The Public House Bookshop, Brighton

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Vladimir Sorokin in a small sketch on Moscow (included in the book with his filmscript for the film Moscow directed  by Aleksander Zeldovich) tried to describe and locate Moscow’s erogenous zones. He named the area around Moscow State University as well as two or three others. I’ve often come up with this image in my mind when I remember Little Preston Street in Brighton in the 1980s – the sensuality of the place came from the fact that it was the location of the kitchens of half the foreign restaurants of Brighton. So Greek, Lebanese, Indian, Italian and other cooking smells would come wafting down into my nostrils as I walked down the street. And maybe for me eroticism and ‘erogeny ‘ could only be present in a place that negated the very suggestion that it was part of England. For me that little corner of Brighton was living in the most alluring dream of ‘denial’ imaginable (but denial as the only healthy attitude available in Thatcherite Britain). I’d feel like a perfect Mr Benn walking along Western Road and then suddenly down Little Preston Street to be transported into another world. The actual destination of my walk down this street was the Public House Bookshop run by Richard Cupidi.

  I know that Brighton had a number of radical, alternative bookshops during the 1960s and 1970s and sorely regret never having been old enough to have known of the existence or visited the Unicorn Bookshop of the mythical Bill Butler, an American beat character who was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act in 1968 for publishing and selling J.G. Ballard’s Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Regan. The whole story of the trial has been told here Unicorn Books Trial Yet the Public House Bookshop was in some ways a continuation of Butler’s shop and, it seems, that Richard Cupidi was at one time a manager at Butler’s Unicorn Bookshop.

It is quite a complex task to explain the relationship to any city that one lives in and the forms of nostalgia one may have for each particular place. I´ve always told people that I have very little nostalgia if any towards Brighton and an American who had lived in Brighton for a number of years told me when we met in Moscow that she couldn´t believe that I was, in effect, a Brightonian. In many ways I have always prided myself on being ‘unbrightonian’ in spite of having lived in the city for the most part of my childhood and a fair stretch of my adult life. Brighton for me was  a town I always wanted to leave- I remember strongly identifying with the character in Fellini’s Vitelloni who finally manages to leave the city and I’d often quote to myself Samuel Johnson’s quip that Brighton was the kind of place where you’d want to hang yourself in if only you could find a tree on which to sling the rope. Moreover, I remember the joy in finding that I wasn’t alone in having this rather negative perception of Brighton and discovering for example Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend and rather enjoying through its jaundiced revenge fantasy story how it was the latest in a line of a series of books revealing the dark and unbearable side of the town. (On reflection I don’t think the book that great but I still loved its splenetic attack on the town, (sorry city) loving the blurb on the Italian edition of the novel which called Brighton ‘the city of English despair’ and referring to the misery of life in its basement flats). And, of course, it’s hard to find a writer who didn’t discover the dark side of Brighton: Colin Spencer. Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton hardly had much good to say about the city. Yet there were moments… no not walking along the grey, metallic waves of the seashore (who could love them after the Mediterranean?) but those moments existed for me most strikingly when Brighton disappeared as a reality. It seemed to disappear, albeit briefly, in Little Preston Street.

Of course, to be honest all towns are unbearable most- or a lot- of the time. I remember Trieste on a Sunday, walking around the empty city and decrying this citta’ morta (dead city) to a French friend I met by chance in the city. On another stroll I bumped into a fellow student at the translation school a number of times on the same afternoon- she quipped that we were going on our daily giro della prigione (prison stroll). Yes, even Trieste I could damn. But for Trieste there was a nostalgia that I’ve never felt for Brighton and during a return to Trieste I’m always left with a kind of melancholy feeling (but that’s not the word) that I had actually left the city. With Brighton this feeling has never arisen (yet the doubt arises have I ever managed to leave Brighton?). I think my feeling of unease about Brighton was best explained to me by a Peruvian who I met with a Spanish friend at a bar at the bottom of Duke Street one day. For her Brighton, for all its cosmopolitanism and its liberalism, was unbearable precisely because it wouldn’t let her feel the kind of sadness that she used to feel in Peru. That explained everything to me – yes, Brighton was the city where there was no saudade, тоска, груст, կարոտ, weltschmerz or even sehnsucht, no sevda. In plain, but utterly imperfect, English you can’t pine away in Brighton. And that to me was Brighton’s limitation. Perhaps if it could have cut itself off from England and floated south (just like in Saramago’s novel The Stone Raft) it could have saved itself, or perhaps even that was not enough.

