Monday, September 22, 2008

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I would imagine that no matter how often one has seen the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, the experience till astounds. It certainly awed me all over again. Driving with my students in a huge "coach" (British for 'bus') across Surrey and Sussex to the "coast", I revelled in the English spirit of "going to the sea-side". We were blessed by a gorgeous day, certainly one of the best I've seen since my arrival in the UK. It started with a crisp bite in the air that warmed comfortably as the sun climbed higher in the cloudless blue skies.

On Brighton's pebbly beach-front, spades and pails were conspicuously absent as the beach is devoid of sand. Fat pebbles in shades of yellow and orange cover the beach punctuated by those ubiquitous appendages of British beaches--the striped deck chair in pink and blue! Early morning joggers and dog-walkers were still about when we arrived there to be met by Wilf, one of the blue badge guides who then took us on a walking tour of the city.

A very proper, very dapper "Grandad" (as he described himself), Wilf (short for Wilfred?)explained the history of the famous Brighton Pier whose amusements have grown more high-tech with every passing year. Today, the entrance is crowded with food stalls ("slush puppies", ice-cream, fish and chips and as a concession to multi-culturalism, hot dogs from the States and crepes from their "neighbors across the Channel"). Once on the pier,there is every kind of arcade game to keep kids and teenagers amused, in case the beach fails to appeal.

We crossed the street with Wilf and walked towards The Lanes, a maze of charming narrow streets lined with one-of-a-kind boutiques and shops. The sidewalks were completely taken over by craft stalls as Brighton celebrated "Streets for People Day" that kept all traffic off and made the maze a pedestrian plaza. Freebies galore delighted passers-by (bike light, the Body Shop's Soothing Mint Foot Cream (did you know that Anita Roddick who founded The Body Shop was a Brighton gal whose experiments were carried out in her home kitchen?), pens, pencils, recyclable water bottles. Wilf continued with our troupe in an untidy crocodile across North Road to the North Lanes where we saw edgier shops ('Vegetarian Shoes' carried footwear made sans leather or other animal products) and more creative eateries before arriving at Jubilee Square. The festive fair-like atmosphere gripped us all when we arrived at the modern Library building, surprisingly open on a Sunday, and arrived finally at the Brighton Dome, the enclosure that once coralled King George IV stables of horses. Finally, we arrived in the Pavilion Gardens with their many elephant topiary to which so many fascinated children clung.

The elephants were, of course, appropriate, as the onion domes, minarets and finials that decorate the confection that is the Royal Pavilion came into view. Everyone knows the history of Brighton but it bears repeating because it is so fanciful. When George IV was the Prince Regent (because his father George III was still alive but had been pronounced "insane"), he escaped the prying court of London to buy himself a small farmhouse in which he could dally with his mistress Maria Fitzherbert as he loved the tang of Brighton's salt-air. Eventually, when his father died and he became king, he was able to hire the services of London's best known architect John Nash who was instructed to turn the modest farmhouse into an Oriental zenana. Taking his cue from pictures he had seen of the Taj Mahal and other Islamic buildings, Nash obliged creating a completely incongruous building in the midst of the sedate beach settlement that under the King's patronage became one of the most fashionable beach resorts of the day (robbing Bath of its former glory and clientele!)

As if the exterior is inadequately exotic, the visitor is struck dumb by the interior design and decoration that is indescribably OTT (Over The Top) in every respect. Because his love for the exotic did not stop with the Middle East and India but extended to China, the inside has been conceived in the design of the Far East. Bamboo is everywhere--on the banister up the stairs, edging the pictures moldings, etc. But, mind you, none of this is real. For this is a Palace of Illusion and all the bamboo you see is wrought iron painted to look like bamboo, all the marble you see is wood faux-painted to look like marble. It becomes a game, after the while, to figure out how much is real and how much is an affectation.

When we passed into the Banqueting Hall, the Saloon, the Music Room, The Long Gallery, the interiors were so lavish and so overwhelmingly gorgeous in the paintings, chandeliers hung over with ferocious dragons and coiled around with fierce snakes, in the candelabra, in the gilded dishes and the porcelain and the silverware and finally arrived in the kitchen from which 100 dishes emanated each day, we were well and truly speechless. We had a very good guide who lovingly explained every detail and made our tour special.

By this point, I was starving and went out in search of a bite, but looking at my watch, I realized that I had just enough time to look for the meeting place called Bills on North Street where I had made plans to meet with Marina Stubbs who would become the first Anglo-Indian I would interview for my proposed study on immigrants in the UK. I had such a hard time trying to find Bills and her that I was ready for a beer in the nearest bar by the time we did touch base. My interview went off really well and we ended up walking to her home where I was able to take her picture and meet her young son Samuel. Away from all the tourist traps, Brighton is an unpretentious little city with very modest homes. The interior of Marina's home, very tiny by American standards, featured a very narrow hallway that led to a living-cum-family room. Up a narrow stairway were the bedrooms, but, of course, these I did not see. I was happy to get a glimpse into her domestic life which added an extra dimension to the impressions of growing of Anglo-Indian in the UK which she shared with me during our interview. She is also a writer and I was pleased to meet someone else who shares my love for writing. Best of all, I was happy that
my research has finally taken off and that I was able to combine work with a day of pleasure.

Then, I was galloping off to meet our coach at the water front and spent the next three hours stuck in traffic so that we arrived in London all worn out. Back home, it was all I could do to vegetate in front of the "telly" watching the second part of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urberbilles" that is on BBC One. As always, watching Tess' plight in those horrible Victorian times is heart-breaking. I spent the next fifteen minutes chatting with Llew before calling it a night.

Thankfully, the blind man (pun intended!) arrived on Friday and fixed the blinds in my flat, so that I no longer need to fall asleep with an eye mask on! The darkened interior of my flat now make it feel so much more warm and cozy and offers privacy from the office building just across the street.

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