A book of diligent city data - and one of living witness

A revised edition of the Encyclopædia of Brighton, originally published in 1990, came out in 2010
A revised edition of the Encyclopædia of Brighton, originally published in 1990, came out in 2010

Spotting a copy of Timothy Carder’s 1990 “Encyclopædia of Brighton” in the window of the admirable Studio Bookshop in Kemptown the other day, I entered and enquired the price.

Spotting a copy of Timothy Carder’s 1990 “Encyclopædia of Brighton” in the window of the admirable Studio Bookshop in Kemptown the other day, I entered and enquired the price. I balked a bit when Paul Brown, the owner, told me. Apparently three people had already been in and had similarly balked: “But actually I’m the cheapest on the web. They can fetch up to £50 nowadays.”

Paul told me he once picked one up in the nearby flea market and was walking back with it, when a customer bought it from him in the street, before he had even reached the shop. “They’re highly sought after.”

Maybe. But the inflated price is one reason why I have never acquired this essential reference work before. I have seen the thing around, have dipped into other people’s copies, have pulled it off dealers’ shelves and put it back again, but I have never shelled out.

Paul fetched it from the window and once again I browsed its unwieldy pages.

“Production standards seem a bit basic,” I opined. “Looks like something that’s been Xeroxed. Awkward to handle. No page numbers.” I consulted the index. Eye-flinchingly small print.

“An encyclopedia of Brighton that doesn’t mention Frank Bridge,” I observed. “An entry for Lady Byron, telling us she was an early supporter of the Co-op, yet nothing for his lordship. Virginia Woolf not mentioned, nor the Garnetts. Graham Greene mentioned only in a bit about race gangs. Oh dear, and they claim Arnold Bennett stayed at the Royal Albion Hotel. Wrong. He stayed at the Royal York. Now I know where those incorrect websites have got it from. These days, once an error gets online, it’s harder to uproot than Japanese knotweed.”

“A revised edition came out not long ago,” Paul remarked. “One of my customers updated to that, and sold me his original edition, thinking it was redundant. A week later he was in again, wanting it back. Everyone says the new one’s less good.”

Well, I supposed I finally ought to have this tome, paid up, and lugged it home.

I can see a prodigious amount of research has gone into its production, and I take several hats off to Mr Carder. But it is rather dry. If you want a list of mayors, Albion managers or local breweries, or to know when gas-lighting arrived, or who has been awarded freedom of the borough, it is indispensable. If you are into street-name derivations, tramways or fish markets, it is a vade-mecum.

But what I am more interested in is stories about people. Which is why I would sooner read another book that recently came my way, “Brighton in Diaries” by Paul K Lyons, published in 2011.

This begins with the earliest reference to Brighton in any diary - Pepys recounting Charles II’s escape - and goes on to cover the intervening centuries.

Here is a Chinese diplomat describing Brighton in very Chinese terms. Here are Fanny Burney at the theatre and Thomas Raikes on racing and duels. Here is Henry Crabb Robinson listening to Paganini at the Old Ship Hotel. Here are Virginia Woolf eavesdropping in the ladies' loo and Harold Nicolson scattering Lady Sackville’s ashes two miles offshore. Here are wartime Mass Observation diaries. Here, finally, are extracts from the diaries of Mr Lyons himself - kipping in Woodvale Cemetery in 1977, a bomb scare at the theatre in 1990, skinny-dipping on Christmas Day 1993.

It nicely interweaves toffs and ordinary folk, the Asquiths and the footmen, it is well-produced and a delight to dip into. And it brings alive what the Carder tome turns to stone.