Saturday, 27 June 2009
“Here by the sea and sand,
Nothing ever goes as planned,
I just couldn't face going home.”
“Sea and Sand” (From Quadrophenia)
It’s called Saltdean, and I presume the derivation originates from the sulphurous air that permeates the atmosphere from the sea. It’s about five or six miles along the coast from
Brighton and unlike its celebrated neighbour, it’s bereft of any of the trappings that you’d expect to find at the seaside; no pier, no cafe, no illuminations or the smell of fish and chips. In fact, aside from an imposing hotel that wouldn't be out of place in The Shining, there’s very little here in Saltdean that one could call memorable.
Additionally, it’s early February and with a cold brisk wind blowing in from the Channel, “bracing” is the only superlative I can muster to describe the scene. I find myself a few hundred metres outside of town at Telscombe Cliffs, a rolling collection of green hills and bleak seascapes. I’m parked in a gravely lay-by alongside a busy road. Over to the right, there’s a small patch of grass that save for a modest fence dissolves into a terrifying sheer drop, well over 100 feet in depth. Disturbingly, there are several man-made gaps along the fence’s perimeter, although it’s beyond me why anyone would want to get any closer. The authorities appear ignorant to the state of the cliff’s defenses presumably deeming its extremity an obvious enough deterrent for anyone stupid enough to lark around it. In any case, it’s not really somewhere you would really want to stand that close to, and even if you were into that sort of thing, there are more dramatic drops along the coast at Beachy Head.
I remind myself why I am here. In the spring of 1964, a 17- year-old trainee accountant by the name of Barry Prior fell to his death at this very spot. He’d been down to Brighton with a group of friends from
, to engage in what history now defines as the “Mods and Rockers” riots of the early 1960s. Whether by design or through an act of eerie synchronicity, Barry’s journey is echoed by the album and attendant film version of Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend’s classic paean to teenage angst. The fact that the concept’s protagonist, a similarly aged office worker from London London, met his “demise” on a Brighton cliff top haunts me. As far as I’m concerned, these similarities are just far too extraordinary to be an act of coincidence.
I pull out a photocopy of a news feature concerning Barry’s death that I uncovered quite by accident a while back. Within seconds, the dampness in the sea air causes the Xerox to wilt and flap around in the wind. It’s from the Brighton Evening Argus, a provincial daily newspaper that’s as much a fixture of the town as the promenade and pier. I find it incongruous that the story of Barry’s tragic end was relegated alongside the “births, deaths and marriages” section, although given that other events were dominating the front pages, it’s probably not that surprising. Next to the headline, “Mod Falls to Death at Brighton Cliff”, there’s a photograph of Barry’s scooter and a group of sullen youngsters in a huddle around the cliff edge. Presumably, any celebrity they may have accrued in their participation in the weekend’s riotous events had been summarily dispatched by the horror that had unfolded before their eyes.
As one would expect from a local newspaper, it’s pretty stilted in its reporting of the drama. Additionally, as the Argus is a daily issue, the feature was probably thrown together in order to meet the noonday deadline. The article informs me that following an eventful day in
Brighton, this group of thrill seeking Mods arrived at Saltdean around 3am. It wasn't that unusual a decision to pitch base at such a time; Brighton’s moonlight revellers have traditionally sought temporary sanctuary wherever their weary bodies drop, although under the pier or on the beach has always been the preferred spot. However, given these youngsters’ stamina and sensibility, camping out would have given an added dimension to their weekend away and an extra topic to brag about when they returned home. London
What happened in the ensuing hours is a mystery. All that is known is that Barry’s body was discovered shortly after 7am, lying sprawled some 100 feet below on the beach. Colin Goulden, one of Barry’s circle recalled the moment when they discovered that Barry wasn’t where he should be." One of the boys said he was missing and we started looking for him," said a stunned Goulden. "Someone looked over the cliff and saw him lying there. He shouted out, but at first we thought he was mucking about, trying to get us all up.” Fred Butler, another friend from
London could hardly bring himself to look at Barry’s scooter as reporters pressed him for an explanation: “I don’t know what could have happened. There was no trouble or fighting. We came out here to get out of the way. Perhaps he got up in the night and went for a walk. No one saw anything and there were no screams.”
Trying to make some sense of this, my immediate thought is that in his bleary state, Barry may well have gone for a pee or some other ablution, misjudged his footing and headed off into the unknown. Presumably, the fence is a recent addition; had it been in place back in 1964 history might well have been different. I gingerly venture forwards and peer over the cliff. It’s absolutely terrifying and offers no respite in its descent to the ground. Barry wouldn't have stood a chance. Poor sod.
