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London to Brighton: Round the Bend and Over the Edge 

Susie Thomas


<1> This paper considers the relationship between literary London and Brighton as an urban counter-transference, tracing the unconscious connection between the teeming metropolis at one end and the prospect of eternity at the other –- glimpsed, here, by Turner:

<2> Without London, Brighton would be just another seaside town like Clacton or Littlehampton. But, since the time of the Prince Regent and his stately pleasure dome, Brighton has figured as a site of desire.

<3> At the same time (particularly in the twentieth century) Brighton also confronts Londoners with what they fled from in the first place: they may come looking for pleasure or for freedom but the quest invariably results in frustration and failure if not death. Fictional Brighton functions as an escape route from London but turns out to be a prison: characters are catapulted between the two and some are driven over the edge.

<4> References to Brighton often sound like a collection of clichés and oxymorons. In the LRB Peter Campbell describes it as ‘brilliant and decaying, raucous and elegant’. Other terms that are frequently applied are ‘vulgar’, ‘louche’ (my favourite), ‘violent’ and ‘raffish.’ Noel Coward, a frequent visitor in the 1930s, contributed ‘camp’: ‘Ah dear Brighton –- piers, queers and racketeers.’ Today, it is reputed to have the biggest Pride festival in England but, perhaps surprisingly, there is something of a hole where the gay literature of Brighton should be. Rob Shields has added ‘liminal’ and ‘carnivalesque’ to the Brighton lexicon. With the election of Caroline Lucas, Brighton is laying claim to being ‘Green,’ although it hasn’t shrugged off the tag of ‘drug death capital of England’. And there’s Cool Brighton where celebrities live, among them: Fatboy Slim, Heather Mills, Julie Burchill, and Nick Cave. Less glamorously, Brighton is now basically a suburb of London, fifty minutes away by train. Unlike most suburbs, it occupies a unique place in London’s imaginary, associated with freedom from constraint, the non-official and the inside-out; a place not just of leisure but resistance to power; of celebration of the body and desire. Sadly, although I’ve lived there for twenty years, I can’t say I’ve benefited personally. And that’s partly the point: Brighton as it is represented in literature and cinema rarely features its ordinary residents, making a living out of the tourists or commuting to London (Brighton has little industry and no harbour). Fictional Brighton is rarely about Brighton at all but about the day-trippers, anarchists, hedonists, rebels, and refugees from London who pass through it. Brighton is where transience comes face to face with eternity; and where London confronts its unconscious, as the piers and the promenade (almost the only localities used) are transformed into a mise en scène for the staging of deep-seated fears and desires.

<5> Brighton is linked to London in a system of relative difference: twice over. Sometimes this is pleasure-seeking Brighton in relation to serious, official, or work-filled London. With the coming of the railway in the 1840s and the Bank Holiday Act of 1871, a trip to Brighton provided a ‘collective release from the regime of industrial labour’ (Shields, 48). Throngs of shop and office workers still come down for the day now. Bawdy Brighton postcards are, above all, about the absence of drudgery: The film, Carry on at Your Convenience (1971), begins on an assembly line manufacturing lavatories, where the workers are driven round the bend by union stoppages. But it really takes off when the workers agree to give up their strike so that they can go on a boozy works outing to Brighton, culminating in an anarchic spree on the pier. 

<6> When it is not a synonym for pleasure, Brighton is represented as a sanctuary from a violent, crime-ridden London. This is most obviously the case in Neil Jordan’s 1986 film, Mona Lisa, in which a small-time London gangster (played by Bob Hoskins) reluctantly falls in love with Simone (Cathy Tyson), the “thin black tart” (as he calls her) whom he is paid to chauffeur. He has been in prison for 7 years and as he drives Simone to see her various clients in the West End he is forced to confront a changing society. His wife has not been waiting patiently for him and now he has to take orders from a woman. Noticing black faces in the neighbourhood, he asks: “Where did they come from?” During his time off, he cruises the area around King’s Cross and the clubs in Soho searching for a young girl Simone used to know when she was on the streets. Once they find her, he has to face the worst horror of all. He is not St George rescuing damsels in distress; the two women he has helped to reunite are lovers. This realisation sends him over the edge and the climax of the film is an extraordinary mad scene on the Palace Pier followed by a bloody shoot-out in The Royal Albion Hotel.

