6 MAY 1978, Page 27

Brighter once

Philip Hope-Wallace Shton Eric Underwood (Batsford £5.95) Elst Sussex: A Shell Guide (Faber £4.50) Sussex by the sea and all that can be a bit of a bore. Too much about prep schools, arts and crafts, Puck of Pook's Hill etc. Yet the subject, when treated well is enormously rewarding. Mr Underhill gives us a whole Series of Brighton, through the years. The tuwn is not a thing made entirely by the :egent and preserved in brine. Oh no, it has ad a whole long family of different incarnations (typical to find oneself using that Word). One of my own favourite eavesu,roPpings, dating from about 1936, was 'I always sez: Brighton is one thing, `Ove another and the old ducks could say that gain if she be still alive'. Brighton now is a nelY conference town, its Arab-owned otels and bars deserted where once we jostled and cried 'cheers' to old acquainnees, while retired butlers, batmen, and 'lisle hall has-beens drank themselves to death. Now trippers come reluctantly (they prefer Ben idorm). Lame old age pensioners come in buses and get off home at the earliest opportunity, glad to be out of the wind; opening crates of brown ale and singing `Lidy of Spine, I adore yer', is much the best part of the outing.

But how one loved the place in the old days, my young days, when I could slam a front door in Pimlico and be on the end of the Palace Pier in under an hour (five bob return, stout, eels and chocolate cream). Lovely climate, best in Europe after Berlin! used to say and the air so good for British sniffles. `Before I come, dear,' said my old ducks, `I was that bunged up with phlegm.'

There's a good deal here about another sort of phlegm, le phlegm brittanique. The French visited the place in Regency times, under Victoria, and throughout the Edwardian era (when the Sassons and so on began to set up) and large numbers of Froggies still goggle around. I daresay the Gilbert Harding years and manners were equally surprising. I think Mr Underhill has been very clever in showing us Brighton through the horrified or delighted eyes of lurriners' the gluttinous, conventional feeding, the English bathing, 'so immodest' -by the time my aunts were there they would say that only the Belgians at Ostende would be capable of the degrading activity known as mixed bathing. But earlier it was more like nudism of Health and Strength repute. The subject grows absorbing.

It is not a ponderous great tome but Batsford's hallmark is on it, with a number of lovely pictures, both documentary and genre. I suddenly thought of my mother walking the front with a footman and a huge dog a few feet behind (to ward off the importunate) and how she watched the chain pier being washed away in a high sea. The book gave me much pleasure.

East Sussex is a very well illustrated and organised. It has a big scope, from Alciston

to Worth, with that Carcassone of the south English coast which Americans, bless them call, `A-rundle Cassel'. As a guide book it really is neat and terse and left me wishing it were far bigger.