'COME and meet the British sharks,' invited a reedy, recorded voice on the seafront loudspeaker system. The message, repeated again and again, was actually advertising the vicious specimens on view in the Brighton Sealife centre opposite the Palace Pier. But even outside the fishtanks, there is plenty of man-eating seaside life to be seen both on and around the promenade.

'Brighton's a funny place,' said a man I met on the tour of the town's sewers. 'It attracts funny people.' Funny peculiar or funny ha-ha? 'Oh, peculiar, definitely. Brighton is a very peculiar place. Nowadays it attracts very peculiar people.'

It once used to attract very respectable people. After all, its fortunes were built on the patronage of the Prince Regent - later George IV - who came in the late 18th century for the sea- bathing and, in so doing, largely invented the seaside holiday as we know it.

'Prinny' (as he was known) liked it here so much that he had a very respectable villa built where he and his chums pretended to be poor farming folk. The architect John Nash transformed this playhouse into the oriental fantasy of the peculiar Brighton Pavilion. Very peculiar indeed.

The Pavilion was completed in 1822, which probably marked the resort's zenith. George IV's successor, William IV, liked Brighton; his successor, Queen Victoria, was not so amused. She might have liked the Pavilion; what she did not like were the great unwashed who were taking advantage of the recently opened railway from London to pour into the resort on high days and holidays.

It was the train that turned Brighton into London-by-the-Sea; and the effects of the railway that persuaded Victoria in 1850 to flog the Pavilion, strip it bare, load everything on to 143 horse-drawn wagons and head for Windsor Castle.

But despite the royal rejection, Brighton managed to combine popularity with respectability until around the First World War. Times have changed. The building on the Palace Pier, where Sir Edward Elgar and Sir Henry Wood used to conduct concerts before appreciative crowds, now houses only the vacuously squawking game machines of the amusement arcade.

Everywhere you go in Brighton, decaying buildings and empty shops and offices remind you that things are not what they were. If the buildings are not telling you this, the people are. In the taxi from Brighton station to the hotel, I asked the driver if business was good. 'It ain't never busy no more,' she said. She looked at a knot of New Age travellers squatting down on the prom with a pack of whip-thin dogs: 'Look at that lot,' she said: 'Not what you'd call M & S, is they?'

My hotel on the seafront was one of the new breed of British hotels, designed to sound good in a directory but which turn out to be less wonderful in real life. It had the trappings of an upmarket hotel: health club, in- room trouser press and satellite television. Yet the interior decor had the look of a Social Security hostel. The breakfast was sponsored by the Cholesterol Marketing Board. And the staff treated the guests as if we were small children who kept hanging around the front desk deliberately trying to get on their nerves.

A Scottish woman in her sixties with a monumental Bet Lynch beehive hair-do, eased her way past me into the hotel lift. At her heels was a tiny lady trotting behind like a dog. The hotel was full of Scottish women on a senior citizens' coach tour of the South Coast.

'Surreptitious,' said the Bet Lynch hair-do, savouring each syllable of the word as if it were a 99 ice-cream best enjoyed slowly. 'Surreptitious,' she said again. 'That's a word I like. Do you like that word, Phyllis?' For about 10 years we all stood waiting for the lift to move while tiny Phyllis pondered. Eventually she ventured her opinion: 'Surreptitious. I like it. But what does it mean?'

If we had not reached my floor, allowing me to bail out, I might have attempted to proffer a definition: 'Surreptitious: done by stealth or fraud; enjoyed secretly.'

'Surreptitious' would once have been a good word for Brighton; 'sleazy' (OED: 'shoddy, slatternly') is another. In the late Thirties, when Graham Greene was describing the resort in Brighton Rock, it had already acquired a highly unsavoury reputation for gangsterism and adultery.

Within easy reach of London, Brighton, with its racecourse, was also within the orbit of the London gangs. And it became the place where married couples wishing to separate would go so as to secure the necessary evidence of adultery that was required by the courts. A change in the divorce law closed off this lucrative source of revenue.

In the Sixties the cheap foreign package holiday began to lure the mass market and the long-stay holidaymakers deserted Brighton, leaving it to the day-trippers. The gangsters also went, but not the gangs. The Who's Quadrophenia recalls Brighton's great days of the mods and rockers. Then there were skinheads and greasers. Now there's just trouble.

'Not much trouble,' said my taxi driver, 'a couple of stabbings recently, nothing at all. Nothing like it used to be.' There you are, see: even the violence is not what it was.

Not far up from the Palace Pier is where the lifeguards gather. Brighton's answer to Baywatch, I said to them. Yeah, yeah - tell us a new one, they said. Being a lifeguard must be good for pulling the women, I suggest. 'Actually, it's the men who try and chat us up all the time - but that's Brighton.'

Being a lifeguard on a British beach, the prime health risk is not skin cancer but exposure. Under a lowering grey sky spitting rain, we stand in a June chill studying a beach empty except for a Japanese mother and daughter picking up pebbles.

Do they have to do much life- saving? 'Oh yeah, sure.' People drown? 'When we've gone off duty in the evening. We pulled out a couple of floaters recently: two guys who'd had too much to drink and jumped off the Palace Pier. Dead before they hit the water, I expect,' he observed with some relish. In Brighton Rock, Pinkie dies by falling off the Palace Pier. 'I could tell you some funny stories,' said the lifeguard. But he couldn't.

Someone suggested I should go on the tour of Brighton's sewers. 'It's fascinating,' she assured me. Sewage may be a lot of things, fascinating ain't one of them. My lugubrious sewage guide told me he used to be 'on the building' until the economy went down the drain - now he has gone down the drain with it.

'When I tell people what I do they're interested,' he said. It's a dirty job, I suggested archly, but somebody's got to do it. His eyes lit up at this display of empathy: 'Yeah, you're right.' We stopped to gaze upon a river of effluent full of dark objects. 'Is that . . ?'

'Yeah,' he said, 'it is.'

'I bet you could tell some funny stories,' I ventured. No, he said frankly, he could not.

Back on the prom, the sharks were circling. A lad with a ghetto blaster spotted me writing notes and taking photos. 'You in the meeja, mate? Want an exclusive? Gonna be a rave tonight. Huge. Drugs. The lot. I'm organising it. MTV is filming it. Yeah? You in?'

I dived into a passing taxi and fled to the station. 'Good stay?' asked the driver: 'How do you like Brighton then?' I had some words I had prepared earlier: surreptitious, sleazy - or what about surreal? But now I had a better word. 'Peculiar,' I replied: 'Very peculiar.'

Getting there: Brighton is served by direct trains from the following places (the lowest return fares in brackets): London Victoria (pounds 15.10), Luton (pounds 17.10), Birmingham (pounds 21), Manchester (pounds 33) and Edinburgh (pounds 56). National Express buses run from Victoria Coach Station, London, every 90 minutes; the return fare is pounds 9.25.

Accommodation: Details of many hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfasts are available from the Tourist Information Centre (0273 323755). Simon Calder ('On the A23 to the past', top right) stayed at the Ascott House Hotel at 21 New Steine (0273 688085), a few yards from the sea and costing pounds 18- pounds 25 single/ pounds 32- pounds 60 double, including breakfast. The Cranleigh Guest House, 22-23 Terminus Road (0273 327971), is cheaper and convenient for the station; rates are pounds 15 single, pounds 28 double.

Restaurants: English's Oyster Bar, 29-31 East St (0273 327980) opens noon-10pm daily (until 9.30pm on Sundays). A low-price alternative, near the station, is the Yum Yum Noodle Bar, 22-23 Sydney Street (0273 606777).

(Photographs omitted)