Dear David, A Series of Letters to a Longtime Friend January 2008
So, you asked me to tell you what I thought of Brighton after my recent visit and days now that I have been in self-imposed exile for most of the last four years?
Well it has certainly changed from Brighton that we knew in the early1970’s that’s for sure. Come to that who would have imagined that I would end up on Crete running a gay guesthouse!
Buildings that were not there have sprouted from nothing, buildings that were there have disappeared to be replaced by late 20th century architecture, with I am afraid to say, no gain to the townscape. Why architects should design buildings with so much glass, when we all know that unless you clean it daily it is always going to look dirty with salt spray, I do not know. The ‘Glass Pavilion opposite the Royal Pavilion is a prime example. The Royal Pavilion still has scaffolding round it as we have now come to expect. There was a time in the mid 80’s when it could be seen, but that only lasted until the Great Storm in 1987 when one of the domes fell through into The Music Room. It is still worth a walk around though, especially in winter when there is not a lot to do indoors in Brighton.
Churchill Square has been refurbished and you could now be in any shopping centre anywhere in the world. The other shopping areas like London Road and St. James’s Street have changed, charity shops, building societies and estate agents abound, but at least these days you don’t have to remember which shopping area is having a half day in the middle of the week.
The Palace Pier still seems to thrive, and further along towards Hove are the skeletal remains of the West Pier. Do you remember going to see a show there once? The Pyjama Game I think it was, and probably not long before it closed. I still have that glass ashtray that came from the bar there!
Traffic is a problem like it everywhere else and in spite of the best efforts of the Council it still continues to flow quite freely, even the empty cycle lanes do not seem to have stopped that.
But I think you were more interested in the gay scene these days?
Of course, like many other cities, one of the main problems now is deciding which gay bar to use.
Back in the early 70’s probably our only choice was to lurk in The Greyhound by Pool Valley and we only found that by furtively buying a copy of Gay News in a back street newsagent somewhere in the North Laine area (as it is called now).
Later we had The Hag and Handbag , sorry, Heart and Hand, on the seafront (I still maintain that if you stood still too long in there, you would end up stuck to the carpet),The Curtain Club, and The Cricketers in Black Lion Street, where Winnie Sexton used to look after us all so well, (and cash cheques), and well, really any pub that we cared to drop into usually had its resident ‘pouf’, usually a friend of the barman or the theatre companion of the landlady. All very ‘cloak and dagger’ and although we were not ‘out’, we still had our pride, and our friends and colleagues knew but didn’t worry. I remember trying to out myself in 1981 and was told to shut up because ‘we already know’.
We had our circle of friends, many of them from ‘the theatre’, and there were ways and means of meeting new people that only we knew about. We even had our own pantomime put on by The 42 Club. I still have the programme from ‘Pearl White and The Seven Oafs’. Above all we were quite select and special people, and it would be easy to cast a jaundiced eye over today’s gay scene where everyone is ‘out and proud’. But it is as easy to mourn for the passing of an era as it is to mourn for the passing of family, friends, and lovers.
I suppose the first sign of change was the opening of The Bulldog in St James’s Street. A gay pub in the middle of a shopping street? Unthinkable about 30 years ago! But it worked, and established St. James’s Street as the centre of gay life in Brighton. Nothing much has changed here in all that time, no amazing refurbishment to make us go ‘ooh aah’ and the drinks are a reasonable price even without happy hour. And is it possible that here and there, standing in the same place, are customers who were there on the opening day? Well as it happens, yes, there was one, who just like me had not changed a bit and would still pass for 21 on a dark night when backlit. Perhaps it is the ‘sameness’ of The Bulldog which still attracts me to it, maybe it is just that I like to go there on Sunday afternoon, maybe it is the odd bits of ‘rough’ that you still find there. Perhaps it is the memory of old friends, but I still find it worth a visit.
Further down St. James’s Street is George Street where the Queen’s Arms still thrives, again I always found this a good place for Sunday afternoon when the karaoke was on, especially when it got very crowded and it was difficult putting your hand in your pocket without putting it in someone else’s. This visit I had arranged to meet friends there but as I was two hours late I only stayed five minutes so I didn’t get to check whether they still had the excellent selection of wines they always had. It was always a good idea not to get your Queens confused in Brighton as there were so many of them. Well three anyway. As a ‘by the way’, the King’s opposite was much refurbished in the early 80’s. Do you remember playing the piano there every Friday in the early 70’s? I must have been all of 18 and ‘we’ were certainly not legal.
Across from George Street are Broad Street and The Marine Tavern where Steve and Nat do a fine job of running a very nice cosy bar that to me is many things a gay bar should be. You cannot help but talk to who ever else is in there, the music is background, and this is a good place to start if you have never been to Brighton before. Of course I remember ‘The Marine’ way, way, back in the days of Tim and Audrey, in fact it was on the itinerary for my ‘leaving’ pub crawl shortly before I went to Australia in 1981. Later Dave Day took it over and put in that nice wood panelling. Steve and his business partner Stuart made a great success of the Harlequin in Providence Place, I particularly remember the doorman, well his face anyway. I think he might have been called Russell. And while we have Stuart in the frame, they have now taken The Grosvenor in Western Street as well. Now as you are my age then you will know this as The Western Star, where, under the tender ministrations of Geoff and Yvonne, I could often be seen sipping a pint of gin and tonic (ice but no lemon). From what I remember of it (which, for obvious reasons, is not always a lot), it had curry house wallpaper and I was pleased to see that Steve and Stuart and company have given it a much needed facelift.
