Smarter by half, says Philip Borne
Britain’s grandest aristocrat, the Duke of Norfolk, lives in West Sussex – and that sets the tone. Even though his very name refers to another county, he would, quite understandably, prefer to live in a castle in West Sussex.
Compare that with East Sussex – it is so common all it lacks is Rod Stewart, Alan Sugar and a few peroxide blonde trouts dancing round a handbag and it could virtually be Essex. Though to be fair it does “boast” Simon Cowell, so maybe it is catching up with the county of white van man.
Socially, East is the Sahara of Sussex – where you could crawl through the sand for parched mile after parched mile for a half decent glass of fizz proffered by a hostess who isn’t called Chardonnay.
The West, in happy contrast, can seem like one long cocktail party. It’s a shame our friends in the East can’t join in, but sadly their invitation was “lost” in the post – it only goes to those with money, and with property prices so much higher in the West, the East Sussexers can’t afford it. Like their East End compatriots, they are sadly a smidgeon more white-sock than black-tie.
Even when it comes to that most egalitarian of professions – that of rock star – West Sussex seems to house Britain’s very rock aristocracy, for if there were a Debrett’s or Burke’s Peerage for crooning surely Bryan Ferry, Roger Daltrey and, more recently, Adele would be the lords and dames of singing.
But I don’t like to be a snob. Well I do actually, but I also want to spell out what else is superior about the West. Think of the architecture – all those lovely flint-stone houses rather than flimsy clap-board cottages in the East (riddled with woodworm, dry rot and mice) that look as if they are about to be blown down by the big bad wolf.
Then there is the countryside – objectively the West is so much less spoilt and more undulating. Anyone who ambles across the South Downs National Park can, for those brief few hours, rest assured there is one remaining corner of Britain which hasn’t been buggered up. The East, alas, can now look more like a housing estate, its last strands of rusticity cowering before the suburbanising bulldozer.
The East, really, is just a bit of scrub-land beyond those “fashionable” coastal centres, Brighton and Hastings. Okay, lets start with Brighton: if you want angry, primitive animals with rings through their noses, go to a cattle auction or Camden Town, where they do the real thing. And the gay scene: I get it, there was loads of nasty discrimination for years and its wonderful people can now be open about their sexuality, but Brighton, please – we are delighted you have come out, but do you think there is any chance at some point you might just quieten down a bit and go back inside, even for five minutes?
Now for Hastings: I’m sorry, but it has got all the joy of a Russian winter, without the fine weather – I simply can’t be doing with those washed up hippies drawing the dole and playing tarot cards who seem to think that smoking weed all day is a job or a vocation, or even interesting.
Contrast that with cultural centres such as Chichester, the only true city in Sussex by the way, until Brighton was awarded some dubious city status a few years back as a gimmick by John Major – with its festival and theatre and all-round chic vibe. This is one of the very few places beyond London where Britain can hold its head high and say “this is an important cultural centre”.
Sadly, East Sussex was always the weakest link – is it any wonder the Normans saw it as our soft-underbelly to invade? We have forgiven them, of course, for letting the side down, but another millennium of modesty from the next door neighbours would be appreciated. Even the county’s most famous tourist attraction – Beachy Head – is a suicide spot.
Don’t get me wrong, there is much I admire about East Sussex: it isn’t Kent, for instance, and forms a useful buffer between us in the West and the county of caravans and Chatham and Saturday night violence. It is probably thanks to the existence of East Sussex that there has been no great movement in West Sussex to build a vast wall, Donald Trump-style. Think of East Sussex, if you will, as a sort of no-man’s land rather like that of the Somme a century before. Perhaps we should meet there once-a-year for a game of football – or, if our friends in the East can stretch to it, something a bit smarter such as polo. We can lend you poor folks the kit.
