We’ve returned to Montreal from a two-week vacation in Great Britain. I say ‘vacation’, but my real life mainly consists of reading books in the local park at the moment so I wasn’t really vacationing from much. To my girlfriend (who works), this was very much a real vacation (shamefully, her only one for the year) and I was keen to show her a good cross-section of my country of origin. We’d see Brighton, London, the Midlands, Festival Edinburgh and Glasgow.
This entry is a transcript of my travel log of the Brighton leg of the trip. I intend to post a couple more from the other legs of the trip. Will people hate this? If you think these entries are rubbish, please leave a comment rather than unsubscribing. I love each and every one of our subscribers and it would be a shame to lose them by talking about my holiday.
Before leaving Montreal, we stopped at the ‘National’ library of Quebec to search out some books for the journey. I had knowledge that Stewart Lee’s new book about stand-up comedy was waiting for me on the other side of the ocean so I resolved only to take a little book for the outgoing flight. In the essays section of the library, I chanced across grumpy little tome by Aldus Huxley called Along the road: notes and essays of a tourist. It contains an essay titled ‘Books for the journey’. Huxley writes: “long experience has taught me to reduce in some slight measure the dimensions of my travelling library. But even now I am far too optimistic about my powers of reading whilst on a journey. Along with the books I know it is possible to read, I still continue to put in a few impossible volumes in the pious hope that somehow, someday, they will get read. Thick tomes have travelled with me for thousands of kilometres across the face of Europe and have returned with their secrets unviolated.” Unlike Huxley, I am not a complete spod, so I left his book on the shelf and took a tiny book of far wittier and more pleasant essays by G. K. Chesterton.
After flying into Heathrow, our first stop was the seaside town of Brighton. What better way to begin exploring the national identity than a couple of days in Cockney paradise? We were met by a horrible rainstorm, hit repeatedly in the face by sea spray as we schlepped our luggage up the seafront toward the hotel. I think this was the most appropriate welcome to this sceptered isle.
The hotel looked nice (and was indeed very serviceable) but the room we were taken to was not the room we had chosen online. The hotel has twenty or so rooms, each themed around a different historical character with connections to Brighton. Being ghastly dandies, my girlfriend and I had chosen the Aubrey Beardsley Suite but had been placed in a less character-specific West Pier room with a view of the destroyed West Pier. “Technically it’s an upgrade,” said the manager, which had a whiff of deflated optimism about it. A technical upgrade it may have been but the telephone didn’t work and neither did the jacuzzi bath. Ah, Brighton! In the end, we decided to make the most of the room (it at least had a very comfortable four-poster bed, something neither of us had experienced before) and we began to enjoy the post-apocalyptic specter of the destroyed pier.
Once the storm had calmed down outside, we went for an early-evening walk along the seafront. It is such a ridiculous cliche, but there really is something to be said for sea air. It tastes salty and clean. I can see why people like to live near to the coast and why ‘Middle England’ and ‘Middle America’ are such cultural vacuums: to be the furthest possible distance from the coast has a similarly depressing effect to working in a windowless office. I’ve always eschewed hotel rooms with a ‘sea view’ on the grounds that they’re expensive for no good reason, but I really enjoyed that the “technical upgrade” allowed for a sea view on this trip. It was a wonderful thing to wake up to. At night, looking out to sea has the opposite effect though: there’s a blackness out there like no other. Terrifying. I don’t mind admitting that I’m slightly afraid of the sublime: mountains, canyons, even large fields make me giddy. The nightview of the English Channel had a similar effect. There was an unthinkable darkness out there (well, unthinkable to me as a pampered urbanite who hasn’t seen the sea, save for out of airplane windows, in about fifteen years). On the way back to the hotel, we saw a couple of lonely men seemingly cruising on the pebble beach in front of this horrible, black abyss. It struck me as a staggeringly nihilistic scene and one I will seek to channel next time I do stand-up comedy or a cheerful podcast. We went back to our hotel room and watched QI on good old BBC1. Jo Brand was there. Clarkson was there. Stephen Fry was lambasting Alan Davies for being a tee-shirted ninny. I was back in Blighty.