<7> Twenty years later, Paul Andrew Williams’ film, London to Brighton (2006) exploits the two localities in a similar way. Brighton is both the end of the line and a haven from London’s criminal underworld. The runaways are a prostitute called Kelly (brilliantly played by Lorraine Stanley) and a 12 year-old girl (Joanne) that she has helped to procure for a wealthy paedophile. Kelly changes her mind when she is confronted with the reality of handing over a child to a sadist. As in Mona Lisa, London is ‘a shit hole’ of drugs, violence and prostitution, although the scene is relocated from King’s Cross to Waterloo. In the middle of the film, Brighton provides a breath of fresh air and freedom as Joanne plays on the beach in the early morning while Kelly works the back streets. But inevitably Kelly is pursued by her pimp and they find that they are on the dangerous edge of things, with nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide. Rather improbably, a happy ending is tacked on with little red riding hood finding her way to grandma’s cottage in Devon, suggesting a future of clotted cream and fudge.

<8> Although the Brighton (of pleasure or haven) which figures so often in London literature and cinema is largely imaginary, the myth has some basis in history. Once the playboy Prince Regent, fleeing from his parents’ stultifying court in Windsor, transformed a country house into an exotic palace in which to entertain his secret wife, Brighton’s role as the capital of pleasure was assured. 

<9> By the1920s Brighton was the place to go for a dirty weekend and The Metropole was the hotel to go to. Famously, in Part 3 of Eliot’s Waste Land (1922) Mr Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, ‘Asked me in demotic French / To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a weekend at the Metropole’. B.C. Southam’s A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot (1971, p. 83) notes pedantically that ‘a “weekend in Brighton” is understood colloquially as an invitation carrying sexual implications’. In this case the implications are homosexual, probably negatively marked in the poem’s mythical framework, as sterile. Southam also observes (p. 82) that ‘[t]he homosexual implications that some interpreters have read in these lines did not, said Eliot, occur to him’. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he?

<10> Ironically, in the 1930s, Brighton became less a destination for a dirty weekend than a stage for the miming of desire, particularly by couples needing to provide sham proof of adultery to obtain a divorce. In A.P. Herbert’s novel, Holy Deadlock (1934), the ploy fails precisely because the choice of Brighton (where ‘wild lovers are supposed to go’) strikes the judge as too obvious: ‘At the fatal word ‘hotel’ he looked up from the pleadings before him and looked down at Mr Ransom. … “A hotel? At Brighton?” he said. “All this seems very familiar …”’ Similarly, in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934). Tony Last is persuaded to stay in a Brighton hotel with Milly to provide his wife Brenda with (false) proof of adultery. He asks the private detective how they should pass the weekend: ‘”It’s easier in the summer,” said Blenkinsop, “the young ladies usually bathe and the gentlemen read the papers on the esplanade; some goes for motor drives and some just hangs around the bar. They’re mostly glad when Monday comes”’ (138). Since it’s winter, the experience is anything but pleasurable. In a very funny twist on the divorce racket, Waugh has Milly insist on bringing her young daughter with her and Last spends most of the weekend feeding her ice-cream.

<11> It was Graham Greene’s novel, Brighton Rock (1938), which dramatically changed the landscape by turning Brighton into a crime scene. There are wonderful vivid descriptions of day-trippers coming down from London to ‘extract the grain of pleasure’:

They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky. (5)

But Greene overturns readers’ expectations of a Whitsun bank holiday by the sea by making it the backdrop for extortion, carvings and murder. It is perhaps difficult to imagine now what a shock the opening line must have been to its first readers: ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’ (5). 

