27 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 45

Brighton rocks

Jonathan Ray

If we had had more money a couple of years ago, my wife and I would never have moved to Brighton; we would have stayed in Marylebone and simply traded up to a bigger place in order to accommodate the new nipper. As it was, we couldn't hope to afford to stay in the centre of town and get somewhere more commodious, and we couldn't bear to live anywhere less central in London, so we hit the bullet and moved south of the river to London-onSea. Ironically, these days it would probably be cheaper to find somewhere in Mayfair than in Brighton, where property prices have gone bananas and continue to do so. Buy now, while stocks last.

I am utterly hopeless with money, as anyone at the Royal Bank of Scotland, Western Branch, will tell you, and sympathise only too well with the great Errol Flynn, who once complained that his net income didn't cover his gross habits. I was completely staggered, therefore, to discover that our tiny one-and-a-half-bedder just off Marylebone High Street had soared stratospherically in value (thank you, Madonna and whichever Gallagher brother, for putting our humble little backwater on the fashionable map), enabling us a couple of years ago to buy a four-bedroom Grade II* house'n'garden in central Brighton. It is the best thing we have ever done.

I first got to know the town (now a city, 'Brighton and Hove') about 25 years ago, when I used to borrow my parents' flat there for the odd weekend. Motet say "odd", dear,' an aunt once reprimanded me, 'all weekends in Brighton turn out to be odd. Better to say "occasional".') I was much taken with Brighton in those days, and loved its raffish and louche feel. But I saw it more as an agreeable place in which to play than to live. A few years later, however, I did buy a small flat there with my then girlfriend, and for a brief summer we commuted to London until our relationship foundered. We sold to a charming and remarkably leggy black transvestite prostitute, under whose ownership — I later discovered — the flat was firebombed after a client got either more or less than he had bargained for.

There are still plenty of people who do commute from Brighton — it's expensive but quick: 49 minutes to Victoria — but it is about as far from being a stockbrokers' ghetto as is possible. Indeed, most of our fellow refugees not only live in Brighton, but work in Brighton too; when people move here, they tend to do so wholeheartedly. Although there aren't many big employers in the town, the place teems with small firms and one-man bands such as design consultancies, IT companies, graphic designers, as well as writers, actors, artists and musicians. Almost all of our immediate neighbours work from home: there is a research scientist, an antiques dealer, an artists' agent, a screenwriter, a composer, a cameraman, an IT consultant, a one-man travel agency, an academic or two, and so on. It's all very bohemian.

James, a fellow scribbler, moved here from London a few years ago for the same reasons that we did (growing family, shortage of cash and a violent hatred of living in the countryside). 'I thought I'd miss London terribly,' he says. 'and I found that knowing I could be in Covent Garden in a little over an hour was immensely comforting. Of course, since moving here I've hardly given London a backward glance. The restaurants, clubs and bars are as good here as any in London, and so much easier to get to. Everyone is more relaxed, there is tons to do and, in fact, I'd say that simply living in Brighton is a full-time occupation.'

Of course, emigres from London have caused an inevitable hike in house prices. Half-decent one-bedroom flats start at about £100,000, while a three-bedroom Victorian terrace house in Hove or a twobedroom balcony flat in a Regency mansion on the seafront will set you back £250,000. For properties in the swanky bits of town, such as Montpelier, Clifton Hill, Brunswick Town, Queen's Park and parts of Kemp town, the sky is the limit. A four-bedroom family house in Queen's Park is on offer at £550,000; a three-bedroom flat on Kemptown seafront is on at £625,000; and a four-bed, four-recep. Georgian pile in Montpelier could be yours for £850,000. I'm afraid that you've missed the chance to buy Brighton's most expensive house, a £3 million mansion overlooking the Marina. It was sold the day before yesterday.

There have been mutterings of late among longstanding Brightonians that the town is becoming too Londonised, but the only real evidence of this is that a few of Brighton's swishest restaurants are starting to charge West End prices, and one or two supermarkets too many are being built where they are not needed. Well, that and the traffic and the parking, which are both appalling thanks to the abolition of parking meters in favour of a voucher system and the council's amusing habit of saving its annual roadworks along the seafront until the height of summer. Oh, and the drugs, which are so cheap and plentiful that Brighton has more heroin-related deaths each year than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. But the old burghers need not fear, for the whole point about blowsy, buxom old Brighton is that it isn't London (despite its London-on-Sea nickname), and that is why so many of us are drawn to it. Yes, this is a bustling, vibrant and cosmopolitan city, but it is a city on a manageable scale. Somehow the sea, the Downs, the jaunty architecture, the dirty weekendness and the Graham Greeneness of the place all combine to create a snazzy-seedy town of relaxed and amused tolerance.

A few days ago I witnessed a terrible harridan laying into the guy behind the counter at Western Road post office because her passport had gone astray in the mail. Quite understandably, she wanted to sound off at someone, but it was hardly this chap's fault. After covering his window with spittle and making herself hoarse with her cursing, it was my turn to be served by the poor man. I remarked on his calm and congratulated him on keeping his cool. 'Why should I worry?' he asked rhetorically. 'It's a beautiful day and in five minutes I shall be on the beach.'

Some pretentious wag once said that Brighton was a state of mind, and how we laughed. I have since come to see what he meant. Here you can be anything you want to be and you are not judged by your job, your school or your family. The wacky and the eccentric are part of Brighton's everyday, and nobody stares at you or bothers you, no matter how weird — or how conventional — you are. Come on in, if you can afford it — the water's lovely.