The ‘South Lanes Burger King’ Petition

I missed the fuss about the recent petition against a new Burger King in Brighton’s Lanes – the only post I saw on facebook simply questioned the petition’s reference to the ‘South Lanes’ (now corrected). But it looks as if there is a planning request for “Installation of 3no. air conditioning units, 2no. chiller and freezer condenser units and other associated alterations.” at Clarendon Mansions, evidently for a new Burger King.

I’m not a fan of burger restaurants that aren’t Grubbs, and haven’t set foot in a Burger King for about a decade. Even so, this petition made me uncomfortable. And that’s not just snark about the misnaming of the Lanes (although, as one signer suggested, “if we’re concerned with the history of the area let’s get its name right”).

  • Why did the petition only go up just before the deadline? The petition’s creator implies that the annoucement was delayed to prevent protest. Is this the case? I assume there is some sort of standard consulation period. Was this really not followed?
  • Are the “independent Burger provisioners … already resident around the street serving up far better nom noms?” really competing with a Burger King? Maybe people who don’t use words like nom-noms have different requirements? Some people genuinely prefer visiting a chain they are familiar with.
  • “the move to open more chain shops on East Street signals the beginning of the end on a irreparable slope of genericism, that sees our local elected council try ever so hard to turn our city centre into a carbon copy of every other British city” – Any evidence for this?
  • The petition refers to “proven fake evidence supplied by the police” against the Northern Lights bar. The petition owner needs to publish this proof. And, while there have been some bitter arguments over licensing recently, there have also been some venue owners distorting the facts significantly.
  • Whitbread, who own the lease on the building have left it empty for three years. Is an empty pub really better than an open restaurant?
  • “The council have decided, Brighton’s lovely vibe now needs more corporate sponsors”. Is there any evidence for this claim, given that the planning request was from a private individual?
  • 10,000 signers in 24 hours is impressive. What are the signatories doing about other things that are far bigger problems in our city, like the housing crisis, lack of mental health provision, collapsing seafront infrastructure, parking problems and poor public transport? (And where were they when the petition for a life-size replica of the West Pier was published? Why weren’t there this many objections to the strip club just down the road?)
  • The planing applicant was previously a franchisee of the Aquarium redevelopment, one of the few business to survive there. No question here, just wanted to point out how awkward that area would have looked without a Burger King.

As the Argus points out “The petitioners [sic] concerns may not be considered valid planning objections because the building already has permission to be used as a pub and will not need permission to become a restaurant…”

A lot of the objections are based around the idea that a Burger King would be the ‘wrong sort of development’. For whom? This idea of Brighton as a utopia of independent businesses is one that I love, but it needs a lot more thought than simply rejecting businesses people don’t like – particularly when the same street has a number of chains on it. We need a stronger vision of Brighton than snobbery.

I’m not saying that this restaurant is a good thing, but I am sick of these knee-jerk petitions (particularly ones with this many typos); and I am tired of ill-thought outrage about planning, when there is often a little more to these stories than the things announced on social media.

The i360: Sauron’s Trojan Horse

An artist's impression of the completed i360
An artist’s impression of the completed i360

A week or so back I realised I could see the i360 from my flat. When I mentioned it on Twitter, a friend said that its red light reminded them of the eye of Sauron. And there is something oppressive about the way it overlooks everything.

I’ve written a lot about the i360 over the years (see here and here). I try not to resent the project but given the disruption to the seafront, the decay of the Terraces and the associated development, I really wish it wasn’t going ahead.

Scribe tweeted me a recent celebratory article from the Guardian which talks up the project and its organisers. As the piece points out, the i360 probably will make a profit (see my discussion of the Council’s loan document). The piece goes on to acclaim it as an exciting development, linking it to the Pavilion and the West Pier itself. The article claims that most people are in favour, but there is something bullying about the tone:

It will loom over the seafront, more or less where Brighton meets Hove, and nobody in either town will be able to ignore it… It seems presumptuous to give a quarter of a million people a new symbol that they didn’t ask for, but that is unavoidably what’s happening, which makes the emotional stakes extremely high.

Rachel Clark of the West Pier Trust is quoted as saying that “far more people… are in favour of it than against”, which is fair enough. Most people I’ve met have a weary contempt or make jokes about its ridiculous phallic nature. As to Clark’s claim that the i360 will transform Brighton, “putting it absolutely fairly and squarely back on the map as an exciting, glamorous and daring place to be”? I wasn’t aware the town at any risk of disappearing from the map.

At the same time as the i360 goes up, the old Concorde/Sea-life development remains a ghost town, although there is a new scheme to do something with it. Further East, the ‘artist’s quarter’ near the Concorde 2 is being evacuated as sections of Madeira Terrace are close to collapse. Estimates of the cost of repair are eye-wateringly (fantastically?) high. All the focus on the i360 draws attention away from the very serious neglect of other parts of the seafront.

As much as I resent the i360 for disrupting the flow and calm of a massive area of seafront, I am most concerned about the scale of the associated development. I’d always imagined it being a tower with ticket/waiting area. But there is also a restaurant, as well as a 1000-person conference center. This sounds like a large development, and I find myself wondering if the i360 is little more than a way of redeveloping an area of the seafront. Is there additional development to come? And, if the tower should be removed in the future, will this new development be left behind?

20,000 days on earth

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A month or two back, I saw the Nick Cave documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth. I’m a huge fan of Cave’s music, but I wasn’t really interested in him as portrayed by the film. But it was a great movie, reminding me of My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin’s ‘docu-fantasia’ about the Canadian city.

The film is particularly strange to watch as a Brighton resident. Having Nick Cave move to the city and seeing him about still seems weird – particularly when he’s doing things that seem out-of-character with his artistic persona. The editing of the film makes for some odd geography too. Cave spends much of the film as a sort-of mystic taxi driver, giving lifts to other celebrities. He’ll do things like drive West from the old pier and arrive at the Marina. Zenbullets had similar problems: “Watched (and loved) the Nick Cave film last night. Although as a Brightonian I was distracted wondering where he parks around Brunswick.

(Back in 2004, The Argus had an article on “Rock king Cave” supporting plans to turn the West Pier into a jungle. His friend Doug Leitch was quoted as saying “Nick has this thing about wisteria but I don’t know if it would grow.” Cave was apparently concerned about any pier redevelopment opening the way for developers: “I watched my home town of Melbourne, which was designed on the Brighton model, destroyed in a few years“. It looks as if we will indeed be seeing a redeveloped, commercialised West Pier cultural quarter)

Much of the film is invention. The office Cave uses is, apparently, a set; the heavily-staffed archives of Cave’s life are a means of interviewing without a tedious question/answer format. The film’s makers said in interview that the movie was a fiction that aimed to produce deeper truths. At one point,Cave says about his songs, “It’s a world I’m creating… one where god actually exists,” and the film creates an interesting world around Brighton.

(The sort of imaginary worlds Nick Cave talks about are called paracosms, and there’s a lovely article on them in the NYT: “It’s a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes“. One of Cave’s most peculiar works is Bunny Munro, a story set around the outskirts of Brighton. I never expected a character of his to utter the words “Is Newhaven a nice place, Dad?“)

Asked about why he is in Brighton, Cave replies that he used to visit from London. “It was always cold and it was always raining [but] you’ve got to drop anchor somewhere“. Nick Cave has an obsessive love of weather. As an Australian, he found himself upset by the “relentless miserable weather that England has”. Keeping weather diaries was a way of taking control of this, since bad weather is better to write about.

The sky in Brighton is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Living by the sea and looking out of my windows, I feel like am part of the weather itself. Sometimes the sky is so blue and the reflection of the sea so dazzling you can’t even look at it; and other times great black thunderheads roll across the ocean… Funnily enough the more I write about the weather the worse it seems to get and the more interesting it becomes and the more it moulds itself to the narrative I have set for it. You know I can control the weather with my moods. I just can’t control my moods.

(It was also funny to hear that Cave uses a similar writing technique to me: “Then you send in a clown on a tricycle. If that doesn’t do it, you shoot the clown“)

Twenty years ago today…

It’s exactly 20 years since I moved to Brighton. I’d grown up nearby and the idea of attending university here was irresistible. As it turned out, uni wasn’t much fun but, on the whole, this town has been good to me.

Brighton has changed a lot over twenty years. Most of the bookshops have gone, the pubs have smartened up, and the cost of living has soared (not buying a flat back in 1999 doesn’t look all that smart now). But it’s still home, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

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I suspect the younger me would be disappointed with how I’ve turned out. But that’s all right: younger me had unrealistic expectations and very little experience of the real world. Personally I’m very happy with my life right now – and looking forward to another twenty years in Brighton.

The West Pier

This is another Weird story about Brighton, written in January this year. (800 words)

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Rumours persist about the burning of the West Pier. What you’ve heard isn’t true. Hundreds of people were watching but none of them talk the incident, or the weeks leading up to it. If someone has told you what happened to the West Pier, they were wrong or lying.

It wasn’t the owners of the Palace Pier that did it. Despite their public statements on the West Pier regeneration, the rival operators had more to gain from the project than they had to lose. Nor was the fire set, as some people claim, by the West Pier Trust. They certainly had a motive: renovating a grade 1 listed pier would be forbiddingly expensive. Replacing a ruin is cheaper, but that’s not enough reason to murder a landmark. No, the West Pier was torched by a small group of heroes as hundreds looked on.

The weeks leading up to the fire were almost unbearable. The pier was invading minds, growing more and more powerful. Dreamers found themselves walking long circles of the deck, down one side and back up the other, shuffling, staring at their feet. Rest failed to refresh the dreamers, as if the dream-walks exhausted them, as if the pier was stealing their energy.

In these dreams, it wasn’t the sea and shoreline of Brighton beyond the railings. Instead, the pier was transported to other places. Sometimes one would see stark, barren cliffs. Other times there were piles of refuse, burning, reeking noxious fumes, dreamers coughing as they promenaded. One time it wasn’t sea below the pier’s boards but a pit of bleached bones, as if the bodies of millions had been stripped to skeletons.

The pier wasn’t a wreck in these visions. The buildings were new and clean – but the windows were opaque, the doors sealed. We paced past, knowing there was something inside these structures. We knew not what it was, or whether it was one thing or legion. More than once I woke sobbing, not sure if it was fear or sadness I felt. I expect other people had the same awful awakenings.

Those who could sleep carried on their lives, but those who couldn’t, who dreamed of the pier, they recognised each other by their sallow eyes and dazed stares. When dreams are no refuge it drives men mad. The pier had to be stopped but we could not bring ourselves to discuss it. I tried a couple of times, only to find my mouth drying up, turning away as my tongue failed me.

I don’t know who finally did it, who managed to break the pier’s spell, but I knew it was going to happen. The town was dead quiet that night, the pubs empty. The all-night shop at the bottom of my street had been open continuously for a year or two, across Christmases and New Years. They closed at dusk that day. The streets were clear but I found myself walking. I knew something was happening and I knew that it involved the pier.

There were others walking towards the seafront, drifting in the same direction. I arrived at the Palace Pier, could see the West Pier’s hulk in the distance, but didn’t dare approach it, not directly. I disappeared up Pool Valley, heading West on the back-streets, away from the shore. A friend had a penthouse in Embassy court and I knew I could watch from there.

Back then, Embassy Court had yet to be renovated and the building was decayed and sickly. There were some who said it would need to be pulled down. Before I went inside, I looked up and saw people leaning over the balconies, looking east. I was not the only one to have come here. I buzzed up to my friend and climbed the steps to her apartment. The front door was left open, no-one there to greet me. I walked into the main room, which opened to the balcony. A crowd watched from there, nobody I recognised. I took my place at the railing. I did not know what would happen, only that I should be there to see it.

I imagine there were people watching from across town. Sussex Heights must have been full of viewers, and I imagine there were others on the race hill. All the insomniacs waited until they saw the fire, looked as it took hold. Nobody said anything, nobody cheered. The only sound at the first sign of fire was a sigh.

Now the Palace Pier stands alone. To its left was once the chain pier, now gone. To its right, the ruins of the West Pier. A ghost on either side, its neighbours both disappeared.

