Whether as a liberal paradise, a “hello-goodbye tinsel town” or even, as Virginia Woolf sniffed, “a love corner for slugs”, Brighton rarely fails to make an impression on people.

The city has attracted the attention of some of our most famous writers, artists and other prominent figures over the years, many of whom recorded their thoughts in journals.

The earliest was by a Samuel Pepys, who would go on to become the most famous diarist in history, writing in 1660 about the future Charles II, who, during his escape from England, spent a night in The George Inn in Brighton.

A century later, Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, called Brighton “a city of loiterers and invalids – a Vanity Fair for piping, dancing of bears, and for the feats of Mr Punch”.

A John Croker gave an opinion on the new Brighton Pavilion in the 1800s, writing that: “The music room is most splendid but I think the other [the dining room] handsomer. They are both too handsome for Brighton, and in an excessive degree too fine for the extent of His Royal Highness’s premises… it is, I think, an absurd waste of money and will be a ruin in half a century or sooner.”

Woolf, as mentioned, had mixed feelings about the city, on the one hand finding a visit “added a pound of pleasure to life” and on the other, lamenting the inhabitants.

These are just a few of the views collated in Paul Lyons’ Brighton In Diaries, a book he describes as “a collection of cameos of people, famous and ordinary, young and old, serious and cynical, but with Brighton always setting the scene; like a play, perhaps, in which, despite a medley of brilliant actors and a plot full of intriguing storylines, it is the set, the backdrop, that really steals the show.”

Lyons, of Shaftesbury Road, has long been fascinated by diaries; several years ago he founded the Diary Junction blog, which highlights interesting diaries with a topical bent. He’s also published many of his own diaries online.

“I think the fascination is because diaries are written there and then,” he explains.

“They open up a moment in time when the diarist is actually there. And they’re someone’s immediate thoughts. A lot of diaries are written for publication of course, but a lot of the more interesting ones are those where they weren’t, and you get people’s real feelings rather than their manufactured public image.”

Some of the most engaging diary excerpts in Lyons’s book come from such sources. Des Marshall’s 1990s diaries were eventually published – and even turned into a play (The Journal Of An Urban Robinson Crusoe) – but they weren’t written for that purpose.

They offer a candid and often moving description of a man struggling to get to grips with some of the less appealing aspects of Brighton life. He believed there should be a guide written on how to survive the place: “I believe Brighton has more disturbed people in relation to the size of the population than any other town in the country.

There’s a sort of unreality about the town.

It’s too frivolous.

People don’t really listen to each other.

They seem very excited and distracted.

It’s because it’s a holiday town, with too many distractions – the sea, the beach, the pier, the pretty women (there seems so many of them here), the men on the prowl for women, the buskers, the beach cafés with their coloured sunshades and ice-cream adverts, a sense of permanent holidaying atmosphere. It distracts people even if you live here.”

But for Ross Reeves, a young gay musician, it represented a feeling of coming home: “We had a lovely lunch as the sun shone through the window to the chilled café,” he wrote in 2004. “What was instantly noticeable to me and refreshing was the fact that we were clearly a gay couple out for lunch and no one batted an eyelid. Such a tiny thing but for me it amounts to a great deal. I hope the entire world is this blasé one day.”

Lyons found Reeves through the Letter In The Attic project run by community publishers Queenspark, and was given access to a pile of Reeves’ “colourful, beautifully written” diaries.

The wartime diary of Olive Stammer, full of descriptions of bombs dropping on Lewes Road and bursts of gunfire in Kemp Town, came from Sussex University’s Mass Observation Archive, the famous social research archive launched in 1937. He tracked down older diaries through published histories where they had been used as a source.

“A lot of diarists write about personal things – 99% of them are about people and relationships – so I wanted excerpts that picked out elements of the city itself,” he says of the writing selected.

“It was quite hard to find substantial writing on Brighton but I hope those I’ve selected give some sense of the city’s many faces,”

Lyons’s own association with Brighton is also of interest; he was conceived here on a giddy weekend in 1951. The pregnancy came to light and “Marriage followed,” he writes pithily.

Unaware of his lifelong connection to the city, he first visited as an adult, after returning from a threeyear round-the-world trip. He bedded down in Woodvale Cemetery, writing: “Such a homely cemetery protected my soul for two nights…when the wind made no noise through the holes in my sleeping bag, I could not know if I was in my bed at home or in a guests’ heavenly eiderdown.”

He remained a frequent visitor throughout subsequent years living in London and, in excerpts published in the book, records his thoughts on everything from bomb scares to underwhelming Graham Greene literary tours. He has lived in Preston Circus since 2006 and continues to write entries in a diary every week.

* Brighton In Diaries is published by the History Press and costs £12.99.

Available at City Books, Hove, and other local stockists, as well as online retailers.

* For more information on Diary Junction, visit www.the diaryjunction.


This is the first in new weekly series Celebrating Sussex, where The Magazine will highlight the people and places that make the county what is is.

If you have an interesting or unusual local story, outstanding photograph or favourite haunt, or know a local person you think deserves celebrating, get in touch and tell us. Email themagazine@theargus.co.uk