seen not as architecture and people, but rather as network and money, power and trust.
It’s a superb read, not just for the insight it gives to the city of New York, but for the challenge it gave me to my own preconceptions and stereotypes: i realise that my own view of certain people is just as wallpaper, as icon of class, of type, not person. There is no nuance in my view of street lives in this sense: i see the portrait as it’s painted, but not the people behind the paint. I pause to think on this as my coffee grows cold and a couple argue outside. He shouts at her and walks away and i wonder at what domestic drama has reached it’s conclusion on the cold street.
I take solace in cake: if there is one thing that Brighton does well, it’s coffee and cake. There are literally endless cafes to lose yourself in, each competing for the most vegan, organic or sustainable prize, many of them succeeding. One of my favourites has shut though: painted on the window, ‘thank you for your custom, it’s was fun’, an epitaph that many may envy.
There’s a slight prescience about the fairground carousels that occasionally live on the seafront: circular journeys that change scenery but ultimately come round again. The pubs and cafes change, but the spaces of pubs and cafes remain. The scenery is repainted, but the stage is constant. The people come and go, but the crowds remain.
In the theatre bar are photos of past performers who have trodden the boards: sepia, black and white, beneath them two top hats and white tipped canes. Artefacts of a bygone era: typically faded in this faded space. Strange that a city known for it’s addition to web development and new arts has such a faded tapestry of space woven into it’s everyday. Or perhaps that’s the source of it’s power: it’s connection in a very real way to the crumbled bones of it’s past. Or perhaps i’m over thinking it, and it’s simply decoration to drink against.
Later, the railway pub we end up in stinks of bleach: chlorine and stale beer, hardly appealing but shelter from the rain. On the next table, four guys sit, arm wrestling between stacked up beers. One boasts a bleached blond quiff that defies gravity and trembles under the effort as he wins three times out of four. Behind them, a girl, clearly living on the street, trembles visibly as she huddles round a cup of tea, eyes staring ahead. I’m unclear if she will spend the night there: when we leave she is deep in conversation with the barmaid. It’s a contrast to our casual visit into this space: as i think back, i wish i’d reached out, offered something, asked a simple question. The problems of society are for society to solve, for all of us, not just those others who care.
Culture can be fractured by a single death, by a single child on the street, by a single act of uncaring avoidance. It’s easy to hide behind veneers of culture and wealth, but the truth of desolation and despair know no boundaries. If we fail in our basic humanity, we fail. The value we put on others is more important than the value we hold for ourselves.
February is the cruellest month, not April, as Elliot asserts: the bleak clouds and grey drizzle permeate everywhere. Even, it seems, into the bones of the city. Everyone is huddled, everyone cold.
As i walk in the morning, through the sleepy streets of a city waking up, i spy two young people, hand in hand. One dressed in leather, the other in lace. Contrasting. This is a city of contrast: a city of levels and layers. And that’s something to love. London has a polish about it, an arrogance that is lacking here. But travel further east or west and you find more tradition and established culture. Just Brighton survives, charting it’s own path, writing it’s story on walls, on doors, in paint and pen.
This is a city of art and music, not on the surface, but deeply throughout. With that willingness to explore self expression and identity, there are casualties, people whose journey falls short of the finish line. I cannot profess to love the space, but i admire the energy. For me, it’s too gritty, to disjointed. To much in love with itself. The cool group behind me at the gig last night talked endlessly and loudly through the Canadian folk singers songs of love and travel: shared generously and roundly ignored. For them, the music was just scenery to their own story: uncaring.
Perhaps that’s what i’ve taken away from these few days, one visit of many i’ve made here over the years. That what’s lacking is care: the layers of culture leave many cracks in between, and into these spaces, something is lost. The things that make this space, make it edgy, make it, in some ways, incomplete.