The more thoughtful choice, says Celia Cartwright
Good grief, I realised our friends in the West could be a bit backward, but reading that I am starting to wonder if the electric telephone or the railway has yet penetrated that distant county, so archaic are the attitudes.
If the good people of West Sussex still want to tug their forelock to the aristocracy, then all I can say is knock yourselves out, enjoy. The Weald, which covered more of East Sussex, has a different, nobler tradition of small farmsteads and indeed of industry and bustle thanks to smelting and iron ore. While you yokels were still busy hanging in the stocks at the pleasure of your lord and master, us stout Yeoman farmers were getting on with making our ways in the world.
You revel in the fact West Sussex is still dominated by great estates, as if it is somehow a good thing that wealth and privilege is horded by a few families and that you are thus excluded from living in vast tracts of your own county. Visiting West Sussex can feel very much like stepping into a Jane Austen novel, without the pretty costumes and the excuse of it being a long time ago. For what it is worth, East Sussex does have aristocrats, but rather than charging round their estates in loud motor cars (I mention no names), toffs such as Lord Gage at Firle paint and promote culture.
I genuinely have no time for snobbery, but if my colleague is going to bang on about how smart they all are over there, I simply have one word for you: Crawley. No offence, BTW – I am sure it is charming, in its way. As for tranquillity – Gatwick anyone? Both these places were in West Sussex last time I looked.
Back East, my friend mentions Brighton. I get that Brighton is only for those who embrace the modern age. If you would feel more comfortable in a Britain of the 1950s where signs proclaimed “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs”, Brighton is not for you. As it happens, I have a gay neighbour and he has brought a real life and fun to our street – with a choice of living between him and Nigel Farage, I know who I would choose.
To your Chichester I trump you with Lewes. Culturally it is every bit as vibrant as Chichester but it has such a warm, friendly feel, full of quirky shops and interesting people. People who read books, for instance (my colleague should try it: it’s another pleasure that’s catching on). I would also throw in Rye, a similarly characterful place full of literary tradition, with arguably the prettiest street in England.
My friend talks of culture, but what of the Bloomsbury Group and the literary festival that continues at Charleston, or Glyndebourne which would surely pass even Mr Borne’s exacting social standards. Dear old Eastbourne has several fine theatres and a strong cultural identity with the wonderful Towner Gallery. He lampoons Hastings but he should celebrate its renaissance, with lives transformed. It also has a growing cultural scene, reflected in another brilliant gallery, The Jerwood.
My friend has the “confidence” – although there are plenty of other words you could replace that with – to mention pop stars. Erm, Mr Borne – ever
heard of Sir Paul McCartney? He used to be in a band which was quite big back in the day. Well, he lives in Peasmarsh. East Sussex. Just sayin’. And while I really don’t obsess about celebrity, every second singer from Noel Gallagher down now seems to live in Brighton.
The East also contains most of our really important monuments, notably Bodiam Castle, the most visited tourist attraction in Britain, and Battle Abbey (profiled in this issue, see page 38). It also has some wonderful gardens, such as Great Dixter. Oh, and what of the Royal Pavilion (note the word “royal” there, Mr Borne)?
As for the countryside, I’m afraid I just laughed. Clearly Mr Borne could never have stood on Firle Beacon, for this is surely not just the loveliest place in Sussex but possibly in England. And compared to the ugly sister of your coastline, we have the Seven Sisters – which is recognised around the world as a symbol of Britain.
I’m afraid West Sussex is for stuffed shirts who can’t quite afford Hampshire – like those wannabe Sloanes who live in Fulham because the City bonus doesn’t stretch to Chelsea.
My colleague writes about Simon Cowell and Essex girls. Well, Katie Price lives in West Sussex having bought a mansion from ex-cabinet Minister Francis Maude – rather shows the way that’s going, doesn’t it? Mr Borne: you must be very proud. Having Jordan round to dinner, are you, with your mate the Duke of Norfolk? Don’t worry old fruit, no danger of that going tits up…