Saturday, 6 April 2013


People who complain about the youth of today should cast their minds back to Britain in the early to mid 1960s, when seaside towns such as Margate, Clacton and Brighton were terrorised by the opposing youth subcultures known as Mods and Rockers.  Bank holiday weekends were a particlar flashpoint, when hordes of Mods and Rockers would flood into these resorts on their favoured mode of transport and dressed in their preferred gear: motorbikes and leathers for Rockers, scooters and suits with parkas for Mods.  These occasions would inevitably end in open warfare between the two factions, who engaged in fighting in the cafes and on the beaches, sending terrified pensioners fleeing from their deckchairs.  Newspapers of the day were full of reports of incidents such as "fighting on the sands" (Margate), a "second Battle of Hastings", and a  "running battle with police" (Brighton).  This youth phenomenon is what forms the cultural backdrop to Quadrophenia, a film version of the rock opera written by The Who's Pete Townsend in 1973, and transferred to the big screen in 1979.

The troubled main character, Jimmy, lives in London, but the climax of the film occurs when he heads for Brighton on a Bank Holiday jaunt with his Mod friends, including Steph, played by Lesley Ash, the object of Jimmy's desires.  On their arrival in the resort, the Mods, together with their scooters and girlfriends, converge on Madeira Drive.  At one point, all heads turn at the sight of the god-like blonde-haired Ace Face, played by Sting, who oozes cool, riding into town accompanied by a posse of scooters.  Towards the end of the film he appears again looking rather less cool, dressed in a ridiculous bell-boy outfit, in his job as a porter at the Grand Hotel.  The exterior of the Brighton SeaLife Centre was used as the dance hall where Jimmy spends an eventful evening culminating in his ejection by the doormen after diving into the dancefloor crowds from the balcony.  The next morning finds Jimmy sitting pensively on the beach.  This is one of the most visually memorable scenes from the film: the sun shimmering on the sea, the waves crashing onto the shore, and the pier looking magnificent in the background, and all to the accompaniment of Love Rain O'er Me by The Who.  Later that day the big battle between the mods and rockers takes place, during which Jimmy and Steph escape to an alleyway, where he manages to consummate his passion for her.  The alleyway in question was just off East Street, and is at the back of what is now a fish restaurant.  

Palace Pier © 2009 Stephen Richards, via Wikimedia Commons

After the bank holiday episode, a series of unfortunate events contribute to Jimmy's descent into madness and his departure back to Brighton, where he spots Ace Face in his bellboy outfit and makes off with his scooter.  The shocking final scene has Jimmy roaring up to the top of Beachy Head on the stolen scooter and flinging himself and the scooter off the top of the white cliffs.

Beachy Head © 2007 Simon Palmer, via Wikimedia Commons

Brighton, the premier resort on Britain's south coast, has been described as London-on-sea, due to its relative proximity to the capital. The resort used to have two piers, the Palace Pier and the West Pier, but the West Pier burned down in 2003.  Madeira Drive is a raised seafront road which runs eastwards from Brighton Pier.  The Drive is used as the "finish line" for many road races involving a variety of vehicles such as veteran cars, motorcycles and cycles.  The Palace Pier, which started life as a Chain Pier in 1823 acting as a landing stage for passenger ships from Dieppe, is a classic example of its genre.  Seaside resorts all over Britain have piers like this, most of them built during Victorian times when visits to the seaside gained massively in popularity, helped along by the emerging railways.  The piers provided both entertainment and a chance for people to walk out over the sea without the hassle and worry of getting into a boat (which was a much bigger deal in those days than it is now).  Not surprisingly, given the unpredictable British climate, these structures have proven vulnerable to the elements, often suffering extensive damage as a result of storms.  The Palace Pier was battered by numerous storms in its early days, culminating in a monster storm in 1889 which caused such extensive damage that the pier had to be completely rebuilt.

The most famous of Brighton's many hotels is the Grand  Hotel.  The hotel has long enjoyed the status of grand old lady of the Brighton seafront.  Built in 1864 for moneyed visitors to the resort, one of its most notable features was a  "vertical omnibus" or hydraulically powered lift.  The hotel's darkest hour came in 1984, during a Conservative party conference, when the IRA bombed the hotel in an attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher.  She survived the attack, but five people died and several were injured, including Cabinet Minister Norman Tebbit.

Brighton's seafront is modern in appearance, but just behind it is the charming labyrinth of streets known as The Lanes.  Just to the east of the Lanes is Brighton’s most famous landmark, which looks as though it belongs not only to a different age, but to a far-flung country. The Brighton Royal Pavilion was started by John Nash in 1787 as a seaside home for the Prince Regent, and was made to look like an Indian palace, making it comically incongruous with its riot of domes and other exotic Indian features.  In the late 1800s, Magnus Volk, son of a German clockmaker, who was born in Brighton, built a tourist attraction which was a rival in eccentricity even for the Pavilion. Nicknamed the “Daddy Longlegs”, it was a “Seashore Electric Tramroad” consisting of a vehicle with 24-foot long legs, each with four wheels on the end, with two open decks, which could carry up to 150 passengers for 3 miles along the seafront to neighbouring Rottingdean. It was powered by electric cables which ran along a row of wooden poles. Sadly, this bizarre example of 19th century inventiveness was destroyed by a severe storm one week after opening, although it was rebuilt, only to close again in 1910. One of Volk’s earlier projects, however, was much more long-lived, in fact it still runs today: Volk's Electric Railway. During the summer months it is possible to travel on this eminent piece of engineering from the Aquarium to Black Rock.

The Royal Pavilion © 2009 Peter Greenhalgh, via Wikimedia Commons

To the east of Brighton is Beachy Head, one of the most famous headlands on Britain’s south coast, with the highest chalk sea cliff in the country, rising to a height of 162m.  This is a place tinged with sadness, being a popular place for suicides and attempted suicides, reckoned to number on average 20 per year.  Add to that the loss of life from maritime accidents just offshore, and one shudders to think of the number of lives lost at the hands of Beachy Head.  A collision in 1889 between the British vessel Largo Bay and a steamer called the Glencoe resulted in 54 dead, more than half of them Chinese.  In 1912 the P & O liner Oceana collided with the German barque Pisagua resulting in 9 lost lives.  These are just two examples. Add to this the wartime toll, including the torpedoing of the steamer Haipolian in 1915, and it is hard to conjure up positive feelings about this headland.  One of Beachy Head's most famous features is the jaunty red-and-white striped lighthouse at the foot of the cliff.  

No comments:

Post a Comment