I retreat from the cliff edge and look at the rest of the article. It reports that as reality began to dawn, the boys went into a blind panic. “We went over to the houses on the other side of the road to call the police,” recalled one of the lads. “But they wouldn't open their doors at first. They thought we were out for trouble: you know what it is.”
I can only imagine the locals evident horror at their unexpected visitors, especially as the media had sensationally invoked phrases such as: “Marauding army of youths on the rampage” over the weekend. Still, it was a measure of the lads desperation that they were banging randomly on doors, as any shops, garages or phone boxes are even now a fair distance away.
After eventually reporting the incident, Barry’s stunned friends waited for the emergency services to arrive. All the while, Barry’s prized Vespa scooter stood alone, no one daring to go near it. Eventually, ambulance and police reached the site and conferred with Barry’s stunned friends. Eager to be of assistance, the parka clad group merged with the uniformed personnel and accompanied them the 500 meters around the headland to gain access to the beach. Presumably, any differences the respective parties might have harboured following the weekend’s fracas at Brighton were momentarily shelved as the harrowing descent to the beach begun. One of youths, either too shaken or terrified to give his name to the Argus, recalled the grisly scene when they approached Barry’s body. “It was horrible,” he said. “He was lying there wearing a green anorak and socks but no shoes. He was horribly bashed up.”
The article concludes that after Barry’s body was taken away by ambulance to hospital, the police took a few of the Mods back to Brighton to fill out witness statements. Following the completion of the necessary paperwork, they were allowed to leave. It must have been a pitiful and sombre retreat back to London, with the impending horror of having to recount Barry’s death to his family weighing heavily on their minds.
I look up, take a deep breath and wander across the green turf to ascertain where the lads’ tents would have been situated. Given the area’s proximity to the cliff, the concept of camping on such a spot seems thoroughly ludicrous; although I concede that the idea was probably based more on fatigue and darkness more than any other factor. As I look around, the sound of the waves crashing against the shoreline invades my mind, and without any prompting, I hear the first few bars of “I Am The Sea”, the opening track on the Quadrophenia album. I wince as I make this association, knowing that in reality this wasn't something as ephemeral as a song or a scene from a movie. It was a real life tragedy, the ripple effects of which would have provoked a torrent of grief throughout Barry’s family and friends.
Slightly shaken by all of this, I reassure myself that I am not here to gawp at some horrendous accident scene, but to determine how real life and fiction have spookily merged. Being here today adds considerable weight to my belief that Pete Townshend must surely have heard about Barry’s death, and that it lodged somewhere in his subconscious before reappearing when he created Quadrophenia. For me as a researcher (and a pretty seasoned one at that), it is this merge of fact and fiction that intrigues me, and if Quadrophenia has a spark or starting point, I feel it is here. I am more than happy to be proven wrong on this, but if I am to treat the story with the seriousness it deserves, I have to determine all the elements that may have informed the story’s creation. With my consciousness dizzying by the rush of visuals and associations I've been making, I wander back to the sanctuary of my car and drive along the coast to more tangible landscapes.
Brighton. The place oozes passion and vitality, and yet there is this indefinable feeling that something less savoury is rattling away in the background. To me, the place is as bright as a fluorescent tube and as brittle as a stick of rock. As any historian worth his salt will tell you, the town has been synonymous with “escaping to” for centuries. From dirty weekends to cheap day returns; from handkerchiefs on the head to fish and chips on the beach, Brighton personifies the risqué better than any other town in the United Kingdom. I sense this as it as I wander along the promenade and later, through the town’s labyrinth of streets. It’s easy to gauge this airborne cheekiness as the smiles and evident cheer outweighs any gloom. Similarly, it’s not that difficult to notice that since 1979, the year of Quadrophenia’s film release, Brighton has been heavily gentrified in line with "New" Labour's vision of Britain, and on every street there are coffee bars, mobile phone shops and gastropubs hugging the curbs. My inert cynicism informs me there’s almost certainly a back-story to all of this, and that the dark side revealed in the town’s other cinematic landmark Brighton Rock, is still there, it’s just been swept up and pushed back out of view.
I walk past the last vestiges of the Brighton Aquarium, and note the location’s role in Quadrophenia. It may seem shocking to those who value the hearing of marine life, but during the 1960s, the building adjacent to the Aquarium housed the Florida Ballroom, a popular night club and de rigeur stop off point for bands doing the provincial rounds of the UK. The Who frequently played during the mid-1960s, and given its location, the presence of the band would have been a huge draw for music lovers and Mods alike.
