We’re still in Brighton.

Walk down from the Brighton Clock Tower towards the sea and take the first left. You are on Duke Street and entering the older part of Brighton. Not quite the oldest part, that is in the Lanes, but this is the first extension of the old fishing village that developed in the late 1700s.

The 'Victory'Walk on down Duke Street, noticing there is still one second-hand bookshop left – there used to be at least four, but it’s somehow comforting to see that one has hung on. You can see the “Victory” pub on the corner of Middle Street.

Duke of Duke's LaneTurn right down Middle Street, ignore the entrance to Duke’s Lane. It’s just the same tourist trap it always used to be. (Though, if you like, take a photo of the figure of the Duke on the first floor balcony. Someone has a sense of humour.)

The HippodromeMiddle Street has a kink in it as you pass the back wall of the infant school’s playground. Observe how the old Hippodrome is boarded up now and looks in need of serious redevelopment. Once an entertainment Mecca, now it’s just a waste of space. It probably has a preservation order on it but no one with the money who’s prepared to try a restoration. (Mind you, forty years ago it was still only a ghost of its former self. Bingo once weekly is all I remember.)

Friese-Greene's plaqueHere on the right is the narrow terraced house with the plaque to William Friese-Greene “the inventor of cinematography”. (The plaque lies.) Opposite is, now, the Coach House Restaurant. If they are open, go in and have a cup of coffee. If you can, sit in the front room, on the street, looking out onto Middle Street with Friese-Greene’s plaque in front of you and you’ll be in roughly the same place I occupied for a year during working hours between the summers of 1975 and 1976. If there’s no business in the restaurant (as there wasn’t the day I visited) you can engage the bored but patient young man who serves you with a story about what used to go on here, once upon a time.

The antique shop that wasWhen I left school and before I went off to university I took a year out. Nowadays I’m told this is standard practice and young people taking their gap year travel around the world, go on extreme journeys, get drunk (or high, or laid… or all three) in every continent they can and generally get all the adventurousness out of their systems before settling down to three, four or more years of serious academic study. At the tail end of the 70s it was more unusual, but I did know people who went to work on a kibbutz or spent a year teaching for Voluntary Service Overseas. Two years after me, my sister did voluntary work in Belfast with an organisation trying to bridge the gap between the warring communities there.

What I did was get a job.

It wasn’t entirely my own doing. My mother’s former boss, Mr Oliver, dabbled in antiques. Especially, he bought and occasionally sold antique clocks, and he’d previously given me a commission to research and write up an essay about the earliest clockmakers in Britain. Now he recommended me to one of his suppliers. Which was how I ended up working in an antiques shop on Middle Street.

The antique shop that was 2Capewell Antiques was owned and operated by an unlikely business partnership. One partner was Nicholas Mann who specialised in grandfather clocks, Properly called longcase clocks, they are floor-standing clocks operated by weights and a pendulum. It was Nick who was Mr Oliver’s supplier. Nick was a stocky, cheerful, curly-haired man. He had an easy smile and calculating eyes. I guess now he was in his early thirties, though I’ve always been a poor judge of age.

Nick lived in Wales where he had storage and a workshop, and drove around the country buying longcase clocks and taking them home to fix up. He dealt in other clocks and some pieces of furniture as well, but longcase clocks were his main interest. Every so often he would load up a van in Wales and drive all the way down to Brighton with new stock. Brighton was a magnet for European and American dealers and collectors.

There were usually about 30 of Nick’s clocks in the shop at any one time and one of my jobs every morning was to do the rounds, winding them up and setting them working. Usually I then went around and stopped them all, because – take it from me – 30 longcase clocks all chiming at more or less the same time on the hour every hour (not to mention the ones that also chimed on the quarters) is enough to drive you insane.

The other partner was the eponymous Phillip Capewell.

I don’t know for sure how he came into possession of the shop that had his name on it. I can’t believe it was by his own efforts. I’ve a vague memory of someone telling me his mother bought it for him. Or perhaps he’d once been more successful. By the time I came on the scene though, he was certainly not doing enough business on his own to keep the shop stocked and open. We always carried more of Nick’s stock than Phil’s. Phil needed his partner.

I think Phil must have been about the same age as Nick and like Nick, he was short and stocky, but where you could sense Nick was muscled under his skin, Phil was just dough all the way to the bone. He had a round puffy face with small blue eyes and straight blond hair. His small, pudgy hands were adorned with antique gold rings. He always wore at least two and one was a seal ring, a ring inset with a red intaglio that would once have been pressed into hot wax to create a raised image.