<12> Greene transforms Brighton into a site of violent resistance to the status quo. The novel is a radical attack on the social inequality of the 1930s and the violence of capitalism. Ida, the novel’s pleasure-seeking amateur detective, accepts poverty as part of life. But Pinkie, the petty hoodlum she is tracking down, provokes the reader to a sense of outrage at the slums in which he grew up: ‘the houses that looked as if they had passed through an intensive bombardment, flapping gutters and glassless windows, an iron bedstead rusting in a front garden’ (90). When Pinkie is dragged back to Rose’s squalid home in the same Brighton backstreets, the reader is tempted to agree that ‘nobody could say he hadn’t done right to get away from this, to commit any crime …’ (143). 

<13> Greene’s originality lay in exposing what he called ‘the shabby secret behind the bright corsage’ (140). The glitter of the sea, the promenade and the pier, the grand facades of hotels sheltering respectable criminals with connections to the police and the government, are juxtaposed with the slums of Paradise Piece and the violated bodies of young girls buried under the West Pier or abandoned by the railway line. In Brighton Rockthe misery of abject poverty, previously associated with areas like the East End of London, was transposed to the seaside. Although Greene drew on newspapers accounts of race-track gangs and the so-called ‘trunk murders’, in which the dismembered parts of an unknown woman were found in the left luggage offices at Brighton and St Pancras stations, he admitted that his Brighton was largely invented. It was a brilliant invention: Brighton Rock is not an escape from London but its dark and sinister double. 

<14> In 1947, when the Boulting brothers made the film of Brighton Rock, they were obliged to appease the local council in the opening credit sequence. A voiceover announced solemnly: “That Other Brighton is no more”. That Other Brighton (of crime and violence) may have been manufactured by Greene but paradoxically it captured the town’s real and enduring class divisions (the slums of Roedean Bottom have been cleared but the town is ringed with neglected council estates). After Brighton Rock, violence and crime became part of the repertoire of Brighton clichés, even though its actual crime rate isn’t particularly high and never has been. Keith Waterhouse, another former resident, said that ‘Brighton has the air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their enquiries.’ It’s an amusing comment but one which subsumes Greene’s rage at poverty and injustice into harmless Brighton raffishness. Trading on Greene’s legacy, Peter James has a series of best-selling Brighton crime thrillers which all contain ‘Dead’ in the title. But the real inheritors of Brighton Rock were the Mods and Rockers of the 1960s (as I’ll show later) and the Punks in the 1970s, who saw themselves as Pinkie’s ‘army of children.’

<15> A few years after Brighton Rock, Patrick Hamilton used his home town in two London-on-sea novels, The West Pier and Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earls Court (1941). In the latter, Bone, an alcoholic with a split personality, ricochets between West London and the West Pier. When Netta, the woman he has been dogging hopelessly for months, suddenly agrees to a rendezvous in Brighton, he is ecstatic: he arrives early to book rooms; he dresses and shaves carefully. He even plays a round of golf to limber up. But she double-crosses him by arriving with a boozy entourage and by sleeping with a thug she has picked up on the way. Bone spends an excruciating night detecting the sounds of their drinking and the creaking bed springs in the room next to his. He decides he has to kill Netta in order to kill his desire for her. As he paces about the town in the early morning, every ordinary street and building seems to spell murder: 

While Brighton slept –- North Street, West Street, East Street, Western Road, Preston Street, Hove, the hotels, the shops, the restaurants, the movies, the baths, the booths, the churches, the Market, the Post Office, the pubs, the antiques, the second-hand books -– slept and gleamed and climbed up from the sea under the dark blue dawn, the enormous gloomy man walked along the front, hardly visible in the darkness, seemingly the only wayfarer, the only one awake. And he looked out at the sea and wondered what he had to do. When he remembered he was about opposite the Grand. He remembered without any trouble, any strain. He had to kill Netta Longdon (Hangover Square 166).

Although the killing takes place in darkest Earls Court, it is in Brighton that Bone has his murderous epiphany.

