Vodka-soaked nights and notable exiles in Brighton

Peter Kropotkin c.1900
Peter Kropotkin c.1900

From early days, Brighton has attracted exiles.

On Radio 4’s “Something Understood” programme recently, pianist Lucy Parham spoke on the subject of exile, with particular reference to the music of Rachmaninov. An extract from his second piano concerto opened the programme, and Parham gave the impression most of his music was indelibly suffused with the exile’s longing for home.

Haile Selassie on the West Pier 1938

Haile Selassie on the West Pier 1938

But hold on: when Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917, aged 44, he had already composed 39 of his 45 opus numbers. Three of the concertos, all the preludes, two symphonies, The Isle of the Dead, The Bells, the cello sonata – all were composed in Russia. They may be suffused with pathological melancholy, but they cannot be claimed as the outpourings of an exile.

Maybe there are different forms of exile. Maybe, even productively ensconced in one’s native country, one can feel like an exile. There is exile from the homeland, and the sense of exile within the homeland.

I have always been attracted to exiles. In my youth, I haunted the Polish club in Earls Court, and knocked about with Russian exiles in Paris, relishing vodka-soaked nights with balalaikas, dancing on the tables, and tearful “heimweh”. Later I published a story entitled “Exiles”, based on my friendship with an Iranian exile, in which he and the narrator share an existential form of exile. “We are the only ones who truly exist, who truly possess the kingdom within us,” Z exclaims at the end of it.

From early days, Brighton has attracted exiles. Many refugees from the French revolution arrived here. On one boat came the Marquise de Beaule, disguised as a sailor, her maid hidden inside a trunk in which some holes had been bored for air, and the Comtesse de Noailles, also dressed as a man and secreted behind a coiled rope. Mrs Fitzherbert housed and clothed the latter. The Duc de Castries resided here expressly so he could channel the correspondence between the exiled French king and his supporters at home.

The revolutions of 1848 brought a fresh wave. The exiled Austrian chancellor, Prince Metternich, resided for a time at 42 Brunswick Terrace, and it was at the Bedford Hotel that he reencountered his former political ally and lover, the Russian Princess Lieven. In 1850, the Marquess of Bristol lent his house in Sussex Square to the exiled King Louis-Philippe of France, who was to be seen daily walking on the Chain Pier.

The Russian philosopher Prince Peter Kropotkin, exiled for his revolutionary teachings, lived from 1910 to 1917 at 9 Chesham Street (there is a bus bearing his name). Jerome K.Jerome, who visited him there, recalled him as “a kindly, dapper little gentleman”, but his anarchist compatriots “struck terror to the stoutest hearts of Kemp Town”. As author of Mutual Aid (which he wrote here) and as a naturalist, Kropotkin once watched with delight while crabs at the Brighton Aquarium – “prisoners”, he called them – strived to right a companion fallen on its back.

In April 1938, Haile Selassi, exiled emperor of Ethiopia, might have been seen sitting in a deckchair on the West Pier. He contemplated renting Fife House, Lewes Crescent, visited local dairy farms, and stayed at Woodingdean House. Having regained his throne, he contributed towards the restoration of the tower of St Paul’s Church in West Street.

Nowadays, in place of the melancholy glamour of the individual exile, we have tragic influxes of refugees and asylum seekers. Last year saw 60 million displaced persons in the world, the highest number since the Second World War. The horrors of civil war, terrorism, tyranny, religious oppression and famine uproot multitudes, while multitudes more cross continents as economic migrants. The music of Rachmaninov is no longer adequate to express the impact of such global convulsions.