The next day, we would see the Royal Pavillion, the real Pier, the beach in sunshine, the Sea Life Centre and go for a drink with my Glasgow friend Becky. The pier brought back amazingly potent childhood memories even though I think I only ever came to Brighton once as a child. There were very familiar scenes in the amusement arcades, which are as rubbish as I remembered, and stalls selling traditional Cockney holiday foods such as Jellied Eels, cockles, muscles, candy-floss, whippy ice-cream and fish and chips. We ate some disgusting, bone-filled fish and chips in the heat of the sun and felt like a proper couple of British holiday makers from the 1960s. It was exactly right. The Sea Life Centre was an interesting experience too: not for the aquatic exhibitions on display but for the amazing cattlefolk who had paid to visit. At one point, my girlfriend and I were watching some mating terrapins when a Brummie lummox came up alongside us, shouting “LOOK, KIDS! THEY’RE FIGHTING! COME AND WATCH THE FIGHTING!” Not only had he misinterpreted something quite beautiful as an act of violence, he was eager for his children to come and enjoy the entertaining violence. What a horrible man. Sadly, many of the people we witnessed in the Sea Life Centre were like this. There was some amazingly bad parenting on display. It made me re-consider a friend’s brutal claim that Britain is “a nation of morons”. Maybe it is after all. When a person’s first instinct is to run, screaming, up to a small animal and bang heavily upon the glass of its tank, it makes me wonder what hope there is for civilisation. If you assume that middleclass humans are generally decent, a trip to the Sea Life Centre in Brighton will put that right.
After this glimpse into the darkness of the human psyche, we went to the famous ‘lanes’ shopping experience and the gay village. Most of this area is coloured with signs of Mod culture, which still exists here. Lots of snappily dressed young men with brylcreamed hair. For once, I didn’t stand out in the crowd. I wondered whether the Mod aesthetic was informed by Dave Brubeck, since most Mods seem to dress exactly like him. He certainly predated the Mods. For some reason, when I tried to articulate this thought to my girlfriend as we made our way around the lanes, I completely forgot Dave Brubeck’s name. What the hell was wrong with me? I’ve got a whole box set of his albums at home (now in MP3 form, naturally). “He did ‘Time Out’ and ‘Take Five’ and all that!” I implored my girlfriend for help, but she rightly doesn’t care about jazz and wasn’t able to help me. We had to visit a bookshop and look him up. “Oh, Dave Brubeck!” I said, and for the rest of the day used the words “Dave Brubeck” to mean other things, in the fashion of Trout Fishing in America. “I’ll have a cup of Dave Brubeck, please” etc.
I also wondered about the Mod usage of the RAF Roundel. Why did they aproprate this of all symbols? I am interested because the Fluchtverdächtiger campaign is all about appropriation of symbols and the roudel even looks a bit like a Fluchtverdächtiger. I still don’t know why the Mods took to this. It’s a shame that I know so much about Skin-heads and so little about the Mods, when I’m far more of a Mod than a Skin-head in spirit and action. Does anyone know about the Mod use of the Roundel? Call me.
A little later, we met with my friend Becky. I sort-of knew Becky from Glasgow but we had never deliberately socialised together: we just happened to have a few mutual friends so we would see each other around the hipster parties. I wondered if it would be weird to Facebook her out of the blue, asking to meet for a pint, but she was the only person I knew in Brighton and I didn’t see the harm. In fact, I would see it as exercising Existential freedom or something. I think people were more likely to meet on a tenuous relationship in the past. When I first moved to Scotland in 2004, my grandad gave me the address of someone in Aberdeen who he new in the war. I explained to him that there was no way I would call on someone to whom I was so tenuously connected and he thought I was being stubborn. Maybe that is just my grandad though, rather than a sign of changing times. Anyway, the meeting with Becky was a pleasure and I’m glad I called on her. She’s doing stand-up comedy now too, even though she’s mainly a neuroscientist. Everyone’s having a crack. And why not?
Very British experience as we tried to escape Brighton the next day. I’d perhaps foolishly bought a return bus ticket from Heathrow. We didn’t want to go back to the airport though, just into London itself. When we arrived at the bus station (in actuality, two parking spaces, an information board and a telephone box) there was an idling bus with “London” on the front. I explained the situation to the driver who said it was more than his job was worth to take us. Our tickets were for Heathrow, you see, not London. Even though his coach was mostly empty and we had clearly paid for our tickets, he wouldn’t be able to take us unless we spoke to someone from National Express first. Thankfully there was a Rep from National Express at the bus station, identified by a luminous tabard. Sadly, he couldn’t give us permission either: we would have to call the company. I wondered what use this representative was if he couldn’t do this for us or call the company on our behalf. His job seemed mainly to direct people to the information boards and to chat to the drivers before departure. I used the public telephone box but was thwarted utterly thanks to National Express’ helpline being a premium rate number with about three minute’s worth of banter at the front end. Before I knew it, I’d gotten through about £4.60 of change when the telephone box inexplicable killed my conversation and returned 30p. I was fairly furious. “Why can’t public facilities work in this country?” I shouted to nobody in particular. But of course, they’re not public facilities any more are they? Everything is built around cars and mobile phones and other privatised services. (You might be interested to know that this is not the case even in the United $tates of America where I was able to call my mother in Britain from a payphone in New York City for 50¢).
We eventually left Brighton (via Heathrow), peppy and perky and with new insights into the darkness of the human soul and the uselessness of British public services. It had been lovely to be so close to the sea and to the great working class getaway, but it would be better to get back to London where they have Cafe Nero and public transport and nihilism manifests itself in more inventive ways.