MGM 2004 Travel Writing Prize: Brighton's Endless Summer

By Stu Everitt | 21 May 2004
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Photo: © Jon Pratty

Stu Everitt is one of four writers shortlisted for the Museums and Galleries Month/24 Hour Museum travel writing prize, sponsored by Eurostar. The winner is announced on Thursday May 27 on this website.

A lone seagull the size of a light aeroplane hung in the gloom from an invisible mobile, eyeing my wetsuit zip fastener brought alive by the offshore gusts and first light. Luckily this year West Pier is holding a nice wave.

Yesterday’s sewage had surfaced at Hot Pipes and the break at the Marina was too fast. “There are three things to watch out for when you get into the water,” said Tam, a scrawny 40 year old instructor from Britain’s home of surfing, Leamington Spa. “Feet, Rip, Board”.

Simple.My virgin feet had quickly bored of being ripped apart on the pebbles of Brighton beach. So what of sharks and jellyfish? It had taken years of therapy to recover from being assaulted by a battered cod on this very pier.

Photo: © Jon Pratty

“Sharks haven’t been spotted in these waters for months and the last positive identification was a three metre Mako in ‘99. But the largest basking shark ever recorded in the British Isles was washed up just where you’re stood, wet pants,” said Tam. Reassured, my attention shifted seaward where a fisherman wrestled what looked like a gargantuan manta ray overboard.

Tam showed me how to make a wind break by erecting a wall of surfboards in the pebbles. Our section of the beach was remote at this hour. Visible through the spray only the skeleton of West Pier kept us company. That it survived this long is tribute to Eugenius Birch who built the pier in 1866 to withstand the hostile conditions of the English Channel. Ironically it was not the cruelty of nature but arsonists that destroyed it in 2003.

The Lottery Fund has turned down the application to fund the restoration. From the beach large sections of the pier are missing, as if obscured by a sea-mist. For now its former majesty haunts the morning: a monument to red tape. It’s as though the Titanic has run aground.

Photo: © Jon Pratty

I had checked into Baggies the day before. For the price of afternoon tea in the Grand, I enjoyed a comfy bed, all the coffee I could drink and the company of Jess, a surfer from Oz with the guts from hell. An hour later we were lunching down at the Marina, watching the locals perform 360s on locally made custom sticks.

With pumping soundtrack by the Chilli Peppers, the event was a protest by Surfers Against Sewage. Every day 80 Olympic sized swimming pools worth of sewage is pumped into the ocean off the Brighton coast. Damien Hirst heard of their plight and designed a one-off surfboard to raise funds. While other resorts all over Britain recognise the health benefits of installing state of the art UV sewage processing equipment, Southern Water bosses have decided against it.

As if there was ever any doubt, Brighton is booming. The Centre for Economic and Business Research predicts a continued growth in house prices until 2006. Estate agents cling to the sea front like molluscs. Migrants commute to the City in just sixty minutes. Affluent links with London have existed in Brighton for as long as man has seen fit to eat fish suppers.

Lured by a habitat devoid of mosquitoes, hurricanes and volcanoes, heir to the Hawaiian throne Princess Victoria Ka’iulani packed the world’s coolest tea tray and moved to England in 1892. Brighton's fine sea baths and reputation for education secured her affections.

What Captain James Cook had watched aghast in Hawaii some 100 years before had begun its journey across the globe. Hawaiians were soon spotted surfing in America and West Africa.

The settlers' high standard of living afforded the islanders a flourishing economy. Besides surfing, Hawaii exported fish, grass skirts and the hula. In return it imported disease and strict working practices from the Empire. Surfing all but wiped out.

But on an island everything moves on water. Surfing disappeared with the tide, but quickly returned. George Freeth Junior, son of an English merchant sailor, had pioneered catching a tube standing up on a surfboard. Before his death in 1919 from Spanish Flu he ensured that the Sport of Kings would spread like an epidemic.

King Edward VIII paddled out into the break long before he washed up with Mrs Simpson. Viscount Ted Deerhurst was Europe’s first professional surfer before his death in 1997. Prince Charles is keen surfer and patron of the British Surfing Association. Royalty did not have it all their own way, but the thick brown barrels of Brighton drowned dudes in their hundreds and life guarding towers were erected all over the south coast.

Locals began marking out their territory. In Cornwall Prince Charles dropped in on a fellow surfer’s wave and was sworn at for the ultimate in bad form. Out of surfing grew an industry. The Beachboys knocked the Beatles off their throne. Names like Bilbo sprang up from backyards as single fin gave way to twin fin board manufacturing. Specialised publications flexed shelves in every Brighton store.

The ebb of the mainstream surfing scene saw the evolution of its marketing machine. Today big corporations exploit the alternative image of surfing. Clothing firms and music labels have designed a uniform for teenagers who have never set foot on a surfboard.

Photo: © Jon Pratty

I looked at Tam. Nose ring, facial tattoos and skinny as an eel. I realised there are no stereotypes in surfing. The sea is blind to religion, race, gender and sexuality. Visiting the old fishing museum on the beach I expected to see a tribute to surfing. I had found a shrine.

Armed with the knowledge of a century’s surfing, I paddled out at West Pier on my three fin bonzer. Inland the austerity of West Pier and the shameless self-indulgence of Palace Pier straddle a half mile of gay bars, luxury hotels and candy floss vendors.

Out to sea I saw exactly what Princess Ka’iulani had seen 110 years before. And then thanked God for Neoprene.

The British Surfing Museum’s preview has now finished, but it will reopen from September 11th to October 10th 2004 at the Brighton Fishing Museum down on the resort's main beach. The British Surfing Museum will open fully in 2006.

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