THERE IS ALREADY a winner in the "boring London quote of the year" contest. If I had a fiver for every time I've heard it I'd be rich. It is awarded to all those oh-so-original people who are "thinking of moving to Brighton". The question it raises is simple. Why, oh why?
Earlier in the century, London's pooters ran choking away from the pea- soupers to Richmond, Kingston, Barnes. Now they go south, beyond Purley and Crawley, to Brighton. For Brighton is the new suburbs; the Metroland of the Nineties, a honey pot for the tired, muddled masses from Hackney, Camberwell and Shepherd's Bush. It is the latest destination in the demographics of disillusion.
Many more Londoners simply enjoy the fantasy of moving to Brighton. It's a syndrome that strikes when the tube is hard to bear; when the smog count is up, when the freaky nibs in the Haringay Echo or South London Press - "Crack Baby Fed to Pitbull" - make you think, "What am I doing here?" Children may also be a factor, the keen sea air considered good for pink little lungs, and Peter Pan parents assume that by moving to "trendy" Brighton they are not selling out metropolitan aspirations. Each weekend sees masses of escapees perusing estate agents' windows. About 40 per cent of house-hunters are from London, estimates David Flack of Bonnets. Yes, Brighton is becoming a Zion for uptight chatterers.
It is easy to see why Brighton works in theory. It is a satellite of London in proximity - 50 minutes on a greasy train - and also in fashion and attitude. Back in the Sixties, Trot-rich Sussex University was called "NW3 by the Sea". Now Brighton has become a kind of Camden-sur-Mer, defined by London but with an inferior ruefulness about its parent town that always translates into a pre-emptive twist: "It's much better than London, you know. And it has the sea."
Brighton people, particularly newcomers, are always betrayed by their constant protest-too-much references to London. "It has a much more relaxed, bohemian and eccentric air than London and is generally freer and looser," writes Simon Turner of Virtual Brighton in an e-mail (like all desperate places, Brighton has latched onto multimedia).
Personally, I don't want to go to Brighton. Like group sex, moving to Brighton should remain a fantasy. Maureen Geraghty, a veteran of no less than two moves to Brighton - this time she is here for work - agrees. "Londoners that move here always realise they're wrong," she says.
The main problem, reckons Maureen, is the commute back to London. But she has also found, with the benefit of two lots of hindsight, that there is an attitude problem afoot in Brighton. "There are loads of people there who have a real chip on their shoulder about London," she says. "It tries so hard to be London and hates itself for it. Often the people here haven't hacked it in London." But isn't it bohemian and interesting? "There's a lot of bad art, if that's what you mean." Oh yes, Brightonians try to talk ut up - the Sussex Arts Club, the plans for West Pier, the much-anticipated seafront clean-up. There is its unusual roster of "celebrities": Gaz from Supergrass, the Levellers, Norman Cook, Anne Nightingale, Mark Little, Julie Burchill and soi-disant Monarch of the Lanes Chris Eubank. Nothing to get Romauld Rat jumping on the Eurostar then, but more than Guildford.
The bottom line is that Brighton is less of a big deal than it thinks. "It's just not an exciting town," says Maureen. "I don't even think it's a good place to bring up children. It has all the disadvantages of the inner city without the perks." And because commuters will be on the train until 8pm and back on it first thing, they won't see their beloved brats much anyway.
Neither bracingly raw nor sophisticated, Brighton is a centre for small entrepreneurs with bad ideas. "In Brighton you can't even get a nice cup of coffee," says Maureen. "It's all still like olden days, 'caff' coffee. There's also a lot of bad but pretentious restaurants that open and close all the time. And in summer the front is worse than Oxford Street." She has noticed, since working in Brighton, that "even senior executives knock off at 5pm to go and mow their lawns." If they have lawns, that is, for Brighton is largely composed of flats with exorbitant leaseholds and no outside space. Places that keep its notorious landlords very nicely, thank you.
