JJ Lee is the author of GG-award nominated non-fiction book The Measure of a Man: A Father, A Son, and a Suit.
Gaudy is Good: Bath and Brighton Pier, part III, by Kenneth Radu
One great similarity between the streets of Bath and Brighton Pier is the number of young men pushing baby carriages and strollers with ease and good humour. This is noticeable throughout England, so much so that I mention it here. Carnivals and children are joined at the hip in spirit. It strikes me as a Dad kind of thing to do: take the kids to a carnival park on a Bank holiday. Brighton Pier has been so inextricably associated in the past with lower class recreation that to this day I have witnessed a supercilious eyebrow rise to the middle of an acquaintance’s heavily-wrinkled forehead when I mentioned going there.
Even now a restaurant on the Pier famous for the quality of its fish and chips boasts that it has superior status, as if appealing to a finer clientele. I ate there for lunch, not because I am finer than the next person, but because of the sign: the “spiritual home of fish and chips.” I don’t know what spiritual in this context could possibly mean. The fish and chips were excellent, but so were those I bought from a hole-in-the-wall chippy in Newhaven. In neither instance did I experience enlightenment or transcendence, but then I am no judge of matters spiritual.
The rocks and stones of Brighton beach have been polished smooth over the decades since that appalling day August 19, 1942 when Canadian troops and their allies crossed the channel to meet catastrophe on the beach of Dieppe. Overlooked by memorials raised to honour the slaughtered soldiers, the beach is almost indistinguishable from Brighton’s, the rocks the same colour and texture. From the ferry one can see white cliffs rising above the water on the Dieppe side, as if the two landscapes had at one time been joined and ripped apart by a prehistoric seismic force. Despite the beach resort atmosphere and fathers flying kites with their children, I did not see a carnival Pier, so I stood on the expansive shore as uncluttered as a Zen garden, wrapped up against a fierce arctic wind undercutting the April sun’s warmth. Imagining the explosions and carnage, I knelt to touch rocks that had once been dyed with the blood of Canadian men. I returned to Newhaven that night with Dieppe pebbles in my pocket.
It’s likely that some of those soldiers pitched rings for kewpie dolls, bought the rock candy for their English girlfriends, drank pints of ale on the Pier, ate fish and chips out of newspaper cones, and generally had a good time before shipping out from Newhaven to meet their violent death across the channel. I find it an interesting coincidence that a bus from Newhaven also carries you to Virginia Woolf’s country retreat in Rodmell where, I suspect, few Canadian soldiers were invited. One can be pulled in two opposing directions, culturally speaking, from the same port city. I visited both, and my feelings about Woolf’s lovely garden and writing shack are not remotely akin to those about the Pier. I amused myself on the bus and pictured Mrs. Dalloway gathering myriad impressions as she sat on a Pier bench, munching chips over a bouquet of flowers.
Royal Crescent, Bath
Odd really, even though it suffered an air raid during the Second World War, I don’t think of Bath and carousing soldiers. The avenues and squares call one to order, the warm and inviting pubs notwithstanding. Well, its distance from the coasts of Europe may also have something to do with it. One remembers Bath was founded by and named Aquae Sulius, and established primarily as a military encampment, although religion quickly followed as the temple to Minerva attests. Hot springs were always sacred to the Romans, just as they attract visitors, religious or not, by the thousands today. Brighton does not arouse religious adoration.
The carousel towards the latter end of the Brighton Pier, just before the roller coaster, is grotesquely beautiful, and enthrals the children and older bystanders for that reason. So vividly painted, the horses eerily distorted as they circle and bob, transfixed on a silvery pole to which half-terrified and half-delighted kids hang on and ride. Like all such carousels, this one unapologetically violates principles of aesthetic restraint, nightmarishly stunning as it spins to blaring music above the water. Trying to recall the name of a horror story involving a manic carousel with psychotic horses, I also remembered D.H. Lawrence’s haunting story, “The Rocking Horse Winner,” and thought any one of the horses madly bobbing in front of me would serve for the part in a new film version.
The Pier is crass and energizing, but also beautiful because it escapes social confinements and the politics of good taste. It has not really escaped real politics, of course, for official vigilance is ever-present. What is more political than the watchful eye of the authorities in the name of public safety? Exuberance, however, can exhaust the spirit, the clutter and thrills weary the mind, so one longs to escape the plethora of competing colours and the cacophony of fun, not to mention the squawking gulls – can one ever get used to their wretched voice, second only to that of high-nesting rooks?
Bath is pleasing to the eye and, like the Roman baths themselves, refreshing to the body and soul. It has a university which means the presence of a large number of young people who naturally enliven and rejuvenate an old city confined by heritage and the traditions of decorum. Brighton may have a university also, I haven’t checked, but it has the glorious Pier which hosts all classes of the young, and the old who remember being young and disporting themselves there. The youthfulness spills into the streets and imbues the city with a sense of alternatives and riskiness behind the bright façades and carnival atmosphere.
Pay £20 for 30 tokens and go for a whirl. I dislike a churned stomach and being jolted about; bus rides at a fast clip up and down the narrow roads of Cornwall just about did me in. A bit of a stick in the mud and too old for unaffected joy at a carnival, I watched as if entranced, getting my thrills vicariously.
Not as large as the London Eye near Battersea Park, but equally terrifying to anyone afraid of heights, the giant Ferris wheel circles pointlessly on the sun-lit, wind-blasted beach of stones. Rows of kiosks sell fish and chips, mugs emblazoned with Jubilee pictures of the Queen and other members of the royal family, Union Jacks and fridge magnets, and that inevitable symbol of tackiness, the kewpie doll. I paid £2.50 for a fridge magnet of Bath. I did not pay £1.75 for a magnet of Brighton. Pity.
© Kenneth Radu 2012
Author Kenneth Radu
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Sex in Russia (DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.
Photos: Courtesy Kenneth Radu