I’d never before ‒ and never since ‒ come across anyone with Phil’s body language. He used gestures almost as if he’d learned them consciously, but then in the middle of use he would seem to get tired of them and abruptly do something unexpected. For example, he would sometimes hold his chin in one hand in an attitude of thought, but then he would suddenly and quite savagely use his fingers to pinch the corners of his mouth together so his lips pursed out. Other times he would hold the palm of his hand against his cheek, again as if thinking, then sharply wipe the hand down and flick the fingers off his chin. Sometimes he would rub his hands together as if in glee, but I never got the impression he was doing it because he actually felt pleasure, it always seemed as if he was putting it on.

I thought of Phil as, basically, a knocker boy with pretensions. He certainly had the gift of the gab. I never saw him actually knocking on the door to talk people into selling him things. By this stage in his life he was buying from the real knocker boys. But he always had a story about anything he was trying to sell – usually a story about the previous owner. “He was a colonel in the Royal Sussex,” he’d say (though I knew the object was something he’d picked up in a flea market a week before). Sometimes he liked to present himself as a go-between. He was selling for the owner: “She’s a lovely old lady who’s fallen on hard times, poor soul.”

His story-telling overflowed into the rest of his life too. Whatever happened to him got inflated into a story, and he was the hero who came out on top. After I’d worked in the shop a few weeks and witnessed some of the incidents that Phil then turned into stories, I got to the point of taking anything that he said had happened to him with a very large pinch of salt.

If Phil had been the only person putting goods into the shop it would not only have been rather bare, it would also not have been an antiques shop, except maybe six or eight weeks out of the year. Most of the stuff he had on sale was better described as second-hand or, if I’m being generous, “vintage”. According to some of his friends, who dropped into the shop looking for Phil but stayed to chat with me if he wasn’t there, any really valuable pieces he bought he’d store in his flat rather than bring to the shop. I suspect he wasn’t getting them quite legally.

Phil didn’t come from Brighton. I’m fairly sure he came from the West Midlands, but he worked on trying to get people to think he came from London, preferably the East End. He couldn’t do the accent, but he loved trying out rhyming slang and new expressions. Especially, he loved to use slang expressions to talk about the value of things that he bought and sold, and the money that he made.

Except he didn’t talk about money, he talked about dosh. Most of his dosh he kept in readies, in rolls of notes in his pocket.
“It cost me a monkey,” he’d say, “but it’s worth a grubby hand.” (Meaning he paid £500 for something he thought he could sell for £1000.)
“I can get a grand for that but I only paid a string of ponies.” (£1000 but he only paid £250 – which is 10 ponies, 10 times £25.)
“He said it was worth a long ’un but it wasn’t even nifty.” (Worth £100 but not worth £50.)

It was from Phil I learned that there are only five types of wood.
“There’s oak, oak is good. There’s beech, beech is good too, but not as good as oak. There’s pine, pine is crap. And there’s mahogany, mahogany’s good.” Anything else was “fruit wood”.

I got more nuanced information from Nick when he was in the shop.
“This is sycamore, American. Not maple, it’s too light. Lovely wood. Look how dense the grain is. See these flecks? Sort of freckles? That’s typical sycamore.”
Then I would tease Phil by asking him “What wood is this?”
“Beech,” he’d say.
“Nick says it’s sycamore.”
And he’d wipe his hand down his cheek and flick his fingers and say, “Could be,” and change the subject or tell me to make him some tea.

I wonder where they are now, forty years on. I can’t see Nick as a pensioner. I imagine him still buying and selling his clocks. Whenever I catch an episode of one of those British reality TV shows about antiques, I half expect Nick to turn up as a dealer or even – why not – an expert. But Phil I can easily picture on a golf course somewhere in Spain, betting on the next putt. I wonder if he’s still using the same half-cockney slang for money or if he’s picked up some new words. Does he call a euro a “eurinal”?

I fear it’s likely.

I had written the above when I decided to go on line and see if I could track down Nick Mann or Phil Capewell, just to see if they’re still around and what became of them. I couldn’t find Nick. There are a surprisingly large number of people called Nicholas Mann, which is odd as it’s a schoolyard joke ‒ “Nicholas Mann’s a nickerless man!” You’d think parents would be more careful about the names they give their kids. However, Phillip Capewell was a different story.

