10 March 2008

Brighton Early

'A cow just blew past,' I remarked, peering through the blinds.
'What?' yelped my hostess from the corner, startled into wakefulness by my surreal comment on the weather.
'Well, not quite,' I admitted, 'but the lampposts are waving about.'

Not the best day to be visiting the coast, you might think, but I had plans for lunch in Brighton with an old travelling friend who I've not seen since the summer before last, so after braving the craziness of London's rush hour to cheerfully accompany my Fairy Blogmother to work I savoured a leisurely breakfast and had a quick gander around Gosh! Comics before strolling to Victoria Station, stopping on the way to gaze at some Life Guards on the Mall and to return the missal I'd accidentally borrowed from Westminster Cathedral yesterday.

I didn't have long to wait for a train to Brighton and spent most of the journey there perusing today's Metro, which reported that people had been warned to stay away from coastal areas lest they be 'swept away amid gale-force winds, rain and hailstones'. Just the day to be heading south, so.

I've a rough enough idea of Brighton's layout, but that counted for nothing as I squinted at my scrawled map outside the station, hunching up against the elements. This made less sense than my Chelmsford map. What the hell did that word say? Is that a road or a slip of the nib? Does that scribble mean anything? Eventually I shoved my Moleskine back into my bag and set off, guided only by instinct and the hope that asking for directions would solve everything. Soon enough I was able to find a kindly local who smiled and said I needed to go to the new Sainsbury's, before pointing me in the right direction.

Somehow, again, I arrived at exactly the right time -- I seem to be developing an alarming tendency towards accidental punctuality -- though, unsurprisingly, other problems arose. Still, resourcefulness won the day, and lunch and some long-overdue catching up were indulged in.

I'd a few hours to spare before I was due to head back north to London and thence to Cambridge, so I went for a wander, starting by going to have a proper look at St Bartholomew's Church, just round the corner and one of the most striking structures in a city that's not short of memorable sights. I'd had it pointed out to me when I was last in Brighton, and a friend had recently advised me to have a glance within, it being 'quite funky inside'. I wasn't sure that was an entirely auspicious description, but considering the hurricane that was blowing outside I was only to glad to step into the porch and be let into the church by an old dear who was tending some sort of stall.

The church's interior startled me, and not just because of how the walls seemed to go up and up and up -- rather there were stations and mosaics on the walls, an enormous neo-Byzantine baldacchino over the altar, and crosses and statues everywhere all draped in a mournful purple. Hang on, wasn't this an Anglican church? How high were these Anglicans?

A smattering of art students sat in the pews, and when a group of schoolchildren came in the old dear swiftly hushed them, saying that they mustn't distract the students. She was almost as quick to apologise to me for the children's noise, and then apologised that there were girls among the schoolchildren.
'We don't normally have girls as servers,' she whispered.
'You don't?'
'No,' she said, lips pursing, 'we're an A, B, and C church.'
'Oh,' I said, wondering how the Archbishop of Canterbury was involved. 'What does that stand for?'
'It means we don't have women priests, and we stick to the old traditions.'
'I see,' I said, frowning and clearly doing nothing of the sort. 'And A.B.C. stands for what?'
'Well, it just means that we stick to the old traditions, really. If it's not broken, why fix it?'
By this point I was feeling a bit like the bemused fellow on the Ship of Fools website who was greeted in St Bart's by a little old dear -- possibly the same one I met today -- who thrust a service sheet and a candle into his hand and whispered at him for ten minutes.

Like him, I hadn't the vaguest notion what she was on about, so just nodded, resolving to quiz my man in Cambridge about it tonight, and wandered about a bit before fastening my coat, hoisting my bag back on my shoulder, pulling on my gloves, and sidled out in the wind and rain. At least, I thought, there'll not be many seagulls about in this weather.

I wandered about North Laine, browsing bookshops and keeping a none-too-keen eye out for Shakeaway, as I'd been advised to try their choc brownie milkshake. I wasn't convinced that'd be a good idea; I was sure the milkshake would be fine, I just wasn't persuaded that a tempest is really ideal milkshake weather. Maybe next time.

Eventually I made my way down to the seafront, there to battle the elements along the beach as far as Embassy Court, my face being battered by wind, rain, and hail, my lips salty with spray and my camera almost being blasted from my hand whenever I tried to point at anything, listening to the ringing of masts and chimes, watching the waves crashing against the world of tat that is the Palace Pier and the beautiful charred skeleton of the West Pier, with the beach's infinity of pebbles glistening in the rare golden shafts of light. It was sublime.

The wind eventually dropped, just as I started back towards the station. I didn't hurry, though. I wanted to take another look at the Pavilion first, partly because it's a marvellously absurd building that has no place in any British city, and partly because last time I was in Brighton I'd entirely forgotten its signal importance in the opening chapter of Chesterton's Orthodoxy.
'I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool.'
If you wonder why the great Gilbert started his spiritual autobiography -- published a hundred years ago this year -- which such an image, you'll just have to read it yourself.

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