Lovecraft in Brighton

I’ve been reading a lot about Lovecraft recently (more than I’ve been reading Lovecraft himself — his prose is so dreary). I found a couple of references to a brief trip to Hampshire/Sussex, including an unpleasant few days spent in Brighton. Which got me thinking about Brighton and cosmic horror, which then got me scribbling little weird tales about Lovecraft coming back to life in Brighton, a city he loathed when he’d been there in life. Here’s one of them:

Image from Wikimedia commons

I am Brighton

Lovecraft and I stroll the Brighton promenade. We pass the skeleton of the West Pier, blackened iron bones left behind when it was torched. We come to the stone jetty a little further along and walk to the end. Once there, Howard puts his hands deep in his coat pockets and sags. I look toward the ruins. “Do you ever wonder what’s under the sea?”

“All the time,” he sighs, then turns to face the shore, his back to the water. “We should go inland.”

“Why are you here if you hate it so much?”

He has walked a few paces. He stops, turns a little but not enough to face me. “I had no choice. I was summoned.”

He’s told me that a few times but never elaborates. He is resentful, hates being here, marooned in Brighton three quarters of a century after he died. This is a man who was disappointed by his first life, where he sometimes had to go without food to have enough money for stamps, a life that was too lonely. I tell him he should come out with me to bars, to parties, try to let it go, but he never does. He makes no effort to do anything with his second life.

“The problem with the sea is this,” he declares, turning to face the shore once more. I move closer to hear properly. “You can never see what the depths hold. There might be hideous things in the dark waters. And most of our world is ocean, inhospitable to all life. It amazes me that any human tribe ever lived in sight of the ocean.”

He shudders and walks away. But I continue staring at the sea. Its strength and power captivate me. The water here is too cold and cloudy to see more than a few inches down. Howard sometimes claims that something monstrous lives in the waters off Brighton. I don’t know if he’s joking when he says this, but he may well be right. That’s the thing about the sea. At least outer space is open – nothing can hide there and we are tracking every object for millions of miles. The sea is so much closer yet we have no idea what it hides.

The thing sleeps. Occasionally people are drawn to this shore. Sometimes I feel its pull too, a gravity, as if Brighton is tilted, as if it inclines towards the shore. Not everyone can resist this force. August Bank Holiday 1973, the writer Ann Quin drowned herself near the pier, ‘given to the sliding of the water’. Once considered a giant of British literary fiction, her books now only rarely surface into print. I feel so sad for her, stepping into the cold water, nobody to call her back.

I wonder how long I could keep going in that cold water. Once you’re a certain distance from the beach, it doesn’t matter how deep the ocean is, it might as well go down forever. Once you can no longer dangle your toes down and touch the bottom, there could be anything below you.

I turn back and Lovecraft has vanished. I scan the shore and can’t see him, which means he probably went to buy a coffee at the Meeting Place Cafe. I always tell him to try the rock cake, but he declines. I’m tempted to leave him, to walk in the other direction, but I don’t. I’ll buy a coffee and we’ll walk further. Lovecraft and I, bound together, unable to escape one another.

While often loathesome, Lovecraft is a fascinating character to write about. Long before I knew about his time in Sussex, I wrote another HPL story, Eat at Lovecraft’swhich features Howard Philip reincarnated to run a greasy-spoon near Hastings. There is also an audio recording from when it was performed at Liar’s League.

Two Towns

This was originally performed as a spoken word piece at the ArtistsModelsInk event Life Cycles, on October 3rd 2011.

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There are, in fact, two Brightons, a summer town and a winter town. The streets might look the same, but everyone knows deep down that Brighton is a different place in summer than it is in winter.

The winter Brighton is cold and mean. The wind whips straight off the sea, cruel and unrelenting. Brighton becomes a place of buildings and rooms as people spend as little time as possible in the streets. Lives become smaller as the days grow shorter. In shared student houses, communal rooms are abandoned to the cold, and some people resort to evenings spent lying directly in front of their heaters. The winters’ nights can be so bitter that you feel alone, even when sharing your bed with another body.

Brighton began as a winter town. Even in its occasional prosperity, it was a town of mean, tumbly cottages, of fishermen whose fate was, most likely, to be claimed by storms at sea. Brighton’s fortunes ebbed and flowed until the Great Storm of 1703 “stript a great many houses, turn’d up the lead of the church, overthrew two wind-mills, and laid them flat on the ground, the town in general (at the approach of daylight) looking as though it had been bombarded.”