Phil Capewell may or may not be playing golf in Spanish retirement just now, but in 2008 he was sent to prison for 5 years for receiving stolen antiques, at least according to this blog article that reproduces a report from the Brighton Argus. That photo, there at the top ‒ a Sussex police mugshot ‒ that’s definitely Phil. A receiver of stolen goods and the beneficiary of violent crime. Although I can remember Phill passing at least one unsavoury comment about sex, I don’t know how much credence to give to the accusations of paedophilia in the follow-up information below the news report. Still, what a pitiful excuse for a life.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

In the Soundcloud audio recording, the background sounds at the beginning and very end are ambient sounds of Duke Street and Middle Street that I recorded during my visit there in October 2015.

The West Pier across shingle

West Pier across shingle

What is left of the West Pier across shingle.

The Channel's leaden line

The Channel’s leaden line.

The West Pier with lense flare

The West Pier with lens flare.

Three photos I didn’t manage to include in last week’s post from Brighton. I’m on holiday once again – a new blog entry will follow just as soon as I have the time to write it!

For some truely spectacular photographs from Brighton and Sussex that are far superior to my efforts, follow this link to Brighton Photography.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Brighton and Hove, actually

Last week I was visiting England, and I took the opportunity of spending a couple of days in Brighton and Hove. I took a lot of photos, so this week’s blog entry (late, I’m sorry) is partly an excuse to share some of them.

I was brought up in Brighton. Well, in Hove actually, but the two towns are now one city “The City of Brighton and Hove”. The amalgamated town was granted city status in England in 2011 and according to the Brighton and Hove page of Wikipedia the new city has a population of 273,400. Which makes it the 18th largest British city in terms of population and, more importantly (in the opinion of residents and old Brightonians), ahead of the City of Westminster and the City of London, Oxford and Cambridge, Canterbury and York.

Conversation on the FrontBrightonian, by the way, is the accepted adjective for residents of Brighton, but what is the equivalent for Hove? Hovian doesn’t seem right (although there is a local blog of that name). tells me: “No exact match found for “Hovian” in British & World English. Did you mean Jovian?” Well, no, that would be someone from Jupiter, wouldn’t it? OK, how about Hover? The definition seems quite appropriate actually: “Remain poised uncertainly in one place or between two states”. That’s Hove.

When “Brighton and Hove” became a thing, many people of Hove feared their distinct urban identity would be swallowed up by Brighton. That does seem rather to have been borne out by events. Even though the new City Hall is what used to be Hove Town Hall, most people now talk about Brighton rather than Brighton-and-Hove. I can’t say it bothers me terribly, but I know Hove residents who are fighting a rearguard action in typically genteel style by, for example, refusing to address letters to the BN3 postcode area with any identifying name other than Hove.

Look - sandy beach! A little patch of sand among the shingleIf you ask someone from Hove if they come from Brighton they will probably say “Hove, actually”. In Hove that counts as a really witty put-down.

I grew up in Hove, first on the border with Portslade, later at the very end of Dyke Road Avenue, up in the hills, and the last school that I attended (the last of eight) was also in Hove — the Cardinal Newman Comprehensive School on the Upper Drive. (Yes, I worked my way through eight schools before going off to university. What of it?)

When I was a kid there was a descriptive phrase in circulation to mark the difference between Brighton and Hove. It was “yobs and snobs” – the Brighton kids were yobs and the Hove kids were snobs. I suppose this reflected a perception of a class difference between Brighton and Hove – Hove was more middle-class, more genteel; Brighton was a larger town with a greater variety of people and, I suppose, more workers of various sorts, though it was also much more vibrant and with a more interesting history as well as a more interesting current existence.

Brighton clock tower (detail)Or perhaps Brighton had more yobs coming down from London. It was certainly true that if you were standing anywhere on Queens Road at about 10 o’clock of a summer’s morning, you would see a tide of people emerge from Brighton railway station to sweep down Queens Road, past the Clock Tower and on to the seafront. The first cheap train from London came in at about ten – the first train for which you could buy a Cheap Day Return ticket – and so the first train that would bring holidaying Londoners to “London by the Sea”, as Brighton was also known.

Not that that meant the people of Hove were all so very much native residents. When I was a kid Hove was a popular place to commute to London from, and of course to retire to. My memory of Hove was of a place with a very high percentage of old people – many of them among the last generation of Imperial civil servants – who spent their days grumbling to one another about how the country had gone to the dogs.

I swore I would never be like that. Consequently (if I am to keep my oath) I can never return to Hove to live because there is a very real danger I would spend my time grumbling to other people of my age about how the country has gone to the dogs.

