Monday's Book: Breakfast in Brighton by Nigel Richardson (Gollancz, pounds 16.99)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In this laugh-aloud, touching, sometimes mildly surrealistic book on Brighton - which comes out during the Brighton Festival - the Pavilion and the Prince Regent hardly get a look-in. Thank goodness for that.

Effectively, the argument starts in the Fifties. Then, so Nigel Richardson avers, "we English inhabited a tea-bag coloured world", suspicious of brightness and light, censorious, hypocritical, a nation - or part of a nation - of dull and dismal dogs. By contrast, Brighton - in an interpretation based partly on his own feelings, but also on a painting of the period - "was light, a parrot [a presence in the painting], turrets and domes, ocean, horizon, escape. Escape!"

For anyone brought up in that period, the first duty was to flee the country - or, if not, to go for the next best thing. That was exotic, endlessly sexy Brighton. Even today, Brighton still emerges as a beacon of visual freedom, of sunshine, colour, air and sea, with "Turner's light and Canaletto's colours". It's still sexy, by the author's own account. But more important, it is a place that specialises in tolerance.

Richardson touches only briefly on what you might call current affairs, with an examination of the plight of the local fishermen and their families, condemned to poverty and obliged to live in the most run-down and peripheral estates. Otherwise, there parade through his pages all kinds and conditions of quaint and often louche individuals, young but more often old, lively, seedy, sad, demented, straight and gay, usually boozy, often visionary and, with alarming frequency, aspiring - at least - to the psychic.

One of the pleasures of the book is its cumulative listing of human types. The vast majority of these characters belong to that "non-profit-making counter-culture" which both intrigues the author and causes him a good deal of participatory amusement. Reality, Richardson writes, "hovered slightly off the ground".

Now this is slightly worrying to someone like myself, due - subject to survey and contract - to move to Brighton very shortly. But even in this state of apprehension, it is impossible to resist the stories through which the themes, and characters, of the book are bodied out. Starting modestly, at pub level, as memories and tales of small-scale quests for information, they swell and grow until by the end we are offered almost nothing except story interwoven with story.

Many deal with the living characters around him. But Kipling, Virginia Woolf (cremated here), the Boulting Brothers, Brian Behan (very much alive, and subject of the funniest of all the stories), the great presiding genius Graham Greene himself, even - and especially - the painter of Breakfast in Brighton, all hover a little way above the ground, caught up in Richardson's gentle illusionism. His voice very often speaks directly for the voices of the other storytellers. Though seemingly small in scale, this is a surprisingly ambitious book, full of good-fun phrasing and those curious factive fictions that lurk on the border between literature and human topography.

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