Review of André Alexis's novel Pastoral (Coach House Press)
Under the Pier on the beach: dark, dingy, littered, ponderous steel doors in cement suggest passages to inquisitorial cells or prison. Here nefarious activities, petty criminal and worse transactions occur. I remembered Pinkie, the adolescent and sociopathic murderer of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, published in 1938. My notion of Brighton Pier had been shaped by literature and cinema, including the 1947 movie version of Greene’s novel. Black and white Rank films of the fifties and kitchen sink dramas about the working class cheerily taking the train to Brighton for a day’s outing also unconsciously created the Pier of my imagination. In these works the Pier provides escape and cheap thrills for Londoners, families on the dole, sullen youths, breathless lovers, and pensioners who wear ugly clothes. They have little pocket money and high hopes that something better would come along, or they’ve already resigned themselves to the limitations of their lives. In Brighton, Pinkie conducted his unsavoury and lethal affairs, he and others like him, perhaps not as often today, for the city and Pier are patrolled by the police and under video surveillance evident throughout England.
Brighton has always been a challenge to the supercilious and class conscious: it’s cheeky and low-brow, to use that deeply class-conscious term, and raises the brow of some to the height of their cultural intolerance. The carnival of the Pier is indifferent to, and also mocks the pretensions of “high” culture. It is lurid, garish, noisy, a pleasure Pier extending out to the sea. Other pleasure piers exist, but Brighton grabs the heart because I came to it through art. My impressions of Bath were also formed by novels, specifically Jane Austen’s, and yet it does not excite in the same way. Brighton must connect somehow with my childhood experiences in amusement parks and carnivals, and possibly with my own working class roots. Stateliness and ritualistic manners played no part in my games or parents’ household.
On the walk from the train station to the Pier one senses and sees elements of alternative cultures beyond the sassy and outré boutiques on Sydney and other streets. Although the stores exist to entice tourists to liberate their sense of style and open their pocket books, the bizarre concatenation of colours and patterns and the surprisingly cheap prices persuade one to believe that exploitation is not their purpose. You pay a reasonable sum for an orange boa or brown outsized wallet designed to hold the once outsized English pound. Window-shopping and conversation with the merchants are encouraged as much as the outlay of capital.
To paraphrase what Samuel Johnson said of London, Brighton is a place for someone not tired of life, an absorbing concentration of urban noise, tastes and textures, tensions and joie de vivre, all headed towards the Pier and Brighton’s stony beach. The city has other venues to admire: the Royal Pavilion, for example, that pseudo-Indian palace squat in its own parkland, an architectural symbol of the British Empire and Queen Victoria’s elevation as Empress of India. However remarkable, it’s phony and dated, taking itself too seriously, lacking spontaneity and self-mockery. For all its glitz and sensationalism, Brighton Pier is authentic, contemporary, and rollicking with good humour.
In the distance, white cliffs rise out of the water: not Dover, but they are cliffs, white, so they will do. The rocky beach is pristine, as if regularly laundered by the tide.
Bath is beautiful in the way Brighton is not: sedate façades and iron palings, a vigorous river and splendid rooms, all contribute to a grand effect, the Bath manner, but one longs for the upstart and riotous, for colour. Limestone structures, identical rows of Georgian townhouses, the imposing public buildings, however lovely and subtly changing hue according to the light of the day, collectively insist that here audacious colour schemes would violate the spirit of this fine city. The canola yellow and bright blue outfits of police and town workers, not peculiar to Bath, are handsomely set off by the muted patina of the stone, especially when the sky is overcast. To be sure, Brighton has its serious streets and sedate neighbourhoods suitable for hosting international symposia and raising children, but one can spray one’s house pink without breaking a by-law.
Bath is composed, self-assured, certain of its dignity, the centre of public decorum and the subdued tones of elegance. Grand avenues and neighbourhoods like Great Pulteney, the Circus, the Royal Crescent, narrow laneways, even the Stall, which is the pedestrian-only main shopping district: all convey, despite crowds and goods for sale and souvenir shops, the eighteenth century obsession with decorum, order, and rational behaviour. It’s both unfair and inaccurate to reduce a city to its tourist sites where one sees much but understands little. Still, we go because the sites are there, unavoidable like the weather. In some respects the sites embody or reflect the identity of the city. Who can go to Winchester without visiting the Cathedral, and perhaps paying one’s respects to Jane Austen, or York without gazing upon the stained glass windows of the great Minster, or Bath without tasting the famous water, or to Brighton without walking the Pier?
© Kenneth Radu, 2012
Photos courtesy 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.
Review of André Alexis's novel Pastoral (Coach House Press)
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Photo: A. Quist
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