by Tobias Sauer
Leave all conventions behind for a ‘dirty weekend’? Not a problem in Brighton, home for eccentrics for centuries.
His neon-green beard glows brightly in the sun as Michael enters the terrace of the bar ‘Legends’. He greets friends almost everywhere, gives out kisses to his left and right – very carefully so that the green colour does not rub off on the cheeks of the kissed ones. Michael, whom everyone here calls “Greenbeard”, Brighton’s most colourful dog – and just as famous. Twenty years ago, the 72-year-old moved from London to Brighton, Britain’s small homo capital. “I’ve always lived in London,” Michael says while sipping on a beer in the warm afternoon sun, “and finally wanted to see something new. I was extremely fascinated by the clubs here and their guests, who were quite outrageous.” Outrageous, one of Michael’s favorite words, means something like “scandalous”, “impossible”, “frivolous”, but also “positively extraordinary” – pretty much what Michael himself embodies. With his clothes, which combine elements of the skinhead subculture like polo shirt and bomber jacket, with green beard and colorful triangles painted on his cheeks, he defies all categories.
Extravagance is part of Brighton etiquette
With his extravagant appearance Michael follows a long tradition in Brighton. The seaside resort which is only an hour’s train ride from London has long been a kind of refuge for people who have no desire for social norms and want to live their lives in their own ways.
Ric Morris, who offers the gay city tour “Piers and Queers” in Brighton, knows some of these stories. The first is almost obvious: Of course Oscar Wilde lived here for a while and worked on the comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Wilde’s lover Alfred Douglas to whom he dedicated the bitter account “De profundis” when imprisoned lived in Brighton a few years later on. But Wilde was by no means the only inhabitant who came into conflict with the sexual moral concepts of the time in a rather spectacular way. Shortly after the First World War, a Colonel Sir Victor Barker appeared in Brighton, who introduced himself as a World War veteran and insisted on being called by his title. He married Emma Haward in St Peter’s Church in 1923. What nobody knew at that time: Colonel Sir Victor Barker was actually called Valerie Barker from London and probably celebrated the first gay marriage in the UK in Brighton. Only when Barker’s café in London went bankrupt during depression six years later the illegal marriage became apparent – and Barker was sentenced to six months in prison for marriage fraud. Given this historical background it was almost a matter of honour for the city of Brighton to celebrate England’s first completely legal gay marriage in 2005.
Paragon of the indiviualists: King Gerorge IV
Michael Greenbeard can also find role models in Brighton’s colourful history. Even in the days of King George IV who ruled Great Britain from 1820 to 1830 and often lived in Brighton a man regularly walked the streets of the city in drag, he quips with a proud grin. George IV in particular may have helped the city gain its reputation. George was anything but a classic British ruler displaying the proverbial “stiff upper lip”. Profiligate at court, eccentric and not overly interested in governing, he pretty much embodies the opposite of the popular and decent Elizabeth II, who upholds the honour and reputation of the royal family despite all scandals.
George on the other hand had a royal villa built in Brighton first during his time as crown prince and then had it remodelled into a fairytale palace like in Thousand and One Nights. Large, widely visible onion-shaped domes based on Indian designs give the building a distinct outside appearance. However, visitors entering this royal palace won’t find the same design inside. Instead, dark red wallpaper, jade jewellery, huge golden chandeliers and dragons on the walls suddenly drag visitors into an imaginary China. The palace has nothing to do with real palaces from the Far East.
Flirt at the banquet
Here George IV. held his festivities, when elaborate menus were served in the huge banquet hall à la française: The different courses were not served one after the other, but all at the same time, up to the point when the tables almost collapsed. And unlike it was the norm in those days, men and women did not dine at separate tables – which offered ample opportunity for flirtation.
That was in the Prince’s best interest. In Brighton, at the age of 17 he had fallen in love with the Commoner Maria Fitzherbert, a believing Catholic. As a scandal in Protestant and class-conscious England would have been certain, George married his mistress in secret and without the court’s knowledge. When that marriage was detected he was forced to give up his relatin and marry his cousin Caroline von Braunschweig. George and Caroline met in person for the first time only three days before the wedding. Not being overtly enthusiastic the prince asked for a brandy after the introductions. After the birth of their daughter his duty was fulfilled: George renewed his commitment to Maria Fitzherbert.
To this day, Brighton is a destination not only for gays, but also for many heterosexuals who disappear from London with their affairs for a “sirty weekend” to stay in Brighton as “Mr and Mrs Smith” and indulge in their passions undisturbed. The city has adapted to tourism accordingly and makes it easy for its approximately 8.5 million guests each year to leave all their worries at home. On the beach where the sun sets every evening, a Ferris wheel and the famous Brighton Pier, built in 1899 especially for the tourists, are the main attractions. With its length of over half a kilometre it is much longer than photos would suggest. It even features a roller-coster and haunted house. If you have any spare change you can try your luck at one-armed bandits. A great seaview and the white silhouette of the seafront in the background make the romantics happy.
Directly adjacent to the pier are the old town and Kemptown, the Gay Village. Here you find one gay pub next to the next: The Marine Tavern with its bar made of dark wood and choice of English beers resembles a classic pub, the Queens Arms offers drag shows every night and the Bulldog invites you to sing karaoke together in a beer-laden atmosphere. More modern bars are the Revenge Bar and the Charles Street Bar, both directly on the waterfront. All pubs in Kemptown are so close that bar-hopping can hardly be avoided: Those who step outside from one pub, have a foot in the door of the next instantly.
Party atmosphere for Pride
The impressive gay infrastructure for a city of around 250,000 inhabitants is used by the Brighton Pride in the summer. About 25,000 guests are expected when local stars of the international music scene such as Fatboy Slim play. The celebrations are threefold: First, the parade through the city to Preston Park. The big park festival is celebrated on various stages. In the evening it is getting hot in Kemptown. An after-party in front of the Ferris wheel and the pierkeeps going until three o’clock in the morning.
Once again the Pride will demonstrate how many visitors enjoy Brighton’s relaxed atmosphere where they can freely express their feelings and preferences and just be themselves. Or as Michael Greenbeard would call it: To be as “outrageous” as possible. One thing is clear to him after all: “There’s no way I could imagine living elsewhere.”
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