In Brighton, culture of debauchery reigns

But tourism officials keep push on town's rich past

July 23, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BRIGHTON, England - Janet Parsons may have one of the United Kingdom's toughest jobs, which is saying quite a lot about the state of the country's coastal resorts.

Her job: not just to attract visitors to Brighton, a "London-By-The-Sea," as it is marketed, but to get them here to soak in its culture, to appreciate a city once populated by the likes of authors Lewis Carroll and Jane Austen, and lent a regal air by the playboy king, George IV.

Only problem is, while Brighton has a healthy arts scene and culture can be found, the city is dominated by teen-age kids experimenting with their first pints of ale and twenty-something revelers well into advanced research of the same refreshment, proving it by emptying themselves in business doorways and passing out in the city's alleys.

Despite Parsons' best efforts, to wend through the heart of Brighton is to absorb all the culture of a carnival midway.

"I wouldn't call it frustrating, but it does present quite a challenge, doesn't it?" she says, without a hint of sarcasm, from her town hall office. "We're pushing culture but the fact is, it's a very hedonistic place, really. If you like to have fun, you'll love it here."

Brighton is not alone among Britain's coastal towns in trying not so much to find itself as attempting to adjust to the realities of the present while clinging, fingernails torn, to its rich past.

Long gone are the Victorian days when the British flocked to Brighton or Bournemouth or any number of coastal resorts for two-week summer vacations, more than willing to don overcoats on the beach to keep off July's noon chill.

With travel now relatively inexpensive and the wealth of the English moving upward over the decades, residents from London and elsewhere in the country spend their "real" vacations in places such as Spain and Portugal, where the sun is not so shy and sunbathers can end their day with skin that is not still white as silver. And they can lie on beaches of sand, not egg-sized rocks, as in Brighton. A great many vacationers who do head here come for the clubs, which throb until the sun rises, some of them later.

That has left a culture-lovers' void filled by the likes of the 250,000 people who visited the beach on a Saturday night this month for a free concert by one of the country's biggest celebrities, DJ Fatboy Slim. The throng smashed beer bottles on the beach (enough to close it for two days), shimmied up light poles (better to avoid being crushed to death) and enjoyed sex on the beach (not the alcoholic drink sold in every city pub). Fearing a riot, officials called in police from as far away as London, about 90 minutes to the north.

"You can get away with anything in Brighton," Keith Lee says while "sunning" himself on the beach in long jeans and a T-shirt, boom-box scratching next to him. "That's why I'm here."

A house painter, Lee moved to Brighton 10 years ago, he says, to get away from the "rat race" of London. He, like his friend Alex Sneddon, 31, swears he will never leave.

"I love the clubs down here, even at my age," says Lee, 50. "Every day's a fun day. You can never get bored in Brighton."

Meaning he and Sneddon will spend a Saturday making culture-pushing tourism officials happy by taking in some theater or visiting a museum?

"Can't say I've ever been," says Sneddon.

"Not at all," adds Lee. "I'll take the clubs."

Not that the arts and a colorful history are lacking. Alice in Wonderland is said to have come about after Lewis Carroll was inspired by a "secret" garden beneath his flat a short distance from the Brighton coast. Jane Austen gives the town's military camps a mention in Pride and Prejudice. And portions of the movies Tommy and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever were filmed in Brighton.

This is the city where Charles II spent his last night on British soil before escaping to France in the Battle of Worcester in 1651. George IV kept his mistresses here.

Still, while Brighton's tourism office has no precise figures on who comes to the city for what, the majority of the 8 million visitors a year come on day trips or for a weekend for the rocky beach and the rocking club scene.

"Isn't it lovely," says Edith Randall, 68, bundled up on the beach at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. "Night will be different."

Visiting with her husband, Victor Randall, and friends Jean and Edward Snaith, she had not been to Brighton in 25 years. She says she finds it more active than then, with more restaurants and far more pubs, and recognizes the city will never be a tranquil cultural center.

"You see all the old people like us around, and then you have the very young," she says. "That's what Brighton is now."

Victor Randall says money is at the root of at least some of Brighton's evils. That's because families and young adults with money are flying off to Spain for their vacations, leaving the short-termers at Brighton, he says.

"People couldn't afford to travel as they do now," he explains. "Now they go to Spain or wherever they'd like. The nightlife has changed completely. Now you have women seducing men in the bars instead of the other way around, that's what's happened, no?"

He adds, "I'm just bloody annoyed I'm too old for that."

Parsons has no plans to give up her cultural push and no harsh words about the people who come for other reasons. Tourism, in whatever form, is too important to the city. Visitors contribute nearly $600 million a year and help employ 13,000 people. Culture aside, the tourism office is selling Brighton to gay travelers, to overseas visitors who might want a diversion after a few days in London, to the odd young chap who might want to bring his girlfriend here to propose and to married couples without children.

And the office is pushing for empty-nesters who don't mind a bit of debauchery.

"We tell them, oh, yes, lots of culture," says Parsons. "In addition, you can feel young again."

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