Brighton centre from Churchill Square car parkAlthough “gone to the dogs” is a bit of an overstatement. The truth is, things have changed – in some ways for the worse but in some ways for the better. That’s very obvious now, though it was less true the previous time I visited.

Fifteen years ago, when it became a city, Brighton and Hove had an unemployment rate over 10%. Even in the town centre, even in the flashy new shopping centre at Churchill Square (well, new and flashy when I was a boy), there seem to be more shops empty and abandoned than open, and among those that were open, charity shops seem to dominate. Now it’s obvious that the economy, if not the British economy then at least the economy of the Brighton and Hove area, is on the rise. There are still empty shops and derelict buildings, but by far the majority are open and doing business.

On the other hand there are large numbers of beggars and homeless people camping out in the doorways of the empty shops and in the shelters on the seafront and you cannot walk the streets without being petitioned: “Spare some change, gov?” And we’re not talking about EU beggars — Brighton’s beggars, the ones I saw last week, are largely white and clearly native speakers of English. (If nothing else, the “gov” is a giveaway.)

Rusting shelter decorationThe weather was cold and damp while I was there, everyone I spoke to told me how I’d just missed the good weather, and I shivered to see the homeless in their torn sleeping bags, dirty blankets or cardboard and newspaper beds. I don’t usually give to beggars — I don’t usually carry change (I’ve been suedified – it’s all done with cards now), but I was on holiday and had cash for small purchases, so I gave some of it away.

If the majority of the shops 15 years ago seemed to be charity shops, now I was struck by the number of estate agents. Property prices are booming and property renovation is going on all over. There’s another reason why I could never move back — I don’t think I could afford it.

Brighton and Hove – especially Hove – was always, as I remember, a bastion of conservatism. Hove and Brighton Pavilion are the two Parliamentary constituencies that embrace central Brighton and Hove. Both returned Tory MPs one after another in all the election of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Then in 1997 the total bankruptcy of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party was revealed when both Hove and Brighton Pavilion were captured by Labour.

I sat up all night at home in Sweden and watched the results come in and when Hove went Labour I knew I was witnessing something historic.

Labour held Brighton Pavilion till 2010 when they lost it again, but not to the Tories. In 2010 Brighton Pavilion returned Britain’s first Green MP, Caroline Lucas. A seat she held onto in the recent election now in May. Meanwhile, the Tories clawed Hove back in 2010, but in 2015 have lost it, again to Labour.

Bicycling in the rainMeanwhile the Greens were in (minority) control of Brighton and Hove City council for four years between 2011 and 2015. You can see their legacy in all the cycle lanes and pedestrianised or part-pedestrianised streets.

But regardless of politics and economics, of poverty and affluence, the sea and the seafront (or the Front, as we call it) are much the same as ever. Even the wreck of the West Pier is still there, though looking smaller and tidier now the most dangerous bits of the structure have been removed. The Pier that Wouldn’t Die. A fire burned it out, then explosives failed to destroy it, then a salvage vessel failed to dismantle it. Storms have broken over it for years, but still it stands, a feature and photo opportunity that must be known around the world by now. (My local pride is showing I fear.)

The Angel of PeaceI spent a full day in Brighton and walked along the Front, passed the Angel of Peace. (Who turns out to have nothing to do with a peace treaty between Brighton and Hove as I used to believe. I’m quite disappointed.) On to the beach and across the shingle, down to the breaking waves. Far out to sea the misty shapes of cargo vessels are following the mark of what Kipling called “the Channel’s leaden line” and eager dogs are chasing driftwood while sporty types jog along the promenade or run up and down the shingle banks between the beach and the prom.

Keep off the groynesAs the rain that had held off for my walk started to fall I took myself into Hove Library. It was a pleasure to see the library is still in operation, and clearly well used, but it was also a relief to find the building hasn’t been replaced. I walked into the children’s section and my feet took me automatically to the wall where the good books used to be. No more, the tall book cases I remember have been switched for low ones displaying colourful covers instead of the rather drab institutional bindings the books used to have. But still, here was where I found the Moomins and the Railway Children and Dr Dolittle, where I explored Swallowdale and Coral Island and dived 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, where I stepped across the Wrinkle in Time or listened to the Wolves howling about Willoughby Chase. And then upstairs to the corner of the general library where they used to keep all the history books that were my salvation throughout my O and A Levels. This is a lot more as I remember it, though they have English Literature here now.

