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Brighton in the ’80s, shabby but fantastic

30 June 2023

In her latest book, Madeleine Bunting recalls life as a teenage Roman Catholic on the south coast


The Brighton seafront in the early 1980s, showing the old putting green and the Palace Pier Theatre, demolished in 1986

The Brighton seafront in the early 1980s, showing the old putting green and the Palace Pier Theatre, demolished in 1986

BRIGHTON has come a long way since the early 1980s when I moved there from North Yorkshire, aged 16. For the following three years, I was intent on reinvention, and it was the perfect place to do it.

My mother and I ended up in Brighton by sheer happenstance, like many people arriving in a coastal resort: a combination of a broken marriage, the need for cheap housing, and the desire for a fresh start. I joked at the time that it was as far away from my father as my mother could get without actually emigrating.

My sister had arrived a year earlier to study at Brighton School of Art, and, apart from a few of her friends, we knew no one. My mother bought a small terraced house in a shabby part of Brighton, and, before long, the house was full of students. Some came for a meal, some for a night, and some moved in as lodgers.

Then, my mother began joining groups of various kinds. I never knew who or what I would find when I came home — prayer meetings, poetry readings, singing groups, my sister on the sewing machine for her textiles degree, or the small sitting room full of someone’s friends. The sense of liminality was visceral: all was in flux.

A short bike ride away was the beach, and I never lost the sense of febrile excitement that we were on holiday from our “real” life of rural Yorkshire and my former convent boarding school. When we first moved in, my siblings and I visited all the attractions, rode on the dodgems and the mini train, and played on the slot machines in the amusement arcades with spare change. I feared that the magic of Brighton couldn’t last; it was too much fun, and no one was telling us off. Its freedom was intoxicating.

BUT, even in my excited discovery of the town in 1980, it was evident that its glamour and fun had faded. The town had hit hard times. Its tourist income had declined, and Brighton was struggling with a reputation just as shabby and run down. The famous quote of playwright Keith Waterhouse just about summed it up: “Brighton is a town which always looks like it is helping police with their inquiries.”

Brighton was the inspiration for the fictional seaside town of the novel and subsequent television series The History Man, about a radical, priapic academic, and its lead character, a sociologist, is relieved to discover that “it’s a problem town, full of hippies and dropouts. It’s a town you can run to and disappear. There are empty houses. Visitors are soft touches. Lots of marginal work.”

AlamyHelter skelter at the end of Brighton pier, c.1980s

Much of that was still true when I arrived, but a new spirit had already begun to take hold, encouraged by its large and growing student population, championing tolerance, environmentalism, and an idealistic desire to change and reinvent.

They wanted to find a new way to do business — the Body Shop, with its advocacy of no animal testing and natural beauty products, emerged from Worthing, just down the road — and a new way to eat, in vegetarian cafés (I drank herbal teas and ate stodgy flapjacks in Food for Friends), and wholefood shops such as the co-operative-run Infinity Foods, founded in 1971 (still going strong as one of the biggest organic, fair-trade wholesalers in the south-east).

Brighton was a dream factory of idealists, fantasists, escapists, and adventurers, and my project of reinvention was one of many that I was witnessing among friends, neighbours, and even my own family. My mother and sister were both launching themselves on dramatically new life trajectories.

I got a Saturday job on the till at Boots, and, with my unfamiliar wealth (£7 for a shift), I scoured the many secondhand shops with my sister, and picked out all manner of extraordinary outfits. My sister bought an ice-blue 1950s taffeta cocktail dress, and a stained worker’s boiler suit, and I borrowed both; we bought exquisite hand-embroidered 1940s silk blouses.

They were deeply unfashionable, but only £1 a piece; now they could be museum pieces. We wore collarless granddad shirts down to our knees, and baggy jumpers. I salvaged a child’s kilt as a miniskirt, and a smartly tailored pencil skirt with a neat kick pleat; every day I tried out a new look, bewildering my peers.

PUNK had faded, and the New Romantics and Adam Ant had made ludicrous floppy lace collars fashionable; a Boots co-worker once looked at my stained fisherman’s smock and marvelled that I could wear such a thing. My siblings and I discovered Happy Hour in the smart seafront hotels. The rooftop bar of the Metropole was our favourite: free peanuts with Dubonnet and lemonade, our go-to drink, which my sisters kindly treated me to out of their bigger earnings.

We sat there in our shorts and sandals, hair still crusted with salt from a day on the beach, feeling ourselves to be daringly adventurous. We relished the anonymity of the seaside resort — so many people on the move, coming and going – and, as unlikely customers, no one took much notice of us, so word wouldn’t get back to our mother.

We were slowly easing off the shackles of small village life and the close, disapproving supervision of our convent boarding school. It was as if we could take great gulps of air for the first time. We shrieked with giggles on the seafront, and collapsed with laughter over anything.

My father had always described my sisters’ high spirits as hysteria, but in Brighton there was no one to frown and criticise. In the middle of this intoxicating adventure, I earnestly set out to find fellow Christians, and naïvely stumbled into the then emergent world of Sussex coast Evangelical Christianity.

As a journalist in the late 1990s, I went back to visit the house-church movement I had known, and found an organisation of thousands — Sunday services were held in a cinema to accommodate the arm-waving, hymn-singing crowds.

Back in the early 1980s, they were still meeting in houses in prayer groups, where the preaching went on for hours, and we were sternly advised to be wary of Satan and all his works. As girls, we should be covering our heads and be modestly dressed at all times and submit to male leadership. I became increasingly alarmed.

At school, in our poky basement meeting room, where we belted out gospel music — “Hallelujah! We love Jesus, we are saved” — accompanied by handsome boys on their guitars, one of the believers warned me that, as a Catholic, I was heading for a cliff edge, and beyond lay eternal damnation. She had a compelling duty to save me. I fled.

The flamboyance and drama of Christian Evangelicalism suited Brighton. The liminality of the coastline as a place of change and a new start lent itself to the strident promises that all your sins could be redeemed and you could be “saved” by Jesus and “born again”. Full-immersion baptism in the sea during the summer was common.

Preaching relied (and still does, judging by the Zoom services I attended in 2020 of Brighton Evangelical churches) on the repetition of words such as “new” and “fresh”, and the mounting crescendo of promises and superlatives: “God is working anew in you, and doing something extraordinary in this community.” Depending on your point of view, it was exhausting or exhilarating.

Among the large, transient population of a coastal town, many people were looking for connection and community, and Evangelical churches — or “free churches”, as they described themselves — made a point of building small groups, emphasing the importance of mutual support and care.

When I came home late in the evening, sometimes my mother’s Catholic Charismatic prayer group was in full swing, and usually Brian, a gentle refuse collector, would be “slain in the Spirit”. This entailed a form of ecstasy, his head thrown back as he burbled incomprehensibly, the phenomenon known as “speaking in tongues” — a “gift of the spirit”, according to the New Testament.

For relief from all this intensity, I escaped to the seafront, and took the undercliff path from Brighton to Rottingdean. Here, on a sea wall, I read “Dover Beach”: faith was proving hard work.

Meanwhile, my mother’s own reinvention was by now reaching disconcerting proportions; abandoning 20 years of being a Catholic wife and mother, she announced that we were a collective, equally responsible for cooking and cleaning, and formed a deeply romantic relationship with a man half her age.

My religious adventures reinforced the feeling that everything was in flux; like many others in Brighton, I was only passing through.

This is an edited extract from
The Seaside: England’s love affair by Madeleine Bunting, published by Granta at £20 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-1-78378-717-3.

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