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Déjà Vu in Brighton (part one)
A Choppy Sea of Rooftops
I have travelled widely during the course of my life but never before have I experienced the sort of exhilaration I felt when the train suddenly left the Sussex countryside behind to emerge in the broad choppy sea of rooftops which announced the outskirts of the city of Brighton. Technically speaking it wasn’t my first visit to Brighton, I had been there before in the early nineties when I was still sowing my wild oats but aside from a vague recollection of a busy pub the primary memory of that visit was the next morning’s hangover back home in Kent. None-the-less I experienced a strong sense of déjà vu as the train approached the station on a bright sunny day in March 2015.
It could be described as a sort of homecoming I suppose; one as odd as odd can be. In the course of taking the Wyrde Woods setting of the novels Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrd from the early twenty-first century to the early 1940s I had run into the problem that the rural isolation of the Wyrde Woods made it difficult to sketch the desperate days of the spring and summer of 1940 so I decided to take one of the characters, a twelve-year-old Will Maskall, and place him in Brighton. An introductory chapter in the –then- town which found itself on the front line after the fall of France would suffice to create a suitable wartime mood after which I could have him evacuated to the countryside. 3,000 to 4,000 words would do was my initial estimation.
I ran into two immediate problems. The first was that 1940 was far harder to emulate than the 2004 time period of the first novels. Having been reared on my grandparents' wartime stories, Commando comics and WW2 movies I was under the illusion that I knew the 1940s reasonably well; however, setting it to paper required a lot more research than I anticipated. Furthermore, the Wyrde Woods were my own creation, so anything I required could be easily inserted into the woods and even moved about if needed. Quite obviously I couldn’t get away with this in an actual city and the emphasis on detailed settings in the novels made the easy solution, keeping Brighton absolutely anonymous, a contradictory one.
Strange Times on the Brighton Seafront
Brightonians to the Rescue
A stroke of luck (or the Wyrd) brought me to the facebook pages Sussex in History and Brighton-Past and soon it became apparent that I had hit a jackpot for I was inundated with helpful links to websites such as My Brighton and Hove as well as the BBC WW2 People’s War but also personal recollections of wartime Brighton and a host of very knowledgeable Brightonians who were all too willing to help me find my way around their hometown (I made some friends too). Soon thereafter I added the group 1940s World to the collection and before I knew it I had passed the 40,000 word mark for that first ‘chapter’ filled with actual wartime experiences which I had ascribed to Will and his friends Jamie and Brenda. It seemed a shame to cut into what had essentially become a localised item of living history and I opted to publish the whole thing separately from the intended 1940 Wyrde Woods novel Forgotten Road.
Having studied maps, photographs and recollections I felt I knew Brighton a little bit, especially because I had been able to fill the story with ‘my’ local knowledge. Nonetheless, I felt it proper to visit Brighton to see the places which I had described as if I passed them on a daily basis and also to see if I could collect a few new ideas. This is where the oddity comes in: the usual practise is to visit a place first before writing about it, rather than the other way around. Then again, it did give me a rather unique perspective and it was this that caused that aforementioned sense of déjà vu as the train pulled into the station.
Having seen photographs my cover photographer Corin Spinks had taken of the station resulted in immediate familiarity – a feeling which continued as I took a cab to the hotel across the road from the old Palace Pier. Many of the street names were familiar and I recognized Old Steine and the Old Steine Gardens straight away. After checking in at the hotel I rushed outside again to cross King’s Road to find myself at the entrance of the pier. The view towards the east was captivating; of all the images I had encountered in months of googling Brighton this is what I had seen most often: The entry to the Aquarium (now the Sea Life Brighton Centre) where the lower Madeira Drive looped up into the Marine Parade. Beyond that I could see the shingle beaches stretching into the distance flanked by the grey artificial cliff which leads up to the facades of elegant Regency buildings which shone brightly in the sunshine. I took note of the first omissions in Will’s War which would have to be remedied; the first being the forlorn cries of the seagulls which wheeled over the rooftops and the second the crash of the waves on the nearby shingle beach which were followed by the distincitve light clatter of the pebbles as the sea withdrew again.
