Travel: Murder, suicide and a sticky pink sweet
Saturday 26 September 1998
his novel, Brighton Rock. Now you can relive it on a guided
walking tour - yes, sleaze sells.
"BRIGHTON IS famous for irregular relationships," says our guide Maire as we set off to retrace the steps of the most sinister social misfit ever to haunt the pages of 20th-century literature. It is 60 years since Graham Greene first terrorised the book world with his pubescent milk- drinking gangster, Pinkie Brown, but the scene of his villain's crimes still hasn't recovered. Brighton can't decide whether to hail the author as its patron saint or to excommunicate him for being the town's most ineffectual spin doctor since Dr Johnson.
Picture Brighton in the Thirties and images of razor-wielding racketeers stalking the narrow "twittens" or Lanes come to mind. The publication of Brighton Rock in 1938 did nothing to deter the pundits from crowning the resort "Queen of the Slaughtering Places". And yet, as we huddle beneath the dank underbelly of the Palace Pier to hear how the hapless Kolly Kibber meets his grisly end, it strikes me that Brighton should make more of its nefarious past, not less. If the success in Savannah of John Berent's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is anything to go by, resurrecting a few local ghouls will get the tourists flocking in by the coachload.
Maire McQueeney of 20th Century Walks is one of the few to see the potential. Her Brighton Rock tour is billed as the seaside excursion to hell and back - well it does take in the suburb of Peacehaven - and promises murder, mayhem and abduction all before Sunday brunch.
Sporting a grubby Thirties sailor's cap to get us in the mood, and clutching a dog-eared copy of the novel, Maire reads the opening line: Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. An elderly lady shivers and draws her cardigan tighter round her body.
"Murder," Maire declares, "is more prevalent in the Nineties than ever it was in the Thirties." We all shiver now. But the Chief Constable's report for 1938 bears her out: one Malicious Wounding, one Murder and 16 offences related to Gambling. No wonder then that, as Greene said, "the Brighton authorities proved a little sensitive to the picture I had drawn of their city".
We begin at the book's end, taking the coastal road out towards Peacehaven and the cliffs from where Pinkie plunges to meet his maker. The old workhouse at the top of Race Hill looms up at us like some Gothic horror. Just below the race course, the valley dips to reveal the concrete blot on Brighton's landscape - Whitehawk housing estate. Further on are the manicured lawns and restrained turrets of Roedean School for Girls, then the newly restored Art Deco lido at Saltdean.
Built in 1919 as a place fit for heroes and originally known as New Anzac, Peacehaven lives up to its name and is deserted. We stop at the spot where the Greenwich meridian leaves the land and enters the sea, standing with one foot in the western hemisphere and the other in the east. It is here on this very clifftop that Pinkie blinds himself with vitriol before being whipped away into oblivion.
Backtracking from the grave to the cradle, we return to Brighton to hunt out Paradise Piece, birthplace of the enfant terrible. The Salvation Army citadel is long gone and there is no trace of the wretched slums that were Pinkie's stamping ground. But higher up at Nelson Place, where poor misguided Rose lived, decay hangs heavy in the air.
Back yards that were once used to smoke herrings are strung with lines of greying washing. In a Tarmacked play area, two pigeons have the faded hopscotch court to themselves. Graffiti on a nearby wall reads "Join the Jesus Army in our Holy Crusade against drugs", and the church tower bears the slogan "Thy Word Is Truth", scorched into the brick. Pinkie would have felt right at home.
Down on the seafront, the sun is shining and Brighton is at its best. Just as Greene describes, the Grand Hotel is "dozing out the day like an old statesman" while next door the Metropole basks raffishly in the sun's glare. At the erstwhile Aquarium where, in 1874, the exhibition of a live Norwegian lobster apparently caused a furore, hordes of sticky- fingered children queue up to poke fun at the sharks in what is now a ubiquitous Sea Life Centre.
Further along the esplanade, no less than four candy-coloured shops proudly proclaim Biggest and Best Selection of Rock in Brighton. Fred Hale, alias Kolly Kibber, chokes to death on a stick of the same evil pink sweet and this is where we end our tour, at the beginning, in a dark damp corner beneath the Palace Pier.
"There's always something new on the Palace Pier," says one of the novel's few redeeming characters, Ida the blousy saloon bar singer. In her day it cost threepence to push through the turnstile to the peepshows and quoits housed in the Palace of Pleasure. Now, you can have your fortune told by Dale from the Yorkshire Dales as seen on Kilroy, eat hot hog roast or simply smooch up and down with a loved one. "The Palace Pier is still providing alibis for people all of the time," laughs Maire.
Perhaps somewhat unfairly nowadays, Brighton and dirty weekends continue to go together like a bucket and spade. "I suppose I'm real Brighton," claims Pinkie, as if a single heart contained all the cheap amusements, the Pullman cars, the unloving weekends in gaudy hotels, and the sadness after coitus. Over half a century on, the town sparkles and shimmers as if it's just been given a lick of new paint. But scratch the surface and a shadowy underworld frequented by baby-faced mobsters, cut-throat razor gangs and....
Above us, a volley of screams pierces the sky. The pier's rollercoaster wheels and loops and a hundred thrill seekers shudder, hearts in mouths. "Have a stick of Brighton rock," Maire chuckles.
Maire McQueeney, 20th Century Walks, 22 Warleigh Road, Brighton, BN1 4NT, 01273 607910. Maire runs tours primarily for adult clubs, schools, colleges and interested associations. She also leads walks for the public during the annual Brighton Festival in May; details on 01273 676926. A half-day (up to four hours), costs pounds 150 per group - Brighton Rock lasts a little over three hours - and the recommended group number is between 20 and 25
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