My brother Trevor has lived in Brighton for about 20 years. His loosely affiliated group is called Book Club. Not quite ancient, but usually orderly, the club comprises men whose wives attend a book club. On the ladies' book club nights, their husbands meet at a pub.
They have about 300 pubs to choose from these days. The oldest, the Black Lion, started life as a brewery about 450 years ago. Its founder, a Flemish Protestant brewer named Deryck Carver, was later burned at the stake in a beer barrel for this faith.
The religious authorities had loosened up a bit by the time the Prince of Wales began visiting in the late 18th century. Inns sprang up to cater to the increased stagecoach trade and wealthy Londoners flocked to the fashionable resort for its supposedly curative sea water, which was piped into bathtubs in waterfront hotels.
Now visitors come for Brighton's dynamic cultural scene, much of which begins and ends in the city's pubs. Whether they're operating from former churches, converted warehouses or transformed Georgian living rooms, pubs provide a unique perspective on Brighton's history and culture.
To document a pint-sized snapshot of Brighton's pub scene might prove to be a tall order. But with lubrication in moderation in mind, I set off with the Book Club on a perfect summer evening in July.
Pubs had been carefully chosen to be no more than four minutes walk apart; some quiet, some noisy and all with great beers.
Our entourage included Geoff, who was infamously banned from a pub in neighbouring Hove for pointing out to sensitive bar staff that he had been under-charged.
"I wouldn't want to go in there now anyway," he tells me. "Someone got stabbed in there last week."
Besides myself there's also a couple of honourary Book Club members, including my friend Neil, a diabetic, who insists that cider actually lowers his blood sugar level.
Our journey starts at The Battle of Trafalgar, just uphill from Brighton's railway station, on the edge of a maze of Georgian terraced houses. We settle in over pints of locally brewed Harvey's Best. It feels a bit like we're in someone's living room, despite the presence of "Rebel Control," an ominously named band setting up by the fireplace.
"All these houses were originally built for railway workers and the pubs were here to serve them," Trevor tells me. "This pub actually knocked into the house next door to extend the bar."
London commuters who can afford the half-a-million-pound price tag for a few hundred square feet of floor space tend to live here now. Pubs have had to diversify to survive. The Sussex Yeoman across the street, for instance, is a gastro pub specializing in sit-down meals. None of us is ready for baked Camembert or stuffed trout so we proceed to the Duke of Wellington.
Unlike the Battle of Trafalgar, which actually advertises the fact that it has no TV, the Duke of Wellington entices drinkers with the promise of cricket in high-definition. (Even in HD cricket still takes five days and usually ends in a draw because of rain.)
Bob Dylan is on the jukebox and the Christmas lights look conspicuous amid the bar stools and high tables. I consult my Definitive Guide of Brighton's Best Pubs for its assessment of the Duke.
"Average local boozer," it reads. "Completely middle of the road."
This seems harsh until I flick through the guidebook and come across its critique of a pub called the Bow Street Runner: "Small, smoky, mediocre . . . Entertainment is a charity book sale. Dogs welcome!"
Things liven up at the Caxton Arms, which is full of students. They don't appear to be there for the books shelved floor-to-ceiling along the walls. Amid the library setting a bout of spontaneous dancing breaks out. The Specials, a U.K. ska band hugely popular in the late '70s, are booming out Monkey Man over the sound system and others take to what little floor-space is left.
We all calm down a little at The Basketmakers Arms, "possibly the best pub in Brighton," according to the Definitive Guide. Beneath eight-foot ceilings are walls chock full of trinkets such as cigarette cases, biscuit (cookie) tins, business cards circa 1920. "Yes, I always use Thompson's Manures," proclaims an old poster next to a framed Hank Williams picture.
Mussels cooked in cider are on the menu, but we stick with locally brewed Gales Seafarers Ale. Such is the cross-section of clientele - from ESL students to old men with canes - the mood inside The Basketmakers feels like a family party.
I'm beginning to think I could happily spend the rest of the evening here (if not my life) when Trevor orders us onward.
Why the urgency?
A glance at the free Brighton What's On guide reveals legendary Brighton band The Long Tall Texans are playing at The Prince Albert. According to Trevor, there's time for two more pubs before catching the show.
At The Pond it's hard to miss more than a hundred porcelain chamber pots hanging from the ceiling. Once kept under beds for emergencies in Victorian times, the pots make a low ceiling feel lower and induce several trips to the bathroom.
We leave for The Evening Star, one of only two microbreweries left in Brighton from the 10 that thrived here in the late 19th century. The pub's more interesting brews include an Espresso Stout and Delhi Beli, a tandoori-curry-flavoured beer. I order the latter but the din of conversation is so deafening I get a Dark Star Pale Ale instead. It's probably for the best.
We join crowds of drinkers gathered outside on the sidewalk, where conversation becomes somewhat more coherent again.
Later still, the same cannot be said upstairs at The Prince Albert, where "psychobilly" band The Long Tall Texans are presiding over a writhing mosh pit of middle-aged men.
"We don't play in Britain much any more," the trio's lead singer Mark Carew tells me at the bar later. "We're in Hollywood next month and we play a lot in Europe."
The Prince Albert's owner Chris Steward used to run Brighton's foremost music venue, the Concorde, where stars such as Amy Winehouse started out and bands such as Martha and the Vandellas make their comeback.
Steward took over the Prince Albert a few years ago, providing its first lick of paint in 47 years as part of a 100,000-pound facelift.
"I've seen some amazing gigs here," says Chris's stepson Ollie. "There's never a night without a band. And there's some really weird stuff."
How weird? Ollie thinks for a while.
"We've got a Metallica tribute band coming on the 24th," he tells me. Before I can say "So what?" Ollie adds, "They're two women who play Metallica covers on harps."
"You're kidding," I reply.
"I'm not, they're called Harptallica!"
Just as I'm contemplating such weirdness, I'm distracted by something infinitely more strange propping up the bar.
It's close to last orders now and among the revellers downing the last of their pints is a man wearing a latex horse's head. The fact that he's alone and actually drinking through the horse's mouth appears to bother no one.
"If it's weird, it's here," Trevor says with a smile.
Welcome to Brighton.
If you go ...
- Brighton is 30 minutes drive from London's Gatwick Airport. Brighton is also well connected by rail with regular service to Gatwick and to central London.
For more information about Brighton and trip planning, visit www.visitbrighton.com
- Brighton's dozen best pub names:
The Pub With No Name
The Leek And Winkle
The Joogleberry Playhouse
The Ha Ha
The Bees Mouth
Three Jolly Butchers
Geese Have Gone Over The Water