Nonetheless there were sudden miracles in the desert. And one of these miracles was The Public House Bookshop. Finally I found a place where I could plan some kind of break out from the prison (and prism) of English reality. I remember the sticker that Richard would stick on the back of the books after buying them Public House Bookshop: Not just a Bookshop. Yet how to describe the place? I know that there are similar places wherever I have lived and they are not always associated with some cultural centre as such. In Trieste it was Libero Laganis’s mythic osteria in Via della Risorta, 13; in Moscow a number of places come to mind but mainly Музей Кино (Naum Kleiman’s Cinema Museum, or rather, Cinemateque near Krasnopresnenskaya metro), and now Фаланстер bookshop. In Odessa maybe Sasha’s погреб which I wrote about briefly in a post on another blog of mine Sasha’s Wine bar and other Odessan places  and in Novokuznetsk a bar that was named, I think, Среда where the local bards would assemble and sing. Anyway for me Brighton’s the miracle in the desert was, mainly, The Public House Bookshop.

Why it was so is explicable, of course, by the books and also by the atmosphere of both the shop, its owner and, I think, its location in Brighton.  I’ve talked about the location a little. The books and its owner, I suppose, were, in a way, inseparable as was the atmosphere of the shop. It was a radical bookshop and for me at least one of the least ‘stuffy’ of the bookshops in the town. I think there were only two or three bookshops in Brighton where this was true (a number were run by rather unsufferable snobs) the most reasonable owners resided at Public House, N.F.Brooks and The Odd Volume ( I with a group of friends used to name N.F.Brooks  ‘the fascist bookshop’ – after having read some article in the alternative local The Brighton Voice,  even though the paper had accused the owner in an article of association with some fascist characters). The owner himself was a fairly laconic though witty and quite friendly polyglot and besides I simply couldn’t have done without this book shops’ excellent stock of secondhand and remaindered stocks of otherwise unavailable translations of Central European and Russian classics whatever the owners politics. Years later finding the bookshop sequestered by some debtor agency  left an unbearable sense of melancholy (which was only exacerbated when I found some time later that some Christian bookshop had been installed there with bathetic volumes of religious nonsense). The ‘fascist bookshop’ had been banished through the owner buying too large a stock which would never be sold and I was lost without any chance of salvaging all those remaindered Quartet Encounter volumes that I loved so much.

However, while N.F.Brooks Eastern European soul was important and Odd Volumes politically radical and leftist second hand stock delighted me, The Public House Bookshop was still my favourite haunt. It was, perhaps, here where I would get my weekly shot of the Mediterranean. I remember once shocking Richard with my purchase of an anthology of Twentieth Century Polish Poetry when I should have been sticking to the latest Italian translation of Gianni Celati. Yes, this was definitely an incongruous choice. The Public House Bookshop was my introduction above all to Pasolini, Jean Genet, Gianni Celati, a number of Ed Emery translated authors as well as his amateur but excellent Red Notes pamphlets on Italian Revolutionary Movements of the 1970s (oh how I yearned that I had lived in Bologna in 1977 and not in tedious Thatcherite Brighton after reading them). The Public House Bookshop would be my City Lights introduction to Ginsburg and Ferlinghetti as well as to the Carcanet edition of Dino Buzzati’s stories. It would mean a discovery of the Semiotext(e) book on Post-Political Politics and those heady texts by Bifo and Mario Tronti, Toni Negri and Sergio Bologna. It would also be the place where I purchased the Gramsci Lawrence and Wishart volumes but also translations of Arthur Rimbaud and the Atlas ‘Four Dada Suicides’ which introduced me to the figure of Arthur Cravan . As well as a few great texts of Juan Goytisolo published by Serpents’ Tail- my favourite being his great elogy of Conde Julian – I still recall reading a ten page invective on the Spanish and their love of grabanzos which I’ve never been able to retrace in my Spanish edition of the novel. For years I’d daydream about becoming an English Conde Julian who’d grant access to the equivalent of the moros and hence bring art and culture into the hermetic wastelands of anglo-saxon seclusion and isolation.

Now the photos of Allen Ginsburg on his visit to the shop and Richard’s talk about translating Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (whatever happened to that project of his?) return to my memory now as one of the rare waves of Brighton nostalgia hits me now and again. Yes, of course there is more to add about Brighton: the Quadrant Pub, The Great Eastern (and, at times, Sundays in Brighton could be better than Sundays in Trieste), sociology lessons at Stanley Deason school in Whitehawk, even the Brighton Museum cafe and the odd cafe down from Western Road, certain intellectually fine moments at the University of Sussex, discussing Daniel Kharms and the iurodivy while sorting at Brighton Post Office. However, I could never fool myself that anywhere else other than the Public House Bookshop could I be transported for an hour or two back to the Mediterranean. I think at least there and then I could feel that sudden wave of sehnsucht which other Brighton spaces couldn’t contain, maybe with the exception of the odd seance at the Duke of Yorks or the Cinemateque (those Godard, Bunuel or Bergman seasons that will never happen anymore).

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About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

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