Two southern belles go into battle

Sleepy Bournemouth is challenging Brighton as the hippest place on the coast. By Andrew Martin

Brighton is young, risqué and rackety; Bournemouth is old, salubrious and genteel. Brighton has a nudist beach; Bournemouth has a no-smoking beach. Brighton has a festival of gay pride; Bournemouth has the Kid's Fun Festival. Brighton is espresso coffee (with a few unfortunate flakes of fag ash floating on the top); Bournemouth is tea (slightly stewed). Brighton is dirty weekends; Bournemouth is good clean fun.

Brighton is young, risqué and rackety; Bournemouth is old, salubrious and genteel. Brighton has a nudist beach; Bournemouth has a no-smoking beach. Brighton has a festival of gay pride; Bournemouth has the Kid's Fun Festival. Brighton is espresso coffee (with a few unfortunate flakes of fag ash floating on the top); Bournemouth is tea (slightly stewed). Brighton is dirty weekends; Bournemouth is good clean fun.

As a reporter I was once sent to Brighton - or at least to Victoria Station - to write about the hard drinking traditions on board the train that used to be the Brighton Belle. I was also sent to Bournemouth to cover the start of a new series of Come Dancing.

I've been drunk lots of times in Brighton, and I've spent lots of time in Bournemouth looking for somewhere to get drunk. Like Oxford and Cambridge, Blur and Oasis, Brighton and Bournemouth are of roughly a similar age (admittedly the Prince Regent, later George IV, did put Brighton on the map slightly earlier than Bournemouth, but both really became established in the Victorian sea-bathing boom), and they both do the same thing, only in different ways. No wonder they're rivals for your holiday money, the duelling Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the South Coast.

Statistics provide one weapon: Brighton boasts about its four cinemas, eight theatres, and three casinos, while Bournemouth has calculated that every day in the summer, between 7.30am and 9am, hotel chefs crack 40,000 eggs. On the complicated question of visitor numbers, a spokesman for Brighton said they had eight million per year; the Bournemouth spokesman retorted his town had "more than that". The Brighton man said that about two-and-a-half million of their eight million stayed for at least one night. The Bournemouth man doubted that, most politely.

More ammunition is stored in the arsenal of awards. Bournemouth is the proud holder of the England For Excellence Resort of the Year Award 2000, but Brighton will have you know that it was voted in the top ten of another national travel award for Best UK City. More generically, Bournemouth bills itself as England's Best Resort, Brighton as Britain's Favourite Seaside City.

There is something touching in the way Bournemouth promotes such an innocent, old-fashioned draw as Friday Night Fireworks, which take place on the pier, or, surely the quintessential Bournemouth attraction, Flowers by Candlelight, an almost preposterously restful and soothing concept. The words might indeed be the title of an illustration for a particularly cloying and emollient get well soon card.

Turning to Brighton ... well, given that resort's affinity with all that is louche and youthful, the brochures for the coming season are of course full of attempted street talk. Seasonal highlights are compiled under the excruciating heading "What's goin' on in 2001", and the word "cool" is everywhere. Obviously, you'd never see the word "cool" in a Bournemouth brochure.

That, at least, is what I used to think, but here I'm afraid our antithetical scheme does rather break down.

You see, something very odd is happening this year, because the Bournemouth brochures also go in for street talk to a large extent. I'm looking at one pamphlet now that promotes "Bournemouth Clubs and Bars 'n' other cool stuff", and the more closely you look at the brochures for the two places, and shake off your preconceptions, the more surreal things become.

Not only do we have Bournemouth, a town reputedly crammed with geriatrics, claiming - among all the pictures of flowers and family fun - to be "one of the most fashionable resorts in Europe", we also have gaudy, raucous Brighton prominently mentioning, among shots of blissed- out party people, its "historic places of worship", and decorating its Travel Trade Directory for 2001 with a restful seascape. In their attempts to outdo each other the resorts are beginning to converge.

When visiting Bournemouth 10 years ago, I used to have to locate a small basement bar underneath a hotel on the West Cliff if I wanted a late-night drink. It was full of divorcees in jumpers tapping their feet to records by melodic traditionalists such as Abba. Returning in succeeding years I have noticed a steady increase in nocturnal activity. The tourist office spokesman says the change dates from the early Nineties, when the old Dorset Institute expanded to become first Bournemouth Polytechnic, then Bournemouth University.

There is still a high proportion of elderly people in Bournemouth, playing bowls and dressed in those getting-ready-to-die shades of cream and white, but the demographic is shifting, bringing new bars like The Great Escape (Moroccan stylings, a soundtrack of "soulful garage"), and club nights like Cheeky Little Monkey at the Showbar on the pier approach ("If you like your nights hard and funky check out the Cheeky crew"), or Slinky at the Opera House, a nightclub in an old theatre in Boscombe.

In view of all this, Harper's & Queen magazine recently rechristened Bournemouth "BoMo", and, despite the fact that this new-coinage is a guaranteed cringe-maker, the town's tourist authority tentatively uses it in some of its tourist literature.

I would say that Bournemouth is becoming more like Brighton than the other way around, but Brighton is changing too. Much though I loved the place throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties, I felt the rakish was always close to sleaze. I once contemplated buying a flat on one of the squares near the seafront, and I asked a taxi driver what people were like. "You know the term 'wino'," he began, not very promisingly.

I used to be a bit scared of late nights in Brighton, perhaps because I'd read those two supremely nasty novels set there: The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton, and Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. I found the place scruffy, and the wrecked West Pier ghostly in a genuinely chilling sense. One evening when I was in the gents' at the railway station, the man at the next stall turned and introduced himself to me in a George Michael-ish way.

Now The Big Issue has set up shop in the town. The pier is being rebuilt with lottery and private money (albeit extremely slowly), and the station has been restored to its Victorian smartness. On the seafront, an old desolate hang-out for fishermen and their boats has been turned into the bustling "artists' quarter" where pretty things are made and sold. My spokesman modestly said that Brighton was "up and coming in terms of appearance", but it seems to be up and coming very fast.

Maybe the twinning with sensible Hove helped to trigger this - Brighton and Hove has been a unitary authority since 1997 - or perhaps it was the aspiration to become a city, which was fulfilled last year. But it would be a great shame if, in its apparent desire to become perfect resorts, and all things to all people, Brighton ever approached the wholesomeness of Bournemouth, or if Bournemouth became anything like as hip and happening as Brighton.

Sometimes you're in the mood for coffee, sometimes you fancy tea. Nobody ever wants to drink a cup of the two mixed together. As a lad, I once tried it: the taste was not so much horrible, as bland.

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