Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The ghosts of a faded glory

In the two years and three months since I was last in Brighton, more of the West Pier has slipped away into it’s final, watery grave.

Designed by Eugenius Birch and built in 1866, the pier was in such a state of disrepair that it was closed to the public in 1975. But it was finally reduced to a skeleton of iron, jutting up from the sea, by a fierce fire in 2003 – little more than a month after the local council had approved plans to restore it.

The West Pier Trust still believes that "professional arsonists" were responsible.

There is, of course, still Brighton Pier itself – “1,772 feet of fun” proclaims the website – but the sad and slowly disappearing remains of the West Pier have become an icon, more photographed than it’s still-gaudy, still-living neighbour.

And as the intervals between my own visits are measured by the year rather than the day, it is not difficult to note the differences each time we renew acquaintance.

This year it was the ballroom dome, which had previously reclined at a tilt in the shallows between the rotting bulk and the pebbled shore, that was gone. An inside-out aviary, covered in streamers of seaweed, a perch for the birds, consigned now to memory.

But while the burnt-out pier is the most obvious sign of decay, there is much in Brighton that reflects the fading glamour of the English resort.

There's the mint green livery of the promenade, dotted with rust and interspersed with rotted wood.

For work purposes, I was staying in the Metropole on the seafront. Built in 1890, it was designed by Alfred Waterhouse – whose work also includes the iconic Natural History Museum in London.

With 340 bedrooms and conference facilities, it is apparently the largest residential conference centre in Britain.

Sold by taxpayer-owned bank RBS last year, it’s now owned by investment company the Topland Group and is on long-term lease to Hilton hotels.

But long before it played such a cameo in the aftermath of the financial debaclé, its guests included Winston Churchill, while it stands next door to the Grand Hotel, which was bombed by the IRA during the 1984 Conservative Party conference.

So much history for a hotel, yet even though it remains a hive of activity, a sense of faded glory pervades the atmosphere.

On Friday night, with the temperatures plunging outside, I dined in.

My waiter was a charming young man called Sage, and I had decided to limit myself to the set-course menu for £20 (including a glass of wine).

Taking the chef’s suggestions, I’d opted for a duck terrine with fig – with turned out to be a fig marmalade, plus melba toast and a little, rather bland salad garnish. It was pleasant enough.

The cod that followed was somewhat odder. It pretended to the heights of modern cooking, but the single, small red pepper, a lonely floret of undercooked broccoli and a rather dry polenta cupcake that accompanied a piece of fillet, together with an unidentifiable garnish scattered around, was an unappetising pick ‘n’ mix selection of ingredients that had no unity.

Indeed, there was little suggestion that there had even been an attempt to knit it all together.

Looking at the menu for dessert, I realised that my cheapskating on the meal was going to make for a very uninspired culinary denouement.

Sage, however, was at hand – and helpfully agreed that I could add a little extra to my bill in order to have the chef’s special – a ‘Brighton Mess’.

A short while later, he wheeled a tray to my table and began the process of constructing my dessert, crushing meringue and adding a tiny splash of Grand Marnier as a base, before asking me to pick the next ingredients. In my case, these included assorted berries (none seasonal, I confess), cream and plenty of butterscotch.

It had an artificial sweetness, but that was a relief after the main course.

Just a short walk from the Brighton Pavilion, where the first celebrity chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, cooked for the Prince Regent, in a restaurant that would once have prided itself on full sliver service and the food to match, these cut-price efforts to continue that tradition had a painful futility about them.

Few diners – either resident or from outside – appeared, and the spacious, chandeliered room almost echoed with the clink clink of cutlery.

Nearby, as an inducement to diners and filling the disquiet a little, a singer performed Rat Pack classics to karaoke accompaniments on a laptop.

Sage was a delight as he flattered me with his attention.

Back to the window, back to the here and now, I felt like a dowager duchess basking in a compliment as the final glow of her youth fades.

Perhaps I have watched too much Poirot, but as I made my way slowly back to my room later, on the deserted staircases, as the sounds of chatter from the bar drifted up, the ghosts of a bygone era seemed to be all around.

The discord continued the following evening, in the nearby China Garden, where a jarring meeting of cultures could be found; a pianist playing selections from The Sound of Music while diners consumed their dim sum. And brittle birthday-party loudness took over from the sound of a fractious baby, as the latter finally tumbled into exhausted sleep.

The food was a big improvement – deep-fried frogs’ legs with a chili sauce that packed a pleasing punch proving my dish of the weekend by some considerable way, even though it provoked a modicum of shock amongst one or two of my fellow staff diners.

The sweet and sour chicken was perfectly decent but, with some steamed rice, far too big a portion. I was too full for dessert and, after braving the driving, icy rain on the short walk back, happy to bid my colleagues a good night.

Earlier in the day, contemplating lunch, I'd gone in search of proper fish and chips. With snow in the air, I'd walked past at least three outlets that offered pizzas or kebabs alongside what I was after. I wanted dedication to this wonderful dish.

Sitting down eventually in a cramped corner chippy, with white tile walls dotted with blue and yellow cartoon fish and a notice proclaiming that it had been there for 50 years, here at least was a nod to tradition.

The fish was nice – flaky and moist, with a really light, crisp batter. The chips so-so; the mushy peas too wet. And no smell or taste of a proper cooking fat.

Back at the hotel, perhaps the most pleasantly memorable thing about the actual food was the egg station, where a cook prepares your eggs to order – the best eggs I’ve ever had at a hotel breakfast.

Make your request and then hit the toast machine to watch it’s oh-so-slow progress.

The bread is barely coloured after one run, so you put it through again, knowing that it will somehow go from an extreme of underdoneness to something nearing the opposite, altogether passing by a happy medium. Fortunately, I don’t mind well-done toast.

Later, traveling home through a snowy landscape, the incongruities continued as I spotted two deer near the train tracks at – of all places – Gatwick Airport.

But two and a half days later, it is the sense of those ghosts and of the fading glory of an old style of English seaside resort that remains with me. And something about that – a quality of sensuality in the decay – makes me quietly happy that they have not dissipated yet.

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