I confess. I’m a push-over for those little mind-bender moments in life, when reality seems, fleetingly, to wobble – as when life imitates art, and you can’t quite get a fix on which is the more real.
Currently, every morning I turn on my kitchen radio, it takes a moment for my mind to catch up. In that moment, it is tantalisingly unclear whether I am living in the seaside town of Brighton or in the first chapter of Brighton Rock. Because Southern FM, the local commercial radio station – the most I can absorb first thing in the morning – has sent a ‘mystery person’ into Sussex with the mouth-watering sum of £10,000 and a series of calling cards to be dropped at ordinary destinations – cards that let the finder know that they’ve missed a chance to challenge ‘the fugitive’ and win the cash. Each day the fugitive rings the station with a new, badly rhyming cryptic clue… ‘Even though I hate roadworks, look out your car and there I might lurk.’ ‘I’m in the Hastings at Priory, come and look around for me.’ ‘I’m eating in a place with a boot, come find me and take the loot.’
In Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, any boot, of course, came complete with exposed hobnail-heads, all the better for kicking a man to death. And in 1938, the prize for spotting the mystery person was ten guineas, not 10K. The man behind the calling cards of yore was a character called Hale, Charles Hale, who was employed by the daily paper, The Messenger. ‘He had to stick closely to a programme: from ten to eleven Queen’s Road and Castle Square, from eleven till twelve the Aquarium and Palace Pier, twelve till one the front between the Old Ship and the West Pier.’ Of course it wasn’t a part of Hale’s programme to end up (as they say, look away from your screens now) dead with a stick of Brighton rock rammed down his gullet.
Does Southern FM radio know it has propelled its listeners into a strange interzone between the real town of Brighton and Brighton Rock? Will their mystery man ever be spotted reading the story of Hale? ‘I’m reading a famous Brighton novel about a man found dead. Find me at a seafront caff before I’ve fled.’ More urgently, shouldn’t he get out of the job before art completely overtakes life, and he comes to a (ahem) sticky end? Or does he take comfort in today’s reassuring local headline: ‘Police Smash Brighton Gang’?
The truth is, most writers I know in Brighton are in some way pleasurably haunted by Brighton Rock – by its literary legacy of violence, nostalgia and pleasure; by its rich evocation of a landscape that is still so familiar. Pinkie claims ‘with dreary pride, “I suppose I’m real Brighton,” as if his single heart contained all the cheap amusements, the Pullman cars, the unloving weekends in gaudy hotels, and the sadness after coition.’ There is desperate sadness in Brighton Rock. Almost all the characters yearn for something more, for a cure for their loneliness, for a sense that they are not as alone as they feel in a life that seems bitterly, flagrantly random.
I love Greene’s unflinching eye for detail, for the painfully real glimpses of the harshness of life, as in the boy mobster Pinkie’s very fleeting memory of the girl at school who, pregnant, waited for a train that was seven minutes late, with her head on the line. I love the way that everything in Pinkie’s world is marked by a grimy grandeur. ‘The sun slid off the sea and like a cuttle fish shot into the sky the stain of agonies and endurances.’ I can think of few novels that are as physical, as thrillingly palpable. All writers need to draw on our senses to make us feel as if we are experiencing the story ‘live’ but, here, Greene casts an absolute spell – the spell all fiction writers want to cast. We walk into his rooms and smell stale beer or cooked cabbage or the perfume of pomade on hair. Ida Arnold’s big, breasty and giving body is as solid a presence as Pinky’s narrow, bony shoulders under the cheap suit, his bitten thumb nail and the twitch in his cheek. The tide sucks darkly at the piles of the piers. The night is ‘a wet mouth’ at the window of a forlorn pub as Pinkie contemplates the murder of Rose.
The life of the story hums in its very things, things which energize the story with an unstoppable force of their own: the bottle of vitriol – acid – waiting from the start in Pinkie’s pocket, waiting to escape its bottle; the embroidered crowns on a pair of hotel chairs, the memory of which repeatedly taunts Pinkie with an awareness of everything he’ll never achieve; the raw, disposable razor blade taped to his thumb under his glove, ready to ‘carve’ a traitor’s face; the cheap gramophone record waiting for the ear of the gullible, loving Rose – on it, Pinkie’s secret declaration of loathing for her.
Katherine Mansfield once wrote that she felt ‘an infinite delight and value in detail – not for the sake of detail, but for the life in the life of it.’ Here these apparently ordinary things actually release the life of the story in an inevitable expression of their own ‘thingi-ness’ (or in what James Joyce called ‘the revelation of the what-ness of the thing’). It’s a deeply satisfying experience for the reader, to feel a sense of fate – of unavoidable meaning – even, right there, in the inanimate matter of the characters’ world.
And it’s a strange, larger-than-life life that gets released in Brighton Rock.
Mystery isn’t only of the murderous variety. The poloneys and the bogies, the totsies and the narks, the geezers and the buers, are all inseparable from a spirit as other-worldly as they are worldly, from a sense of mystery that would seem out of place in this sharply realist story if Greene hadn’t made it so tangible: ‘The car lurched back on to the main road; [Pinkie] turned the bonnet to Brighton. An enormous emotion beat on him; it was like something trying to get in; the pressure of gigantic wings against the glass. Dona nobis pacem… If the glass broke, if the beast – whatever it was – got in, God knows what he would do. He had a huge sense of havoc…’
Greene’s prose is so good, line by line, I find myself wanting to eat it. For me, it’s a deep and peculiar pleasure to be able to write in a place where he has already written.
There’s a moment from a story of mine called ‘Dirty Weekend’:
It is cool for August. The sea is already dark, choppy. The helter-skelter at the end of the pier stands bright, a crazy, candy-striped monument to chaos. The lights of the prom are faint, tremulous, in the twilight. In the other direction, the West Pier is beautiful, ramshackle, degenerate… Outside the Old Ship, night rolls in with the tide, and the seafront throbs with basslines that spill from open-top cars. From the window I watch a spiky huddle of lads on the bike path across the street. They’re whistling and calling across traffic to three girls in dark tans and micro skirts. Eggs-on-legs, we used to call them fondly. Tonight they’re on their way to the Escape or the Beach or the Honeyclub. In the dark of our room, you let your clothes fall from you and disappear below a thin blanket.
Perhaps like all writers of Brighton, I love the dirt, the tack and the bright ephemera that is the town, both on and off the page. Brighton is the setting for my next novel too. As I write, I’m enjoying once again the faded grandeur of the town and its cheap, the-show-must-go-on amusements. Above all, I love the sense that Brighton is always slipping – helplessly, debauchedly, cheerily – toward another story. That it just can’t help itself.