<16> I’m not sure whether growing up in Brighton automatically confers a uniquely morbid perspective on the city, but it seems to. Hamilton’s Brighton is a very lonely place: Bone is never as completely alone in Earls Court as he is walking by the edge of the sea, where he is reduced to a silhouette rather than a rounded character: a gloomy wayfarer way out of his depth; plunged into unconsciousness and waking to thoughts of homicide. 

<17> Ann Quin too was born in Brighton (in 1936). She died there at the age of 37 when, too far out always, she went swimming in the sea and didn’t make it back. One of the generation of avant-garde novelists in the 1960s, including BS Johnson, Quin’s strange and haunting novels have been largely overlooked. Giles Gordon said of her: “Here was a working-class voice from England quite unlike any other, which had absorbed the theatrical influences of John Osborne and employed the technical advances of the nouveau roman. Berg, to use shorthand, is a Graham Greene thriller as if reworked by a somewhat romantic Burroughs” (Introduction ix).

<18> Berg, which was her first novel, begins: ‘A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.’ Berg hasn’t necessarily come to Brighton from London (Quin doesn’t say where he grew up) and so the novel isn’t strictly relevant to this paper. But since it is such an extraordinary Brighton novel and Quin has been marginalised for so long I thought I would include it.

<19> Quin’s Brighton is simultaneously a real place by the sea, filled with the ‘smell of seaweed together with tar and oil’; a Greek amphitheatre where the tragedy is acted out; and (since dialogue and narration seem to merge) like being trapped inside Berg’s skull (just as he is trapped in Brighton). There are no holiday-makers, only a Greek chorus of tramps: ‘The station a discarded film set as he passed through the barrier. The only sign of life seemed to be in the waiting room, crammed full of destitutes rubbing themselves, each other, or crouching over the fire ‘(133). And the Brighton of carnival pleasure is surreal and ghastly: ‘the sight and sound of couples miming the act of love [in the dance hall] across the way sickened him’ (45). Everything about the mise en scène is both vivid and deliberately unreal.

<20> Berg takes a room next to his father’s in a seedy boarding house intending to take revenge against him for abandoning his mother when he was a baby. (Quin herself was brought up by her single mother.) Although he knows it’s absurd he wants ‘to take his father’s corpse back home to Edith –- the trophy of his triumphant love for her. In a Greek play they’d have thought nothing of it, considered it to have been a duty, the final act of what the gods expected from their chosen hero’ (106). Like Hamlet, he repeatedly fails to do the deed, despite ample opportunity. At one point he believes he has committed patricide and he carries his father’s corpse on his back looking for somewhere to hide it, before discovering that he has only strangled his father’s ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s an uncanny way to figure a father, who in himself is of no particular importance, but who through his absence manages to dominate and control. Like Oedipus, Berg finds himself seducing his father’s mistress, Judith, and by the end of the novel he and his father have changed places: he has moved in with Judith while a man who may be his father is in his old room. Berg cannot kill his father but he can usurp him.

<21> Another 1960s oddity is Colin Spencer’s little known novel, Anarchists in Love (1963). It could possibly qualify as a queer novel. There are references to a famous gay pub, presumably Doctor Brightons; one of the main characters is a drag queen and another, Reg, is a bi-sexual hoping to go straight with a young female artist called Sundy. Spencer’s Brighton is a safe haven for homosexuals and for the promiscuous of all persuasions. In the summer it overflows with young people who have chucked up their jobs and come down to lie on the beaches: ‘they will search for a partner to share the evening with, drinking, talking, then back to the lonely bed-sitter to make love’ (11). The novel opens with Sundy’s relief at having escaped East Croydon and its ‘tight bright square little houses sedately sitting in small patches of lawn’ (65). Although Sundy is pursued by her disapproving family and Reg has to shake off a grotesque Sugar Daddy from London, 1960s bohemian Brighton provides a space where they can defy convention and be themselves.

