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The City and the Writer: In Brighton, England with Colin Grant

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Brighton as you feel/see it?

Brighton is often called the London-suburb-by-the-sea. It’s a raffish and open city. Formerly it had the reputation for being the place you went to for a “dirty weekend.” That’s pretty much disappeared but it still seems, at times, a hedonistic place. It’s not surprising that it’s the only city in the UK with a green MP, Caroline Lucas. Just an hour on the train to the heart of London, it attracts those who want the bustling vibe of London without the aggression. Every time I return from London, I feel the muscles in my arms begin to relax.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

It’s the city where my youngest brother, Christopher, died in 2008. I still walk the streets that we frequented and where we hung out, and though it’s sad, I am buoyed by the feeling he’s still with me. There are Christopher streets all over Brighton.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Just a mile out of the city, flanked by chalk and flint cliffs, is the Ovingdean seafront. It’s not immediately apparent how to get there. You need to walk through an obscure underpass to encounter a surprising vista, near-blinding light, and a much-loved but basic kiosk with mugs of tea and homemade cake.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Bethan Roberts, Damian Barr, Martine McDonagh, and Nick Cave.


Is there a place here you return to often?

The Duke of York’s Picture House is one of the oldest working cinemas in the country. It manages to be both grand and intimate. It’s great for seeing foreign-language and independent films. It’s also a stone’s throw from where I live. And the balcony has sofas!


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

It’s hard to separate Brighton from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Every so often there are attempts to adapt the book, but the best film still remains the black-and-white version with Richard Attenborough playing the sinister psychopath, Pinkie. From around the same period, the seedy side of Brighton has been immemorially characterized by the seafront hotel, the bolt-hole of George Harvey Bone, the murderer in Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Kemptown is still the raffish beating heart of Brighton. It hasn’t yet been cleaned up but the gentrifiers are on their way. Next door is Hanover, with its idiosyncratic pastel-colored houses threaded along one of the steepest districts in Brighton, boasting a pub on every corner.


Where does passion live here?

There’s a spring awakening when the city bursts to life during the annual Brighton Festival. It’s then that you realize that Brighton is home to artists and artisans. Every conceivable space is colonized for performances and exhibitions. A favorite in recent years was the “Make Life Beautiful: The Dandy in History” exhibition, which gave me the title of my first book, Negro with a Hat—the title of a work by F. Holland Day—The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, a dandy who’d have been right at home in Brighton.


What is the title of one of your works about Brighton and what inspired it exactly?

I have yet to write about Brighton (I’ve only been here for twenty-five years). My creative Brighton energy is channeled into curating Speaky Spokey with my wife, the city’s funkiest spoken word night, during which—on a typical night—poets, novelists, and theremin-playing roboticists are to be found.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Brighton does an outside exist?”

Brighton is cradled by the South Downs National Park and the sea. It is both the most wonderful haven and an outlet for egress.



Colin Grant is an author, historian, and associate fellow in the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick. His books include Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey; and a group biography of the Wailers, I&I: The Natural Mystics. His memoir of growing up in a Caribbean family in 1970s Luton, Bageye at the Wheel, was shortlisted for the 2014 PEN Ackerley Prize. Grant’s history of epilepsy, A Smell of Burning, was a Sunday Times Book of the Year in 2016. As a producer for the BBC, Grant wrote and directed several radio drama documentaries, including African Man of Letters: The Life of Ignatius Sancho; A Fountain of Tears: The Murder of Federico Garcia Lorca; and A History of the N Word. Grant also writes for a number of newspapers and journals, including the Guardian, GQ, the Telegraph, the TLS, Prospect, Granta, and the New York Review of Books. His next book, Homecoming: From Children of Empire to Foreigners and Immigrants, will be published by Jonathan Cape in 2019.

Published Jan 28, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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