The modern, rough-guided tourist experience is satisfying for the same reason that maths is satisfying: because it is tautological. You put in your variables, do whatever working out needs doing and the result should balance. Before coming to Brighton I did a mental checklist of the things that I wanted to see: Pavilion, Beach, Pier, Gay Parade. This is what Brighton offered and this is what I wanted to receive. No, don’t mention to me the stealth attractions undetected by my rudimentary radar; like tourists the world over, I don’t want to even countenance the thought that I haven’t captured the essence of a place. I came, I saw, I went home happy . . . if only things were this simple.
Brighton is the gay capital of Britain, so it made touristic sense to visit it when it was at its gayest. The Saturday I went was Pride, the Notting Hill Carnival of the lesbian, gay and bisexual community. Outsiders are tolerated in the same way as they are at Notting Hill: they are rightly ignored. Watch, but don’t touch. At least, don’t touch unless you really want to. This was their day to have fun, beginning with the parade.
“You must think that I’m some kind of gay parade,” sang Lou Reed on Vicious. No, not really, Lou. You see a gay parade is all hi-Nrg costumed camp underscored by worthy messages, whereas you, Lou, are soporific camp with a gift for writing about oddball characters. The two are completely different. Although, before the gay community went mainstream, he could have been right. As the sixty-four floats went by, one saw oiled bodies, elaborate dresses and earnest sentiments. The cliche of homosexuality as tragedy has disappeared, replaced with the buffering provided by a huge support network of trusts, switchboards and communities. Each gay bar, each switchboard, even the St. Johns Ambulance, all of them had their float. Virtually all of them got dressed up, often inspired by the exuberant dresses of Moulin Rouge. As the revellers on their convoys danced and sweated, got burnt and dehydrated, in their progression towards the Pride festival on Preston Park, I walked to the Pier.
Brighton Pier is vivid and alive, despite its tawdry appearance, merely through being situated where the burnt skeleton of the old pier is visible. The old pier is forlorn but picturesque and should, I think, be kept there as a reminder of life’s vicissitudes. The functioning pier rigidly applies every available cliche to the extent that the palmist, the candyfloss and the painted board where two people put their heads to look like a hunk carried by a busty lifeguard fail to evoke even a flicker of disdain. The rides are mediocre by modern standards. I have been waltzered to death, the dodgems: I dodge ’em. A standard rollercoaster: puh-leeeezze. No, the only ride that had the pre-teens screaming was the one called, bathetically, Ranger. This was, essentially, a caged Pirate ship that went around 360Â°. It did this slowly at first, making the force of gravity pull down on you like an angry god. Eyes closed, we knew that one fault in the harness and we would plunge to certain death. Christ. Confronting fears: Brilliant.
It was a natural progression to the beach, which if you believed the press, should have been swarming. Indeed, next day, there was a picture of the beach on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph with the headline ‘Standing Room Only’. What rot! There was loads of room. Also, people complain about it being a pebble beach, but for the day trip, where long walks make sandy toes a no-no, it is perfect. I love beaches; there is something thrilling about indulging in boredom for boredom’s sake.
Brighton is blighted, like many of our best cities, by the type of road system which infuriates pedestrians with its confusing loops. Nevertheless, I managed to find Brighton Pavilion without too much difficulty. I had been fooled by black and white photography into thinking that it would be spectacular and, to be sure, it has got a certain individuality, but where is the colour? It is the colour of cardboard, blending into the background without arresting the eye at all. Instead of spending money on seeing the much recommended inside, I went to Brighton Museum to coo over Dali’s Mae West Lips Sofa.
With suitably camp thoughts now in mind, I wandered to Preston Park for the festival. The perfect weather had brought a huge crowd, with the open plan park displaying an entertaining vista of bungee rides, performance tents and stalls. After a short time, I realised that Britain is a very gay place: for this Pride, my first, was filled with people of such resolute normality. Using the crowd as a basis for generalisation, one might say that straight and gay are becoming intertwined, with gays slightly better dressed. Later, I ate some dodgy looking vegan falafel, drank some more (despite being inured to the effects of alcohol thanks to some slow-paced intermittent drinking) and ambled back to the beach to continue the revelry. My companions decided to make it an all-nighter, but my girlfriend and I, pleased with the day were content, wanting to savour the day by remembering it on the last train back to London.
If my story ended there I would be ecstatic, instead it dragged on. And on. And on. Through hell and back, via Croydon . . . I can only bear the tickertape version: Lost on the way back to the station. Last train packed. No seats. Incredibly hot. No alcohol to assuage this feeling of frustration. Train stops twenty mile away from Croydon for an hour and a half with no explanation given . . . I can’t even bear to write this version. Let’s just say that my daytrip all-but-savaged by our useless public transport. But then, I should have remembered, that is invariably the case.