Sunday, April 17, 2011

Here

Yesterday morning I shut the black front door, squinted into the mothy spring light, and wandered off down the hill towards coffee. On my way to the café is a hillside park full of elms.

Elms! There are elms here: fifteen thousand of them. Gone from the rest of the country; found nowhere else in England but here. And because it’s spring, the elms’ black branches are flocked with luminous green winged seeds, clumped and packed and confused, as if the trees were hastily made in a props factory by people who’d never seen leaves, but wanted to have a go.

Yesterday morning the T’ai Chi people were doing their thing under the flowering elms, just in front of the playground. There they were, with their little tapedeck, and their blanket. Only three? What a disappointment. I love walking past these people at the weekend: here be plangent strains of classical Chinese music and a man in a tracksuit on one leg.

I love this city. I’ve been trying to work out why, but it was a first-sight love, and you can’t put first-sight love in words, ever. I came here in February to flat-sit for my friend Olivia, and now I can’t bear to leave.

What city? BRIGHTON. Hah! It’s a glittering, scabrous pile teetering on the edge of the channel, a city that squares bolshily up to an onshore wind that pushes scraps of paper and moulted feathers around streets that are London forty years ago. Filthy stucco and sparrows in the hedges, ocean-liner white villas and streets full of dog poo.

I’ve seen hipster children in fedoras. I’ve seen street litter comprised mainly of olives and condoms. I’ve seen herring gulls trying to break into porsches. In Sainsburys, day one, I heard the woman behind the cheese counter exclaim, disbelievingly to a customer, ‘What do you mean you’ve never tried Manchego?” It’s all hipsters and new meejia and gangsters and students and dealers and what Steven Wells (via Alexis Petrides) memorably described as "crusty-wusty, hippy-dippy, twat-hatted, ning-nang-nongers."

I’m inured to eccentricity. Oddly enough, it’s not the years living in Cambridge that did this. My university town is an eccentric place. But its eccentricity isn’t kindly. It has its own rules. You can wear holey tweed and shoes with flapping soles; you can sit in cafés discussing latin syntax and be so absent-minded you forget your name, but if your eccentricity isn’t of this particular strain, goodbye. Cambridge is a cold place. If you smile at someone in the street their expression will register one part alarm, one part suspicion, one part embarrassment. And then they’ll walk on by.

I was inured to eccentricity way before Cambridge. Oh yes. When I was five years old, all knees and plasters and a fierce expression under a straight-cut fringe, my parents moved to a house in Camberley that happened to be on an estate owned by the Theosophical Society. I don’t know if you know much about the TS; perhaps that Yeats was a fan, and that Krishnamurti was involved, and that its driving light was the redoubtable Madame Blavatsky. We’re talking good old-fashioned old-school esoteric spiritualism. Our new house wasn’t connected to the TS: my mum and dad were not only agnostic, but journalists and agnostic; but growing up there, bathed in the faded light of Empire nuttiness, was an education.

One estate resident spent a lot of time in Nepal, but sent his beard clippings back in an envelope to be burned on the estate bonfire. People wandered around in their pyjamas. There were meetings, and fires, and all sorts of spiritual goings on. There was an ‘esoteric society’ somewhere on the estate, though I’m still not sure where or what that was all about. There were Italianate gardens, huge, climbable cedars, ginko trees, parkland and ponds - across which I went feral - and a summerhouse across the road beloved of Arthur Conan Doyle which had original prints of the Cottingley Fairies on the wall. Our neighbours all resembled Mrs Wilberforce in The Ladykillers, or Joan Hickson’s Marple. One told my mother that if we ever wanted to try collecting edible mushrooms we should test them on her, because she was old and, well, it wouldn’t matter so much. She gave me a sheaf of pastel landscapes she’d drawn in Italy as a girl, and a box of watercolours I still treasure; though the paint is tacky and ancient, it’s a pleasure to take a brush and draw a thin line of cerulean blue last employed to limn in the edge of a Venetian lagoon. One wore egyptian jewellery she’d been given by Howard Carter; another had a Great Auk egg in a drawer. Everyone had pasts of such luminous weirdness and aristocratic eccentricity that my notion of what was, and wasn’t normal took a battering from which it’s never recovered. And, as in Brighton, people didn’t set much store by the normal thing, anyway.

They’re all dead now, all these lovely people. I’d not realised how much I missed this particular kind of nuttiness until I got here. I’d got all inured to that icy Cambridge eccentricity, that one that would see T’ai Chi, or a shop selling vegetarian shoes as really rather sad and embarrassing indicators of social suicide. Sod that. This place is much, much more like home. I’m going to up sticks and live here. As soon as I bloody can.

7 comments:

Radagast said...

Welcome back! Hope you succeed in doing so!

Anonymous said...

And the Booth Museum of Natural History (and its associated shop of stuff)??

Anonymous said...

Oh, Brighton. A proper university town ;-) at least, for me.
Mad museums, yes. The strange economic niche that is the Lanes. Great place.
- Mark

Tom Hardy said...

Thank you.

Matt Mullenix said...

"I’m inured to eccentricity."

..... :-)

Chas S. Clifton said...

Glad to see you blogging. Last visited Brighton in December 1999 (I like off-season resort towns) and enjoyed it.

Heidi the Hick said...

I really have to read this to my Cambridge born and raised mother in law. I predict she'll smile pleasantly and absently. Her kind of eccentricity doesn't really fit anywhere except her own home and that's just one of the reasons I love the woman.

You can make any place sound spectacular. Write more, ok?