Composer Orlando Gough’s ‘Coming & Going’, published by Uniformbooks, is a portrait and memoir of the city of Brighton. Mathew Clayton reviews.
You can live in many places over the course of your life and call each of them home, but the place you hang out as a teenager imprints itself on your heart like no other. For me that place is Brighton. When I think of the city when I was growing up in the late 80s, I think first of its shops — particularly the ones in the North Laine, an area, like London’s Soho, where the essence of the town exists in a more concentrated form.
Back then the North Laine was yet to burst onto the pavements. Instead, these shops were a series of Aladdin’s caves stretching from Trafalgar Street to North Street. Second-hand books, records and clothes packed wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Fugged up windows hid displays that hadn’t changed since 1974. The owners, perched on a stool behind the counter with a cup of tea and a fag on the go, would barely look up when you entered. Buying anything took forever as each purchase was painstakingly recorded in biro in a well-thumbed exercise book. However shambolic, it was said the owner knew where everything was, although in retrospect I think that was wishful thinking. Each shop was like a little autobiographical museum devoted to the life (and character failings) of its owner.
In the basement of the Jubilee Shopping Hall on Gardner Street was a shop without a name. It was run by a tall man with a stoop called Charlie. The room was packed with old cameras and film projectors — I used to go there to buy Standard 8 cine film. Charlie must have been in his late 70s; here was his life as a series of collapsing cardboard boxes full of ill-fitting lenses, two-legged tripods and beaten-up Brownies. Opening hours were irregular.
Brighton was full of down-at-heel characters like that. They were the antithesis of the prevailing Thatcherite entrepreneurial ideal. Passion before profit. And passion the part-time non-evangelical variety. You were never going to franchise Charlie’s — although the world would have been a better place if you did. But even then the North Laine was changing and a new generation of shops opening up. My girlfriend got a job in Nipper on Kensington Gardens, a fancy kids’ clothes shop. She lived in a flat opposite — she could get up and be at work within a minute. My friend Kev started working in Borderline on Gardner Street, a record shop that at some point employed every underachieving young musician in the city. We were all setting out on life’s great adventure and to me, at least, the North Laine seemed like a pretty good place for it to begin.
The legendary bookseller NF Brooks in his famous Queen’s Road shop
I was thinking about all this as I read Coming & Going, Orlando Gough’s lively history of Brighton that is published by the peerless Uniformbooks. His view of Brighton is not stuck (like me) in any particular era; instead he happily skips back and forth through time, presenting a series of vignettes that brilliantly manage to capture how Brighton evolved into the permissive, bohemian but slightly tatty-round-the-edges place it is today. Gough picks out various historical figures whose personalities left an imprint; people like the cross-dressing soldier Phoebe Hessel, the party-loving Prince George who built the Royal Pavillion, the dipper Martha Gunn (famous for helping people ‘take the waters’) as well as more recent inhabitants like the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and lounge lizard crooner Nick Cave. It occasionally slips into a delightful surrealism whilst is at the same time great on serious stuff like political history. Gough is a composer and there is also a splash of music peppered throughout. I hope his next book concentrates on music as I am sure he would have some fascinating things to say.
My girlfriend, when living only a minute away from the shop on Kensington Gardens, managed to be late for work every day. One night in a crowded pub I asked her boss why she was never told off for her lateness. She leaned over, ‘My god Mathew, you have got to understand. Being late for work . . . well . . . that’s the whole point of Brighton’.
‘Coming & Going’ is out now and available here (£10.00).