In the Sixties, there were gang fights on the beach, corny jokes in the music hall and choc-ices at the theatre. Jonathan Gregson remembers his Brighton days

It's a sunny bank holiday and the punters are rolling into town, as they have always done. I watch them come surging out of Brighton station, gaggles of excited teenagers out on their own, straggling family groups - the elder children hanging back from their parents - all of them heading straight for the seafront.

It's a sunny bank holiday and the punters are rolling into town, as they have always done. I watch them come surging out of Brighton station, gaggles of excited teenagers out on their own, straggling family groups - the elder children hanging back from their parents - all of them heading straight for the seafront.

I still see them as punters, even though I haven't worked the deckchairs or the slot machines for more than three decades. I spent my teenage years around here, taking holiday jobs which invariably involved extracting money from the tourists.

I started out as a deckchair attendant. This involved lugging deckchairs out from the store, setting them up in rows on the esplanade, and charging people who sat in them a couple of bob each. Not very demanding work, you might think. But this was during the Sixties, when gangs of mods and rockers used to charge down to Brighton of a weekend, usually looking for a fight. And, unfortunately, their preferred battleground was the stretch of seafront where I parked my chairs.

Worse still, they had the habit of setting deckchairs on fire or using them as weapons. Which meant I soon learnt how to scoop up three chairs under each arm and make a dash for the safety of the storeroom. I also found it unwise to ask such characters to pay up if they chose to stretch out in a deckchair on my beat. Their response could be unpredictable in the extreme.

Such ritual gang warfare is thankfully a thing of the past. Nor do there seem to be as many deckchairs lined up along Brighton's seafront. This is probably because nowadays you can sit in the open and have a drink or a snack at one of the many bars, cafés or restaurants on the Lower Esplanade, right beside the beach - something unthinkable before more liberal licensing rules came in. There was never much money in deckchair rental anyway. The ones on the Palace Pier are now offered free of charge.

Strictly speaking it's now called Brighton Pier, though locals still call it "The Palace". That's where I moved on to slightly more gainful employment, starting off as emptier-in-chief of the slot machines. They're still a big feature in the pier's amusement arcade, though nowadays prime space is given to racing-car simulators with names like "King of the Road". And while traditional treats like Brighton rock are on sale everywhere, they now compete with more cosmopolitan snacks such as Belgian waffles. As for the Palm Court restaurant, where you can have fish and chips with a glass of champagne, it is far more sophisticated than anything the pier had to offer back in the Sixties.

Possibly because I didn't pocket some of the takings from the slot machines I soon found myself promoted to supervisor of the ice-cream ladies at the theatre, which was then the Palace Pier's crowning glory. My duties involved stocking up on assorted choc-ices, sundaes and ice-lollies, distributing these fairly to said ice-cream ladies just before the interval, and then entering their sales in a ledger and delivering all cash taken to my boss.

The job required unusual diplomatic skills because the ice-cream ladies were paid on commission. The more ices they sold, the bigger their wage packet. And these formidable ladies - not one of them less than 60 - knew exactly what would sell best on a given night. If it was hot they'd ask me to slip them some extra ice-lollies; if rainy, then surreptitious requests came in for more than the usual quota of choc-ices. The only way to keep the peace was to slip them all a little extra; but you had to do this as even-handedly as possible.

The theatre has since been closed down. To be honest, I don't regret the demise of the very low form of music hall then playing. Night after night I'd sit up in my eyrie listening to the compere deliver the same sad gags. "Why is there an oil slick off Brighton beach?" To which the punch line was "Must be because the hippies have been washing their hair". What I do regret is that the elegant building at the end of the pier has been torn down and replaced by a featureless platform on which all manner of frightening machines - like the Turbo Coaster big-dipper - have been installed.

The Palace was always the most successful commercially of Brighton's two piers. Its erstwhile competitor, the West Pier, is now a sad sight indeed. Gutted by fire and battered by storms, what remains of its superstructure is no longer linked to the mainland, giving it the appearance of a burnt-out oil rig. By contrast, the seafront between the two piers has smartened up its act. Where once candyfloss and greasy chips ruled supreme, there are now any number of bars and restaurants interspersed between stalls selling everything from cockles and whelks to plastic sharks or buckets and spades. There's still a sign inviting you to "Consult Paul: Tarot and Palmistry", though I saw no takers in all the time I spent cruising the front. And while this stretch of beach is no longer the scene of mods versus rockers gang warfare, the new wave of bars and clubs under the arches obviously create their own problems - witness the warning signs "Keep our Beach Drug-Free".

Moving away from the seafront , I entered The Lanes, where I used to spend most of my wages on records and clothes. Sixties' Brighton had a brief affair with modernist architecture, resulting in shopping plazas like Churchill Square or, hidden deep in The Lanes, Dolphin Square, where I would spend hours leafing through psychedelic album sleeves at a shop called Rounder Records. It's still there, proudly declaring that it was established in 1966 and therefore claiming to be Brighton's oldest music store.

Soon the epicentre of alternative culture moved to the shabby streets to the north of The Royal Pavilion - the North Laine district, where I first encountered herbal remedies and recyclable packaging. The area around Bond Street remains the hub of all things counter-cultural, from a vegetarian shoe-shop to body-piercing parlours.

Tastes may have changed, but Brighton's peculiar mixture of glitz and grunge is still there. It's a potent formula which has been attracting visitors ever since the Prince Regent decided to settle here and create that weird combination of orientalism and neo-gothic that is The Royal Pavilion. It's what keeps drawing me back. But having worked on the other side of the fence, these days I'm happy to just be counted among the punters.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

STAYING THERE

Hotel Pelirocco (01273 327055; www.hotelpelirocco.co.uk), 10 Regency Square. B&B from £90. Neo Hotel (01273 711104; www.neohotel.com), 19 Oriental Place. Doubles start at £90.

Brighton Wave (01273 676794; www.brightonwave.com), 10 Madeira Place. B&B from £100.

Hotel du Vin and Bistro (01273 718588; www.hotelduvin.com), Ship Street. Doubles from £130.

INFORMATION

Brighton & Hove visitor information (0906 711 2255, calls 50p a minute; www.visitbrighton.co.uk).

Comments