Another dirty weekend

Sex, violence, murder, drugs and a rather nice pier - that's why poets adore Brighton. Not to mention artists, novelists, playwrights and illicit lovers

I seem to have been an occasional visitor to Brighton all my life. I was brought up in London, and the south-coast town was a regular destination for family days out. The famous Brighton Belle is long gone, and I remember being a passenger on her final journey when I was 15. Nowadays I travel there on grubby Connex trains. I have given readings in Brighton ever since my poetry was first published, either at the festival or for other events, such as the suggestively named Do Tongues. On this visit I had my husband and son in tow, and we decided to explore in one of the Guide Friday buses that tour cities and seaside towns all day, complete with surreal prerecorded invisible commentator.

I seem to have been an occasional visitor to Brighton all my life. I was brought up in London, and the south-coast town was a regular destination for family days out. The famous Brighton Belle is long gone, and I remember being a passenger on her final journey when I was 15. Nowadays I travel there on grubby Connex trains. I have given readings in Brighton ever since my poetry was first published, either at the festival or for other events, such as the suggestively named Do Tongues. On this visit I had my husband and son in tow, and we decided to explore in one of the Guide Friday buses that tour cities and seaside towns all day, complete with surreal prerecorded invisible commentator.

My poetry readings have always been held in the evenings, and until this visit, I had not seen Brighton by day for several years. The sun was shining and it looked pretty much like any south-coast resort, albeit with a much younger population than other parts of the Costa Geriatrica. It has been a fashionable location ever since the Prince Regent built his Pavilion there in the early 19th century, and has the amenities of any capital city as well as a May festival with its own fringe, like Edinburgh.

In previous years, when I read at the festival or the fringe, I was almost always asked some peculiar questions. In other places, question-time involves such formulas as "What started you writing?" "How do I get published?" "What inspired such-and-such a poem?" But in Brighton, a leg-wagging individual in the front row asked me what I had felt when I put my hand into a boy's trouser pocket at the age of 10. He followed this up by sending me a short story about a tapeworm in love with an enema that he had submitted to Woman's Hour.

At another festival event, a middle-aged teacher, whose job it was to introduce the speakers, arrived with a teenage girl in tow. "That's not my daughter - that's my lover," he said defensively.

Since then, and perhaps even before, I've felt that there is something a little odd about the sexuality of Brighton. Gay or straight, nude or clothed, none of that bothers me. It's all the other permutations, particularly those involving violence or under-age sex that I have reservations about. Despite the beauty of its Regency buildings, Brighton's image on film and television is not a good one. News on the Meridian television channel frequently carries tales of fires in squalid bedsits, or of landlords found guilty of intimidating their tenants. From footage of the aftermath of the Brighton bombing in 1984, right back to that Forties cinema classic Brighton Rock, the town has often been associated with images of gruesome violence.

The centre of Brighton and the genteel crescents and squares of Kemp Town look affluent, give or take a few drug addicts and alcoholics loitering in the parks. But race gangs once operated here, and the housing estates in nearby Moulsecoomb were once the scene of a spate of child murders. There's a sinister undercurrent to the whole of Brighton. It has harboured more than its fair share of dead bodies. One of its most famous unsolved crimes involved a headless female torso, found in a suitcase at the station's left luggage office.

Graham Greene became fascinated by the 1934 Brighton Trunk Murders, and his research on them must have contributed to the ambience of his novel Brighton Rock. Terence Rattigan, who was involved in writing the screenplay of the novel, was one of many actors and playwrights who have lived there, as though drawn by its magnetism.

For some of them the sexual ambivalence of Brighton may well be an attraction. Aubrey Beardsley, Lord Alfred Douglas, Eric Gill and Lewis Carroll are all former residents. There's a touch of fin-de-siÿcle decadence about the place: check out English's oyster bar, still lavishly decorated in 1890s plush. There's also a thriving gay scene, complete with sweaty clubs and sweatier saunas in which anything might happen. Kemp Town is known locally as Camp Town, and there are definitely more than a few leather boys walking around.

Years ago, I was told about one sauna where the occasional orgy ensues at which all are welcome, gay or straight. I never got the chance to check it out, unfortunately, as the story did not reach me until shortly before my wedding. It may be apocryphal but it ought to be true. Walk the streets and you feel that, somewhere here, something Ortonesque must be going on. (Though, in fact, Joe Orton had - by his standards - a rather dull time when he visited the place.)

Brighton is proud of its theatrical and literary connections. A few years ago I began attending dinners at the Arts Club in Ship Street, arranged by the Sussex Writers' Group. It is traditionally a great evening, attracting such high-profile members as the science fiction writer Chris Priest and the author and illustrator Raymond Briggs. There is a cruel story attached to the club's formation. It had previously been a small publisher's association, but there was one committee member that all the others were keen to lose. He had breath like a lion, as well as a reputation for fastening leech-like to the latest female arrivals and boring them to death - slowly and painfully. When both the name of the club and the meeting night were changed, it was perhaps tactical that this man was the only person not to be told about it.

It was at one of these dinners that I met Maire McQueeney, a colourful lady who originates from New York. Maire specialises in "Novel Outings", local tours around the haunts of former residents including Graham Greene, Eric Gill, Aubrey Beardsley, Virginia Woolf and others. Brighton abounds in tours of all kinds, whether you want to splash through the sewers or explore above ground. (The sewer tour comes with an interesting caveat in its advertising: "No open-toe shoes.") Graham Greene, I learned from Maire, was just one of many writers who spent time here. Dickens and Kipling also have links, and Betjeman was a great admirer of the local Victoriana. Virginia Woolf stayed at nearby Charleston which has become a mecca for Bloomsbury types.

On my latest seaside visit I bypassed the Arts Club and went in pursuit of the naff side of Brighton. Every seaside town should have a pier, and Brighton once had two. The Palace Pier is a thoroughly British holiday affair, packed with amusements, a small funfair and cut-out figures to stick your head through for photographs. There is even an Indian fortune-teller, and I'd have been up for that if he hadn't been so busy.

The West Pier, alas, is still in the early stages of a full restoration. At the moment it's a pathetic relic with stretches of scaffolding linking the sections. When you're in central Brighton, on the front, it's impossible not to recall another film set here, the enigmatic Mona Lisa. The large carousel on the Palace Pier was playing the movie's theme tune when I took my son there and I half expected Bob Hoskins to stroll out of one of the hotels.

Almost opposite the Palace Pier, The Lanes are probably one of the most well-known areas of Brighton, and another stop on the bus tour. They are what would be known in other parts of Sussex as "twittens", or in London as alleys. Tourists haunt them for the unusual clothes, books and antiques juxtaposed with New Age therapy paraphernalia - scented candles, massage oils, incense burners, whale-song CDs and the like. In the 18th and 19th centuries, sea-bathing became a health fad, albeit one that was done in more clothes on than you would see the average resident wearing in winter.

The Marina on the eastern outskirts, towards the exclusive Roedean school, is an ugly monstrosity at first sight, dominated by a large branch of Asda. But when you thread your way round to the area where yachts for sale are moored, you experience a more pleasant, Continental feel.

The marina was built so as not to interfere with views of the older properties. Sit in a pub facing into the cliffs and you can forget that Asda and all the ills of the world exist while you fantasise about life aboard a luxury yacht. My husband was drooling over the flats and boats, but I much prefer the idea of a place with a garden.

Brighton will never be St Tropez, however hard it tries. There's that seamy side to it which just won't lie down. Think of the phrase "dirty weekend" and Brighton will probably spring to mind as the preferred location for those without the time or funds to go to Paris. I've often wondered why hotels such as the Grand don't set up a "Dirty Weekend Package", incorporating special registration as Mr and Mrs Smith, with champagne and water-bed thrown in.

The motels in Niagara could teach them a thing or two, as could that most recent literary resident, Julie Burchill. Her 1989 novel Ambition begins: "There were two people in the Regency four-poster that swamped the suite overlooking the Brighton seafront, but only one of them was breathing." Sex and death. That just about sums up Brighton.

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