Travels with My Antenna

If I did not already have a past, the seaside resort of Brighton might be just the place to get one. Last night, I got back from a jaunt to the ever popular London by the Sea, and what now follows is the kind of literary travelogue with the keeping of which I amuse myself in these hours of homebound retrospection. This time around, I need not dip into the reflecting pool of personal reminiscences, considering that the former fishing village of Brighthelmstone is brimming with the wickedness of others. The local museum introduces visitors to many a story about the less than pious townspeople, vengeful dames like the Chocolate Cream Poisoner, and various murderous goings-on (such as the Brighton Trunk Murders) that give you a pretty good idea why the place lent its name to thrillers like The Brighton Strangler (adapted here for Suspense) and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, which famously opens with the line: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

Brighton sure is a hotbed of passion. After all, it was put on the map by Prince Regent George IV, who converted an old farmhouse here to erect his pleasure dome (pictured above on a bright Sunday morning) so that he might escape the strictures of the court and be with his unlawfully wedded wife, Maria Fitzherbert (“unlawful,” since soon-to-be-declared mad King George III did not give his approval).

“I’d like to be at the centre of all the devilry,” said the eccentric old woman with whom Henry Pulling got a “bizarre foretaste” of what it was like to Travel with [his] Aunt. Returning to the crime scene of Brighton Rock, Greene had his unlikely pair of travellers check into the Royal Albion. “Apparently,” Henry remarks, Aunt Augusta “had come first to Brighton when she was quite a young woman, full of expectations which [he was] afraid were partly fulfilled.” No doubt, Augusta had come to town for the same delights that attracted Jane Austen’s Lydia (in Pride and Prejudice, heard here in a Studio One production), namely to be at a “gay bathing place covered with officers.”

Like Greene’s free-spirited septuagenarian, we wanted to “be near the Palace Pier and the Old Steine.” So, we booked our room in the hotel next to the Albion, the stylish Royal York. According to last weekend’s edition of the Argus, Brighton’s local newspaper, the Royal York had just reopened after some eighty years, during which time it had housed government offices. Now, travellers can once again occupy rooms once slept in by Dickens, Disraeli, and Thackeray, who (in Vanity Fair) remarked that Brighton “always looks brisk, gay, and gaudy, like a harlequin’s jacket.”

In American radio drama, designed to supply a skeletal plot of classics like Vanity Fair (a thick volume condensed here for Favorite Story to play out in just under twenty minutes), such brightly hued capes are rarely captured in sound. Listeners were not so much transported to colorful locales as left to their own brushes. Without a map or an encyclopaedia at hand, it is difficult for anyone tuning in to picture a scene. Instead, listeners either pencilled in the missing detail or liberally applied the eraser of ignorance.

Sometimes, you just have to switch the old wireless off and spread your antennae to get a feel for what is wanting on the air . . .

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