The place obviously found favour with Pete Townshend, who dedicated Quadrophenia’s album to those lucky few who attended those Florida Rooms gigs. When pressed on this, Townshend has recalled a seismic event that occurred in his consciousness one blisteringly hot summer night in August 1964. Following a typically frantic Who performance, Pete left the sunken reaches of the venue and perched himself on the promenade to wind down. As he meditated on the sea while having a relaxing smoke, the last few stragglers from the concert made their way up the marble steps to street level. As the faintly metronomic sound of the tide morphed with the strains of Tamla Motown seeping out of the Ballroom, it made for an enchanting aural concoction. As if on cue, a few hardy Mods stepped into their scooters, and drove around in a circular formation before moving off into the darkness. As these disparate elements gradually merged into a moving motion picture, Townshend was entranced. To him it was the “most perfect moment of my life”, a confirmation of the sort of landscape that had played in his head, but rarely in reality. Elements of this scene are echoed in the film of Quadrophenia, where a group of scooter riders similarly engage in an automated circle dance at first light. As I piece the images together at the same location, it strikes me that this particular experience defined Townshend’s vision for Quadrophenia more than any other factor.
With an array of images floating around my head, I wander down the steps to the Aquarium and walk through a dimly lit tunnel that leads directly onto the beach. As I emerge, I see a young man dressed in a green fur-rimmed parka, sprawled out and gazing aimlessly at the sea. Five minutes later, I walk past a couple of young Mods; no more than 19 or 20, posing on the promenade in their finest garb. It’s evident that the links between Quadrophenia and Brighton are inextricable, and despite the time-slip, Brighton will always be a Mecca for seekers wanting to engage in the residual energy the film has left behind. There’s little doubt that younger generations have learnt about Brighton’s association with Modernism from Quadrophenia more than any other historical source.
I make my way towards the area’s local history library, now housed in the grounds of Brighton’s historic Pavilion. On arriving, I wonder how the librarians are going to respond to my request for any ephemera concerning “Mods and Rockers” riots. My apprehension is increased considerably as I pass various antiquated marble statues and Victorian art works that adorn the walls of the building. I have little to worry about as the friendly librarian informs me that someone had been in earlier to research the period for a dissertation as part of their sociology degree. Additionally, on the walls of the reading room, there’s an enormous photograph depicting a posse of Mods and their scooters alongside Brighton pier in 1964. My, how times have changed.
I’m surprised when the librarian swiftly returns with a folder emblazoned with the legend “Mods and Rockers”. I get the feeling that this is a familiar request, and to save time, the staff has collated this miscellany to avoid the interminable digging through their archives. She hands over the clear plastic folder that contains several hundreds clippings from the 1960’s, interwoven a few articles detailing Quadrophenia and the activities of latter day Mods. I mention to her about my project to find more information concerning Barry Prior’s story, and although she shows some perfunctory interest in my quest, it’s evident she knows nothing about it. Not for the first time, I wonder if it is just me who has made this connection.
I lay the yellowing newsprint over a table and gaze at the scene before me. The cuttings tell in typically sensational detail how the May 1964 battle took hold, and how the police vainly tried to shepherd the warring elements around town. Given the magnitude of events, many of Brighton’s crustier locals interpreted the situation as a call to arms. Utilising phraseology that would put a Dad’s Army script to shame, a legion of retired army personnel actively called for vigilante groups to patrol the area lest it descended into further chaos. Deeper within the collection of clippings, there are numerous reports on the court sessions that were convened to process the litany of offences from the riots. It was at these hearings that the establishment finally got its revenge on these dissident elements, as outraged magistrates handed out exemplary sentences accompanied with the sort of semantics that wouldn't be out of place in a Greek tragedy. I notice that some of the dialogue from the courtroom actually made its way into the film version of Quadrophenia verbatim. I’m impressed; the researchers had evidently put in the legwork and yet knowing this, I can’t believe for one moment that they hadn't come across Barry’s story at some point.
As I replace the clippings back in the folder, I’m still in need of further information to qualify my assumptions regarding Barry’s death. I feel ill equipped with just one article to hand after all my researches. In desperation, I hedge a bet that there may have been a follow-up report later in the week, and I turn to the microfiche reader to scan the area’s sister paper, the Brighton Herald, for any possible nuggets of information.
As the Herald had failed to report on Barry’s death, I’m surprised that a few days later, it eavesdropped on the Coroner's inquest into the tragedy. Again, it’s buried deep in the paper, and it makes for fairly dismal reading. Instinctively, I nod my head when I read that the Coroner shared my belief that Barry may well have wandered off to relieve himself before falling to his death. Assured that there was no foul play or intent to commit suicide present, a verdict of “death by misadventure” was recorded. The rest of the feature tells me little I didn’t already know, save for one small fact. Given the force of Barry’s descent, his wristwatch was torn off as he fell. It was later found and identified as his. Poignantly, the watch had stopped at the precise time he hit the ground: 3.50 a.m.
© Simon Wells 2009