Seeing the Ruins of Brighton

I live in Brighton, which itself is an unusual experience. Being both home to the aristocracy and their rebellious petit-bourgeois offspring it’s rather difficult to account for this non-city of a city. A friend once jokingly referred to it as a ‘town’, pointing out that unlike every great English city it lacks a cathedral. Yet there’s nothing townish about Brighton. For one, it’s too damn busy for a city of only 130,000 people, or 250,000 if you include Hove. That’s another thing: it has a second town off its side, like a resentful yuppie clinging onto their youth (away from the riff-raff). The awfully pebbly beach and its awfully overpriced bars (or do they still count as pubs?) are full on weekends and now most weekdays. Its dreadfully tacky cinema finds its opposite number in an artsy cinema, it has the Lanes – where you can buy antique swords – and the North Laines – where you can buy vegetarian shoes, several kinds of falafel and most ethnicities of food (including Cornish pasties), not to mention ‘the gay area’ of Kemptown, which exudes 1980s more than it smells like bad perfume. From extreme facial tattoos to extreme facial piercings to just flat out weirdness, Brighton is in some sense indefinable. Not as gay as you think, not as white as you think, not as yuppie as you think, but never possibly separable from all these notions.

It’s also a place where you can’t go for a drink without getting asked for money. Not just by our neighbourly charity muggers on the walk up to the station (thankfully fewer than six months ago, perhaps the colder weather got rid of them), but by the homeless and desperate. Every supermarket and nearby ATM has its own few hangers-on, and whether at one of the fancier pubs in the Lanes (where they’ll often come inside to ask) or walking to the next pub in the North Laines, chances are somebody is going to ask for a dime. Sometimes they’re rough. Sometimes they’re good looking. Some have dogs, some have far too many facial piercings to be considered properly employable. Some are in hoodies and approach you, some hang under the awning to yell at you from the darkness. You spend enough time here, you not only recognise the familiar tactics and behavioural patterns, you recognise the damn people.

To speak of poverty amid wealth is hardly a new phenomenon, but one wonders if we are truly entering a qualitatively new world. There are those who live, those who are hanging on and those who just don’t even appear to exist according to any reasonable means of production. Often their only encounter with social institutions is the long arm of the law, chiefly through some bureaucratic cap-wearing projection of state violence who takes it upon themselves to shove aside a man aside because people on the street are the oppressors of society.

If Benjamin talks about seeing ruins before they eventuate, I’m seeing Europe’s right now. What happens here and in America, where major cities such as Detroit now resemble ghost towns, soon flows over to Australia. I’m not looking forward to it.

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