Text: Agnès Villette / Photos: Elisabeth Blanchet
Sometimes seasides are too much. Especially British seaside towns. They definitely are too much.
It all starts when I arrive at Brighton train station, everything feels different, as if I had been travelling for hours, even though, it is just an hour train journey from London. True, I have not been back in Brighton for years, and it has changed, not drastically, but some of the tacky shops along the road descending in a assured slope down to the sea have gone. Up instead are some trendy expresso bars, small Sainsbury’s and unremarkable shops, devoid of the edginess they can take by the sea. I do not take a stroll to town. Instead I head for the first wireless café on the seafront from which I can send an article on crypto finance written after a recent trip to Switzerland. Brighton seems miles away from the FinTech I have been reading about for the last few days. Miraculously, the sun is there, when I had left London, it was still grey and damp, totally alien to the june month we are in. I like so much the days in june, with the sounds of Roland Garros’s matches escaping from bars, the long lit nights, the unstoppable feeling of school’s last days. And there all it is, in Brighton, as if one has to really leave London to find it.
The sea is patched, grey and blue, slightly agitated, but sadly blocked from view by massive building work conducted on the promenade. Following the directions I have been given by Elisabeth, I walk along the beach, where several food joins and bars are lined up under the Victorian arches. She has mentioned a French restaurant, named as you would expect, Le Bar de la Plage, where she absolutely needs to go back to. I walk. Time becomes different, the air seems fuller, the openness of merging sky and sea works slowly on my brain, I have not been away from the capital for a while, and, it really feels good to be here. I can spot the new tourist attraction : the British Airways i360. A strange pylon on which a moving glass capsule moves up and down. Such a strange sight, so alien to the seafront Victorian mansions, with their metallic railings and balconies. Further ahead, a woman is singing into a mic in front of an empty terrace. It all seems familiar and slightly out of synch. The café de la Plage is about to close, but some customers are still hanging around, drinking with the chef. A French man from Lyon, Laurent wears a marinière, drinks Pastis, lives on a boat moored in the marina and seems to directly come from a Tati film.
The night to come would be an incongruous mix of absurdity and mischievousness.
I manage to grab some grilled sardines before the kitchen closes. And we talk, a lot, a lot more than normal. Is it the sea, the feeling of being away? The conversation dragging on extra French subjects, that would normally have driven me into boredom, at this specific time, seems hilarious. Yes, seaside are too much.
The café closes. We just have had a lengthy conversation on oysters, which came after a detailed description of the best way to eat radish, with crusty bread spread with salted butter. The oyster conversation has unravelled an immediate craving to eat them. “No problem” says Laurent, “I know a lady who sells them along the seafront, in a little wood shack; they are really fresh.” Oysters have a mysterious attraction for me. They are so connected to family meals, Normand’s landscapes, endless discussions in the kitchen while opening dozen of them. They bring memories of places and time, like no other food. Mainly childhood, and the time I started eating them. Unlike most food, they require maturity and courage. One has to pass the disgusting feeling of the slimy gob in ones mouth, the extreme saltiness, the knowledge of having an animal still alive in your mouth. And they remind me of people, like a German lover whom I taught how to open them in a small bedsit in the middle of winter in Paris. I am always a bit traditional when it comes to eating them outside the normal winter season, which is between october and march. Still wishing to attach them to a specific atmosphere, but there you go, the new enhanced NGO breed which is now ubiquitous can be eaten all year round. We are walking along the promenade, by that time, the wish to eat oysters has become so strong I feel really let down, when approaching the shack, we understand it is closed. I am particularly interested to have them opened in front of me and to eat them, standing at the counter, as it was done during Victorian times. Laurent suggests we retrace our steps, as he knows another place, posher and more expansive where we can find them. True, it is overpriced and serving really bad wine, but the 10 oysters we order, Jersey Rocks, are amazing. Refined and citrusy, their taste is really elegant, complex.
And suddenly the day took a different turn.
It had been decided ahead that we would visit the Wetherspoon at the Brighton marina. We all set for the half hour walk along the sea, towards the marina, on the outskirts of town. The light is changing dramatically as early evening is arriving. Joggers pass us, red sweaty faced and seemingly in pain. Dog walkers are in numbers. And as it happens often on seashores, the light takes a very strong hold on the seascape, bright colours are enhanced, lines seems to delineate themselves, far away buildings or boats on the horizon seem to zoom closer with an uncanny precision. In contrast, further away plans of vision, seems to distort and blur as they morph into a misty whitish background from which more delicate drawings of shapes and forms detach themselves. The air is so clear and so luminous, it metamorphoses the mundane approach to the marina into a surreal vision that is about to tinge the whole vision of the place. A while ago, Laurent, keeping on a regular pace, has left us far behind. Arriving at the marina from the sea promenade is a deceptive experience.
Seasides are sometimes too much. And it is another example of the urban planners’ idiocy to have destroyed with such obvious disdain the seascape. A huge concrete five storey car park is blocking the view, and has to be circumvented using a pedestrian tunnel leading to a another open air car park around which several chains and supermarkets are spread. In front of the Asda supermarket, a group of foreign men are talking and exchanging objects too far to be identified. A petrol station is lit and soaks the whole place in a greenish hue. It brings an immediate memory of a JG Ballard novel, set at the Chelsea marina, in London. Millenium people is frighteningly reminiscent of how British urban development can be so dysfunctional. I remember Super Cannes as well, also set by the sea. Seaside madness. And then other science fiction books from Jeff Noon came to mind, who if I remember well has settled exactly here in Brighton. Dystopia by the sea.
The West Quay is a pure emblem of it. It is cornered between a Pizza Hut and a 24 hour mini Tesco. Fairly big, it spreads over two floors, with mock Tudor wooden panels, wooden gargoyles hanging over the bar among the alcohol bottles whereas most of the design stays rather inconspicuous. One side is opening on a terrace overlooking the marina, where boats are cramped in a tiny square harbour. “ I like when the boats come back to port”, says Elisabeth, and true several masts passed along the veranda window. Laurent is there, among some friends, a pint of cider in hand.
Seaside towns can be too much. As I was to discover with the night settling on the marina.