Two years later, the winter town drew down another storm. Brighton suffered greatly, its buildings destroyed and shingle flung over the wreckage. Few people responded to a national appeal to pay for sea defences. Daniel Defoe claimed that the cost of saving the town was more than the town was worth. It appeared that the winter town had destroyed itself.

But Brighton’s fortunes are ever-changing. In 1750, Dr. Richard Russell published his dissertation De Tabe Glandulari, promoting the healing powers of the Brighton waters. Patients were ordered to swim in the sea and drink its brine – for many years, the rooms in the Grand Hotel had a third tap for sea-water. With the seawater cures came the season, an act of magic that gave birth to Brighton’s summer town, pushing the winter town into retreat.

Winter is still hard here. The wind still howls and waves still crash against the shore. The staff at the pier’s pizza-stand huddle close to the oven, taking turns to lean against it, sometimes melting the plastic logos on the back of their uniforms. People can freeze to death on these streets. When it snows, ice makes the steep streets of Hanover treacherous. And more: a dark secret, known to only a few, there are hideous things in the waves near our town and, during the winter, they come closer to the surface.

But these days, no matter how deep the winter, it always ends. The watery daylight of winter’s days is replaced by something stronger. The Carousel is removed from its canvas wrappings and restored to the seafront. Brighton becomes a town of ice-cream alchemists and chance meetings, where plans are abandoned after finding old friends. Where entire days can be scattered on the pebbles, lying on the beach to watch far-off jets sketch contrails across blue skies.

The winter town can never last too long now.

But I want more than this. No more hiding in rattle-windowed rooms ever, wishing the wind would stop. No more lying against plug-in radiators, praying for warmth. I want a Brighton where it is summer forever, where the cold never gets a firm grip.

I want a New Brighton, and a New Hove, for the old Brighton and Hove to be passed away. A place where nobody is ever bored; where there is a Temple of the Sun, translucent concrete and Hotels of Strangers. Where timber is thrown off ships to make a wood slick every January, and people marvel at the piles of planks on the pebbles. A town where there is no sign banning sleeping in the pavilion gardens; where seagulls never shriek. A place where hangovers are outlawed and you can drink all night and never feel ill.

I want a new Brighton and a New Hove, to see the Winter town banished so that teeth never chatter and nobody shivers unless they want to. A town where summer lasts forever and never grows dull.

Tour Guide

My friend Amy spent six days working as a tour guide before being fired. I sneaked onto a couple of her tours and loved them.

She’d passed the interview without knowing much local history. She made things up instead, pointing out the park where circus performers wintered; she would praise the annual cake-making competitions in the Pavilion. She told people bus conductors were first introduced in Brighton and were so-named because they led the passengers in communal sing-songs.

Amy didn’t last long. The night she was fired, I toasted her work, but it didn’t cheer her up. “Can’t they see that my version of the city was better?”

The slow, sad demolition of the West Pier

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The West Pier trust continues to oversee the  demolition of the West Pier with the removal of the pillars on the beach. As the Trust’s web pages point out, their aims no longer include any form of restoration of the pier. Instead their focus is “to preserve and enhance for the public benefit the area comprising the Pier” – which, for them, involves building the i360. The idea of a new pier is roundly rejected as impossible. The West Pier Trust is now, effectively, working for the area’s redevelopment, pushing for an expensive and unloved attraction in place of the pier.

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This latest act of demolition was announced in the Argus on Friday 30th May, with the work due to start on the Monday – leaving no chance for people to respond or object. The columns on the beach are to be “removed, stored and reused as part of a landscaping project in conjunction with the area’s redevelopment alongside the i360”.

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For me, the saddest thing about this is that the columns on the beach were loved just as they were. In particular, they were used to practise slack-lining. It was wonderful to sit in the sun and watch.

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We seem to have major problems with Brighton seafront, with a whole section of raised promenade near the Concorde inaccessible and falling down. The reconstruction of the old Concorde club is a disaster, with most of the buildings left empty for years. And now, an aspect of the seafront that people loved and used is being removed. Sometimes I think the regeneration takes no account of how people actually  enjoy and use the seafront.