When one has read so much about libraries being forced to dumb down or give away or sell stock or simply close, it’s good to see that Hove still has the right idea.

And on that note, as I see I’m pushing 1750 words, I shall close this text that started out as just a vehicle for my photos. There may be more next week!

West Pier across the water
West Pier across the water

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

From “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold


There’s something very special, I think, about hearing piano music in the street. Perhaps because it’s not something I hear so often, each time it happens it adds an extra little bookmark in my memory.

Brussels streetA morning walk along a Brussels street. The sun slants, just clearing the rooftops, illuminating the facades but leaving the paving still in shadow. The promised heat of the afternoon is yet to come and yesterday’s has dissipated in the night. It’s a little chill. There are no front yards, the front doors, up steps, a couple or three, open off the street, and the tall front room windows, above the head height of passers-by, are open to let in the fresh air. From one of these comes the sound of a piano.

The pianist is not proficient. This is practice. Four, eight, sixteen bars tried again and again. There’s something a little hesitant about the last couple of bars. The speed drops, a key is missed, fumbled, there is a pause and the passage begins again. I walk on up the street and the piano sounds fade away behind me, but I am remembering another street, another piano.

Cracow streetAfternoon in the centre of Cracow. The yellow trams are rattling past one another up and down the road, taxis weaving between them and people, locals on their way from work to the shops mixed with ambling tourists in T-shirts and shorts. And once again from open windows above head height the sound of a piano. Here, a sign by the door tells me this is a music school. Someone is practising – Chopin (of course), the Minute Waltz. And I stop and join two or three others who stand below the window listening, smiling at one another, and as the piece finishes without a hitch there is a small round of applause before we all go our separate ways.

At the Eurostar stations in Paris and London the management have put out pianos. Older, upright pianos, painted in bright primary colours. Passengers waiting to board their trains or people waiting to meet friends arriving from far off sometimes sit down and plink away. When I was in London in March – my first visit – a young man was picking out Chopsticks. Diddle-um-pum-pum, diddle-um-pum-pum, diddle-um-pum-um-pum-um-pum-pum. In Paris, another young man sat and delivered a proficient jazz melody while his friends stood around.

A hundred years ago there was a piano in every home. Well, perhaps not every home, but in most British middle-class homes and in many an aspiring working class home. Before radio and long before TV and before cheap records and gramophones, people made music themselves and the piano was a symbol of modernity and a product of modern industrialisation (likewise the accordion, but the squeezebox never achieved the same cultural cachet). Sheet music was cheap and the ability to play the piano was a social accomplishment. Before the guitar, the piano ruled.

No longer.

Now pianos may still be built and bought by the wealthy, but the pianos of the past are out on the street. My brother-in-law’s piano – an upright that he sometimes plays (tries to play, but don’t tell him I said that) – was just such a piano. Left out on the street by a family clearing the house of a deceased relative. They were going to take it to the tip – the second-hand charity shop they approached didn’t want to know. It cost my brother-in-law the price of two men and a van to get it home.

The sad piano - warped keysA couple of years ago I came across another piano abandoned by the wayside. I’m not sure how long it had stood there, some of the boards had come away exposing the cast iron harp. It was still strung, but the felt of the hammers was swollen with damp and on the keys the white veneer – not ivory I hope – was coming away from the wood. Of course I tried it to hear if I could make it sing, but it was dead. I took some photographs.

There’s another piano memory – this reaches way back, more than 40 years – 45 perhaps. A cold, dim November evening in my childhood home in Brighton. The piano teacher is coming. My sister and I, reminded, rush to our upright piano. For a week, since the last time the teacher was here, we have not looked at it, but now with just an hour to go we are squabbling over who gets to practice. Will it be my funereal slow version of “Jig” or my sister’s stuttering rendition of “Frairer Shacker”. (That’s “Frère Jacques” to you.)

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, visiting, slips in ahead of us. She claims the keyboard and plays with bravura the chorus of “Toreador” from Carmen. Most impressively, she does so without reading notes. We squeal in shock, How is this possible? How?! She never learned, she says airily, just picked it up. Plays by ear.

Here we have been struggling to read the black insect squiggles and stretch our fingers to press the right keys in the right order at the right time. Now we learn you don’t have to do that. Just play by ear! We go on strike. No more piano lessons for us. We will play by ear. So, of course, we never do.

“Thank you, Mum,” my mother said to her mother. I think that was when I began to recognise irony.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.