I had a few hours to spare before my friend Gerrit was due to arrive and decide to embark on a walk. Crossing Old Steine I walked along North Street and there spotted the Pavilion Gardens and Royal Pavilion. A grand omission if there ever was one for I had not mentioned the exotic domes at all; a short scene was duly sketched by the time I had crossed the Pavilion Gardens and saluted the Max Miller statue I found there. The Cheeky Chappie takes a prominent place in Will’s War; fortunately I had got that right. Wandering about somewhat aimlessly I ended up on Kensington Street and was captivated by the extensive graffiti which surrounded a number of small parking lots. One image struck me in particular; four-engine bombers with open bomb bays flying over a city against a red sky. A shiver ran up and down my spine as I was confronted with this scene which seemed to come straight from Will’s War. I walked on through the North Laine area -filled with delightfully quaint little shops- till I reached the station where I headed south again along Queens Road. Somewhere along the way I was fair bouncing up and down with glee as I discovered my first Twitten, one of the alleyways I had been educated about on the Brighton-Past fb page.
A brief encounter with the Wyrd
Taking a right I headed up Church Street and circled St Nicholas Church, the ‘Mother Church’ of Brighton founded in 1091, more than 900 years ago. This was the location of an important scene in Will’s War and as I turned left on Dyke Road to walk past the churchyard wall I had a very strong sense that Will and Jamie were walking by my side. From a logical perspective this is ridiculous of course; Will and Jamie are figments of my imagination and the notion that literary characters conceived in 2014 could travel back in time to 1940 to reappear as some sort of ghostly entity in 2015 baffles rationality. None-the-less, they were there and the three of us walked by the wall in sober contemplation of the violent crash of a German airplane here during the war. I left the lads by the main gate of the church and was still puzzling over the possibility of the transference of the Wyrd of the Wyrde Woods to Brighton when I emerged from my mental meanderings to take note of my surroundings again. The first thing I saw was a mural design on a building depicting an iconic element of my Wyrde Woods and it seemed to have been placed there to reassure me that logic and rationality do not always rule the mortal world; the Wyrd could be found right here in broad daylight in the heart of Brighton. From that moment on the sense of déjà vu was strengthened by my perception that I was truly walking in Will’s footsteps through the Brighton which he had thought to be inseparable from the core of his being.
Pilgrimage to City Books
Till now I had been surprised at how close most locations were; based on the maps I had studied I had judged the distances to be greater than they actually turned out to be so it was with some confidence that I decided to walk most of the length of Western Road to visit a bookshop I was curious about. Perception of distance was now reversed for Western Road seemed to go on for ever and longer. Thanks to my mentors on Brighton-Past I could grasp the significance of a new Twitten I ran into; passing the Boundary Passage meant that I had crossed into Hove. At long last I reached the independent bookshop ‘City Books’, which had been opened in 1986 by Paul and Inge Sweetman. I had read about this bookshop in the Guardian and the Argus and it was high on my list of places to visit; for I felt a strong affinity to a bookshop with a distinctive character which spoke of a great love for the product on sale. Everything I encountered in the bookshop supported my digital impressions and I was delighted to note numerous works by local authors and/or local topics. I write far better than I talk and probably made a poor impression in my confused explanation that I wasn’t a local author but I had written a local work with the help of scores of local assistants. Poor salesman that I am (I thought I just had to write the buggers, not flog them to an unsuspecting public in person) I should have been more eloquent about my passionate desire to one day see Will’s War in local bookshops such as City Books for it would be a symbolic homecoming for a work about the people of wartime Brighton which I could not have written without Brightonian help. My lack of graceful communication was forgiven though and I was encouraged to return one day with the final product so that they could evaluate its merits and I left City Books floating on a cloud which eased the long walk back along Western Road.
Charlie’s Sweet Emporium & Choccywoccydoodah
Heading back towards the seafront by the pier I encountered two of Will’s passions. Quite obviously I could not simply walk past Charlie’s Sweet Emporium without going in to stock up on Black Jacks and an assortment of vintage sweets after a vain attempt not to drool as I wandered past a multitude of sweet jars much as Will and Jamie do in just about every chapter in Will’s War. The staff were friendly and helpful and added delight to my first Brighton sweet shop experience. In the Lanes I was seduced into Choccywoccydoodah by the kind offer of a free chunk of chocolate which melted in my mouth most divinely and inside I discovered myself to be in Chocolate Heaven where I simply breathed in the rich air of chocolate and marvelled at the ingeniously crafted displays and tempting goods on offer. The staff exuded love for their product much as I had experienced in City Books and Charlie’s Sweet Emporium.
I had only been in Brighton for a few hours – though it seemed much longer already – but as I left the Lanes I realized that I was falling head over heels for this city at an amazing speed and the whirling seagulls laughed at me as I made my way back to the bright blue sea.
To be continued in: Déjà Vu in Brighton (Part Two)