Some try Brighton - probably at a stage of low self-esteem - then find themselves moving back to London. Photographer Michael Banks and his wife Orianna, who runs a design gallery in London's Old Street, tried it out and returned after three years. "We fell in love with the horizon and had a go," says Michael. "The commuting got busier and busier, endless really. Then we'd socialise in London and have to leave the coffee and dash for the train: the Cinderella complex, we called it. Then we'd be up at 6am to get the train again.
"In the week, we'd get back at 8pm, have something to eat and that was the evening gone. The weekend would be Waitrose. We went for weeks without looking at the sea. It might work for freelance illustrators, but not for us." The Banks's moved back and are bringing up their child in London.
Mark Thursfield, who works at Eurosport, moved to Brighton then came back to London. "London can be quite daunting, and there was a certain purity about Brighton eight or nine years ago - though you wouldn't want to swim in the sea.," he says. The train was jolly, too: "Scuzzy but fun. The 7.02 used to be known as the 'media express'. We had a different party every Friday night. Once two girls puked before we even pulled out of Victoria."
The downside came for him when the "dog-on-string crowd crowded in." Then Connex implemented a complete smoking ban, which almost forced him back on the unparalleled commuter horror-show drive through Croydon, Streatham and Brixton. Then Brighton became a kind of "Benidorm full of teeny Tina clubbers". With them came a liberal spray of DSS hotel-dwelling psychopaths. He realised he'd never met anyone who was born there, and stopped attending its forlorn, cement-strewn beach. Thursfield then moved back to Ladbroke Grove where he lives very happily. He now says: "If your career is in neutral, yes, go to Brighton. It was a happening place. Now it's happened."
It could be that Brighton is extremely useful: as a dump for London's moaners. "There's nowhere else quite like it," says Elizabeth Leonard, a journalist, who studied in Brighton and left as soon as she could. "Seedy, depressing and dirty, in an Oxford Street, chewing-gum-circles-on-the- pavement sort of way." But the real problem, she continues, is the people. "They think they're so special. For some reason, they are superior, particularly the lentil-muncher types."
Another student in Brighton was John Purcell, a lawyer from London. "It's got nothing apart from that terminal beach, which is in any case stony and freezing cold with polluted water," he says. "Loads of people stayed after college but they tended to be the ones from Little Shitshire in the Sticks. It's basically Luton on the sea. People say it's cheaper, friendlier and younger - these are all euphemisms for 'not London'." When he saw Brighton after the storm in 1987, the city's tuberculoid skeleton revealed in its ghastly glory, he knew he had to go. In fact, a typical Sunday night in Brighton will reveal a similar atmosphere of distilled desolation.
Some Brighton-philes enjoy the underbelly of the place, deriving folkloric amusement from tales of "knocker-boys" offering Alzheimic old ladies a "monkey" to take a priceless piece of Beidermieir "off their hands". "I suppose the gangster thing is kind of fun: guys in gold threepenny- bit rings who can 'take someone out' for pounds 100," says Leonard. "And the pier is fun if you want to pretend to be in Brighton Rock. But that's it."
Advocates would assert that Brighton is the UK's answer to San Francisco in its heyday: Utopian, radical and switched-on, all in similarly elegant Victorian surroundings. But whereas San Francisco's westward drift accumulated all the progressive strands of the US, Brighton has acquired the half- cut, dope 'n' brew detritus whose ideological creed is simple: all property is theft, except mine. Or moine, as they would say. San Francisco had Ginsberg, Brighton has self-pitying Big Issue poets. Even its "raffish" gay scene still bears a suggestion of pre-war, parlaree-speaking invert culture.
Post-war Berlin gained its character from anarchistic conscription-dodgers. Brighton has gained its peculiar character from people who will not, shall not, cannot grow up: those steadfastly avoiding the call of maturity. It is a place where a bleached, spiky hairdo in a cafe will turn round to reveal, as in Don't Look Now, a face like parchment cured in Golden Virginia. Here, "youth culture" can be charted like subcultural evolution: 50-year-old punks, 60 year old hippies and already, some long-in-the-tooth ravers. In 2030, ancient Geri Spice-a-likes will be tottering round North Lanes. They will stick with Brighton: the capital for people who can't handle London. Unless they move to Lewes, which is for people who can't handle Brighton.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies