Closing my eyes, the reel began to run; flickering images coming into focus, the slightly speeded-up world of silent movies with its exaggerated expressions. A red-headed girl in a seaside resort at the birth of a new century. The sounds, the sights, the smells, the vastness of the sky and, below, the writhing sea, stretching to infinity – or France, whichever came first. Brighton! Mine for the taking.
I didn’t wait to be told twice. As far as the arches of the viaduct, the streets were mine; from the stench of the slums, through the narrow back-alleys to the grand Regency avenues lined with exotic palms. In a town designed for pleasure there was always plenty to do. An Italian organ- grinder pushed a tottering monkey dressed in a red waistcoat into the crowds with a collecting cap. Punch and Judy shows drew gasps on the promenade. There were cockles, whelks and jellied eels to gorge on. We had strong men, escape artists, bearded ladies and dwarfs. But, for me, the greatest spectacle was the fashionable folk who strutted the length of Madeira Terrace like peacocks. Our visitors rode the electric railway from the Palace Pier, or took one of Campbell’s paddle steamers, not realizing they were our entertainment. I lapped up every exquisite detail: the pearl buttons, the puffed sleeves, the feathers and bows, the delicate lace trim, the whitest gloves. These women had chambermaids to dress them. Road sweepers rushed to their assistance so they didn’t ruin their good shoes. They glanced out from beneath wide-brimmed hats to make sure they were being watched by the right sort of people, and, if you weren’t the right sort, they thought nothing of saying, “I’ll thank you not to stare.”
It was an age of new inventions, among them photography:
Mr Parker was flapping his arms enthusiastically. “This is a wonderful age to be involved in an industry involving scientific research and entertainment. Right now, inventions are being patented that will change the way we live. Cameras! Cinema! Motor cars! Flying machines! Don’t you want to be part of it?”
“Yes!” said Alfie, jumping up and down in his bare feet.
Crouching down to my level, Mr Parker enquired. “And you, Lottie? What will your answer be?”
The seafront was the perfect location for new subjects. Rows of striped tents and bunting provided perspective. Abandoned straw hats became donkey-fodder. Young women dressed in puffed-sleeved blouses reclined on the shingle as casually as their discomfort permitted. The Beach Orator, dressed in black cassocks and bearing a striking resemblance to Oscar Wilde, lifted one arm dramatically, his enthusiastic sermon drowned out by the jagged strains of Blind Henry’s accordion.
It was the age of Music Hall:
“Oh, I do like to be beside the Seaside,
Oh, I do like to be beside the sea…”
“Is that one of your own, Eddie?”
“It’s the new one by Mark Sheridan. Haven’t you heard it?”
It was an age of story-telling:
I had discovered Phoebe during an elicit game of hide- and-seek in the oldest churchyard in Brighton. Crouching, my disbelieving fingers traced the lichened dates beneath the tangle of ivy. The calculations I made, counting on fingers and then out loud – “One hundred and eight?” – seemed, to me, incredible.
“A prince?” Gawping, I slipped into my seat at the table.
“The prince. But it was her early life that was a mystery. Some say, after her mother died, her father dressed her as a boy soldier so she could follow him into the army. But she would tell anyone who cared to listen how, at the age of fifteen, after she fell madly in love with a private from the King’s Lambs, she disguised herself as a man. And together they fought, side by side.”
St Nicholas’ Churchyard, 1910
A sense of belonging
“You can try to forget the sea if you live in Brighton, but it never forgets you. There’s a reason you feel most at home on the beach.”
Their pipes nodded at the corner of their mouths as they concurred: “Oh, you’re a fisherman’s daughter. No doubt.”
An age of opportunity
“What?” Mr Parker laughed, taken aback. “Am I such an ogre?”
I shook my head. From its post, the yellow-eyed gull stared at me with distain.
“Then it must be possible to make them see sense.”
Alfie winced. “With respect, Sir, you haven’t met Mrs Pye.”
But it was change that Lottie grew to fear:
“They say there’s a war coming.”
“Who says?” I laughed, it sounded so unlikely; barely pausing from the business of releasing another missile which sank with a hollow sound.
“It’s been all over.” He shrugged as if the idea didn’t bother him. With the grace of a ballerina, he extended an arm and placed one foot carefully behind the other. We watched the stone skim the surface in a series of light bounces before it disappeared in a ripple that barely left a blemish.
In 2009, Lottie’s son James will return to look for her shadow.
After braving the expanse of bellowing traffic on King’s Road, Jenny and I found ourselves above the beach between the bustle and neon glare of Brighton Pier and the shipwreck of the old West Pier, silhouetted against what little remained of the pallid winter sun.
“I’ve never been here before,” Jenny admitted, crunching forwards towards the lonely remains of the pillars.
“Never been to Brighton!”
“My Dad likes his beaches to have sand. And to be hot.” Jenny turned to me, her hair lashing her face but her eyes shining.
“On a day like today, I have to say: he has a point.”