While I am in this area and strolling down memory lane, not a stone’s throw from here in Sillwood Street used to be The Rockingham where I worked behind the bar (and occasionally in front of it) in the ‘Carey and Barry’ era.
Further down Western Street at this time, was The Bedford Tavern run by John (and I think Graham).
But I have digressed from the plan, some (un-kindly), would say I have lost the plot, so we will return to the area east of The Steine.
You, of all people, will know that I am not a fan of bigger, flashy, places, but there is one such that I have found very pleasant and that is the new refurbished Legends on the seafront. As you would expect I know this by a different name, The New Europe Hotel, where under the care of Nicky Nash you could get a late drink on a Sunday afternoon after Terry had thrown you out of the Black Horse with a load of Irishman. These days the Black Horse is gay too but without the Irishmen!
Legends was actually re-opened during my winter sojourn last year and I was suitably impressed then by the friendliness of the bar staff and the overall ambience. My visits (note the plural) this year confirmed this and they serve some very respectable Australian red wine, the name of which escapes me (I think it was called Everton), as did nearly everything else after drinking a bottle of it. Not only that, the prices are reasonable even in the ‘club’ and it is a good place to take straight friends as well! Of course it is a hotel with rooms above these days.
While we are on the seafront, I checked out Charles Street, another barn of a place and the scene of so much mayhem 40 years or so ago when we had mods and rockers, and later punks and something else. The building is a bit forbidding from the outside, the ceramic tiles make it look like a cross between an overgrown public toilet and an Odeon cinema, inside it is still as big as ever but I like it because of the ‘camp ramp’ which starts just inside the door and ends up further inside. Whatever its original purpose it does provide a fast track route to the toilets when you come in from a cold winter’s evening. During the late afternoon they serve a quite reasonable burger and a coffee that Starbucks could be proud of, if they served coffee that good.
You already know about the Amsterdam and The R-Bar and your opinions are your own. The Great Escape and The Beer Keller they were I think, but where was The Abinger?
Just around the corner in Steine Street is The Aquarium and I am still not sure what to make of it, when it was converted from an Irish pub to a gay bar in the mid 80’s it was wonderful, but you must remember then that I was working at the Queen’s Head just up the road when it was a straight pub, before Ron the Plumber had it. I suppose The Aquarium changed hands like places do and different people have different ideas. When Steve and I used to go in there they had a very nice barman with one of those ‘Celtic’ tattoos that started on his neck and went an awful long way down to…….,, Like most places they have entertainment which seems to be the main weapon in the armoury of most bars and clubs. Plan your route wrongly and you can probably see the same show for 5 nights in a row, not that I have a problem with drag shows, I like them and wish we had more of them here! (Remember that time at the Black Cap in Camden with Mrs. Shufflewick?)
Secrets is still there but is called Storm now, I didn’t go because I don’t do the late nights anymore but we always liked it because each floor seemed to have its own atmosphere, and of course, the dance floor was our favourite!
A relative newcomer to the scene is The Star in Manchester Street, funnily enough this used to be another Dave Day pub under the name of The Golden Lion, Rosemary used to work here, the one with the big shoulder blades and hair, a great admirer of Steve’s dancing, she used to pick him up!. This is a Bear bar that I visited last winter and found it very cuddly. The barman was a bit worried that I might be in the wrong place but I assured him I wasn’t. (If you are surprised that I may be a bear chaser or admirer then look at yourself in the mirror).
I don’t know whether you wanted me to tell you about restaurants as well?
Further up St. James’s Street there a lot of ‘bijou’ eateries. I don’t think that any of them are specifically gay, but they all seem to offer a menu that revolves around ‘Mediterranean’. I find this a bit odd, as what you really need here is a good old piece of steak and kidney pud. But I suppose that the proliferation of patio gas and electric halogen heaters outside nearly every bar to keep the smokers warm, will accelerate global warming to such an extent that soon Brighton will have a Mediterranean climate!
As we are on the topic of eating The Coach and Horses at Danehill recently got a write up in the Weekend Telegraph, remember those Saturday nights with you at the piano and my parents sitting in a corner wondering why I was such good “friends” with a man twice my age?
While we are out of town, The Volunteer in Lewes has been advertising in the gay press! Just think I used to go there when I went to school in Lewes, and The King’s Head, and The Snowdrop, and………
I suppose really that there is not much change, in that Brighton still attracts a lot of gay people and as the gay population has increased so has the number of places to cater for them, but I do wonder what happened to so many of the people that we knew. They can’t all have moved away or gone into retirement homes never to be seen again, and although each year there seems to be a collection bucket for someone who has just died, they can’t all have departed this world surely? Maybe they have just become lost in the crowd.
Have I told you enough to get a picture?
I have put up a few links on my website to my favourite places in Brighton so you can see what is going on, you will find it at
One more place to mention, and I don’t even know whether it is supposed to be gay or not, is The Dragon, on the corner of St. George’s Road and Sudeley Place, we went in there a couple of times after going to the cinema round the corner when it used to show those dodgy films. I went in there as I was staying just up the road and it certainly had a couple of gay clients, but the main attraction for me is that they do a wide range of ‘shots’ for two pounds a go!
Yours, as ever,
FOOTNOTE: This article was first published in January 2008 on the now defunct ‘Gaylinkcontent.com’ web site. It may no longer be factually correct as to the names of bars. etc! This article is free to publish PROVIDED the link to my web site is included and it is attributed to me. Please do not publish it with those horrible ‘in-line’ links.
About the Author
Born in England (in spite of the name!), in the last half of the last century when Sussex was Miss Marple country and you could leave yours door unlocked for days, the author is unashamedly gay and everyone seems to know in spite of the fact that he never ‘came out’!
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