<22> The acme of “fuck em all” Brighton is the cult classic, Quadrophenia (1979), set in the 1960s when Mods and Rockers came down to Brighton for the bank holiday and rioted. Based on the Who’s concept album, the film contrasts Jimmy’s ecstatic weekend with Steph in Brighton, with the miserable routine of living with his parents in Shepherd’s Bush and working as a post boy in an advertising agency. The excitement of the Brighton scenes is generated by the crowds. London crowds in 20th century literature tend to be hordes of zombies trudging to their offices (The Waste Land’s “I had not thought death had undone so many”). But the crowds in Quadrophenia are pleasure-seekers and, more, young rebels defiantly asserting their identity by taking over the town. Interestingly, many of the Brighton settings in the film are cramped. Since they haven’t enough money for a hotel, the Mods sleep in a small fisherman’s arch on the beach. And when Jimmy and Steph have sex (the highlight of his life) it’s in a narrow back alley off East Street, while the riot rages around them. The geography of the film suggests that there is little room for an alternative way of living even in Brighton. Like all weekends away from London the return journey, to work and normality, is built into the escapade from the beginning. Brighton, like the counter-cultural Mod lifestyle, is for holidays only. When he packs in his job Jimmy’s friends laugh at him, because he won’t have any money to buy clothes and speed. Once his parents kick him out there is only one place left to go and that’s back to Brighton to live out his dream. But when he sees that his hero, Ace Face (played by Sting), is just a bell-hop in a seafront hotel, Jimmy realises that his rebellion has reached the end of the line. In the final scene he steals Sting’s flash scooter and drives it off the cliffs at Beachy Head: It seems at first as if he has committed suicide and that (like Septimus in Mrs Dalloway) his death is a final act of “defiance”. But since it’s only the scooter which goes over the edge, perhaps after all, Jimmy goes back and gets the girl. 

<23> Brighton’s heyday as a literary destination seems to have been between the 1920s and the 1960s. In the era of cheap flights more exotic settings became possible, and since the Eurostar, Paris is the more likely city for a romantic weekend. Brighton does still figure in contemporary fiction. Alison McLeod twins Brighton and Paris in a short story called “Dirty Weekend”; while Julie Burchill’s coming of age novel, Sugar Rush, begins with a conventional father (‘half man, half pinny’) moving from London to Brighton to provide a more wholesome environment for his daughter. Of course, she discovers drink, drugs and lesbian sex at the local school. And, as already mentioned, there’s the recent film London to Brighton and Peter James’ “Dead” thrillers. But it is, perhaps, harder today to infuse the clichés (of sex, death or sanctuary) with originality.

<24> In many London-to-Brighton texts, Brighton is like a hall of mirrors on the end of the pier in which characters are forced to recognise their reflection, however reduced, enlarged, or grotesque. At the same time, in every London-to-Brighton text, there is always a moment when a character looks out to sea. Perhaps what people are searching for when they come to Brighton is a horizon (which it’s hard to find in London); a glimpse of eternity, or just a sense of possibility. And, even if it is a bit of a cliché, the sight of the sea is always most exhilarating standing on the edge after rocking down from London.

Works Cited

Campbell, Peter. ‘In Brighton.’ London Review of Books. 23 May, 2002.

Greene, Graham. Brighton Rock. London: Vintage, 2002.

Hamilton, Patrick. Hangover Square. London: Penguin Classics, 2001. 

Herbert, A.P. Holy Deadlock. London: Penguin, 1955.

MacLeod, Alison. Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction. London: Penguin, 2001.

Quin, Ann. Berg. Chicago: Dalkey Archive Press, 2001.

Shields, Rob. ‘“The System of Pleasure”: Liminality and the Carnivalesque at Brighton’. Theory, Culture and Society. February 1990: 39-72. 

Southam, B.C. A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.

Spencer, Colin. Anarchists in Love. London: Panther Books, 1970.

Waugh, Evelyn. A Handful of Dust. London: Penguin Classics, 2000.


To Cite This Article:

Susie Thomas, ‘London to Brighton: Round the Bend and Over the Edge’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 2 (September 2010). Online at Accessed on [date of access].