One fine day in 1953, a Frenchman brought his five-year old son to Brighton. The father said Au revoir, gave the boy a peck on the cheek – at most – and then left him. In an old people’s home. These are the facts given at the beginning of Les Vieillards de Brighton [The Old Folk of Brighton] written by Gonzague Saint Bris and published in 2002.
The narration is set in the former French Convalescent Home in Kemp Town. However, the text shows that it is unlikely that Saint Bris knew the building well. It seems more likely that he saw the Convalescent Home once, perhaps only fleetingly, but was so impressed by it that he determined to set his novel in and around the building. There is little doubt that Les Vieillards de Brighton is a work of fiction, but an imaginative and absorbing one at that.
The book opens with the sentence: Enfant, j’habitais Londres où mon père était un jeune attaché d’ambassade. [As I child, I lived in London where my father was a young attaché in the embassy.]
So far, so good. Gonzague Marie Joseph Vincent François Saint Bris was born in 1948 into a not particularly ancient or particularly aristocratic family. Count Hubert Saint Bris, Gonzague’s father, was a junior diplomat in London and would have been about 37 years old at the time of our story.
The author admits j’avais un caractère difficile [I was a bad-tempered child]. Perhaps the time had come to separate him from his younger siblings, Edouard and François. Bernard, the Saint Bris’s fourth child would be born the following year in 1954. Another reason for shipping the awkward youngster off to Brighton?
Father and son set off for Brighton in their fine, French, car. (A very stylish Renault Frégate, if you need to know.) The child’s first impression of the town was not particularly favourable:
Brighton, une ville élégante mais qui fait peur par sa distinction froide; des villas telles qu’on les imagine chez Agatha Christie … [Brighton is an elegant town, but its cold refinement is frightening; its villas are like those you imagine in Agatha Christie …]
The day after his understandably traumatic arrival in these alien surroundings, the child in the narrative is able to look at the building in which he finds himself:
ce faux petit château de style Tudor en front de mer de la plus belle cite balnéaire du Royaume-Uni, dans une magnifique perspective de façades Regency, pouvait-il cacher tant de misère? De l’extérieur avec son perron de pierre, ses hautes fenêtres, ses murs gris rehaussés de brique rose, ce manoir néo-gothique semblait l’heureuse demeure d’un gentilhomme. [how could this fake little Tudor country house on the seafront of the most beautiful resort in the United Kingdom conceal so much misery? From the outside, with its stone porch steps, its high windows and its walls picked out in pink brick, this neo-Gothic manor house looked very much the cheerful residence of a country squire.]
Even if you know Brighton well, you might have trouble reconciling the description above with the building as pictured below.
Ironically, most Brightonians consider the Brighton French Convalescent Home to be in the style of a French chateau, but there is no doubt as to the identity of the old folks’ home (to use mid-20th century language) where Saint Bris sets his memoir. The author describes the building as being:
sur « De Courcel Road ». C’était le nom d’un ambassadeur français, Alphonse de Courcelles, qui s’était penché sur le sort des vieux et avait créé cette maison de convalescence en 1890. [in De Courcel Road. That was the name of a French ambassador, Alphonse de Courcelles, who had pondered the fate of old people and created this convalescent home in 1890.]
At this point, fiction rather starts to take precedence over fact. The first bending of the facts is that Alphonse de Courcel (not Courcelles) ‘created’ the Convalescent Home. He laid the foundation stone in 1898, yes, but the impetus and hard work came from the trustees and employees of the French Hospital in London. The money came from the French government (to the tune of £4,000), from the Baroness de Hirsch (£1,000) as well as from many, smaller voluntary donations.
Despite many insignificant errors in the book, there is much that still sounds authentic.
Le plan de la ville (de Brighton) fut calqué sur celui des terrasses de John Nash autour de Regent’s Park à Londres… La laiterie de la falaise de Black Rock, ayant subi un glissement de terrain, ses bâtiments s’inclinaient dangereusement. Je demandai … de pousser jusque-là, car je savais qu’après le pub, un peu plus haut, il y avait une boutique de bonbons avec ses sucres d’orge couleur de rose dont je raffolais. [The plan of the town (of Brighton) was based on that of John Nash’s terraces round Regents Park in London… The dairy on the cliff at Black Rock had suffered from an earth slip, so its buildings tilted at a dangerous angle. I asked … if I could go that far as I knew that beyond the pub, a little further on, there was a sweet shop with the pink barley twists which I loved.]
The reference to ‘the dairy on the cliff at Black Rock’ poses a problem if the events are supposed to have taken in the early 1950s. The 1925 photo below shows the group of buildings the narrator mentions: Black Rock House on the left, the rather small Abergavenny Arms pub in the middle, the tall building on the right being the Cliff Creamery. What Saint Bris, as author, had not realised was that ll the buildings in this photo had been demolished by the mid-1930s to make way for the new coast road to Rottingdean. The simply did not exist in the 1950s when the book was set.
The 1925 photo above shows Black Rock House on the left, the rather small Abergavenny Arms pub in the middle, the tall building on the right being the Cliff Creamery. All the buildings in this photo had been demolished by the mid-1930s to make way for the new coast road to Rottingdean and did not exist in the 1950s.
It is now very clear that the author is working from, not just guidebooks, but ancient guidebooks at that. It becomes great fun to spot the anachronisms and errors throughout the book. Let’s begin at the beginning.
Describing his very early days in London, the author comments on having seen tiny Prince Charles waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The young Gozague, being much the same age, waved back.
Tout cela aurait pu être une charmante histoire, avec les casquettes bleu et jaune de notre école, la St Philip’s School. [This could all have been a lovely story, with the blue and yellow caps of our school, St Philip’s.]
The boys of St Philip’s Preparatory School in Kensington still wear a very fetching uniform of powder blue with a yellow badge. The school is less than half a mile from the Exhibition Road, home of the Saint Bris family (according to Gonzague), and even nearer to the French consulate where the father worked. The present Bursar of the school who kindly answered my enquiry could find no record of any child named Saint Bris in the school’s archive. Clearly the uniform had attracted the young Gonzague’s attention and stuck in his memory when, as an adult, he wrote the book.
But back to Brighton. We can now happily assume that the narrative is a fiction and continue to enjoy spotting the inconsistencies as a gentle game.
First, the layout of the old folks’ home:
la petite chapelle située sur le côté gauche du jardin … les couleurs presque pimpantes de ses boiseries, rose et vert pâle, ses vitraux en ogives, le petit autel … la statue de saint George avec sa belle armure, ses cheveux blonds bouclés, son poing énergique tenant la lance qui transperçait le dragon. [The little chapel to the left of the garden … (with) its decorative woodwork painted in almost startling pink and pale green, its stained glass windows in their Gothic window frames, the small altar … the statue of St George in his fine armour, his fair curly hair and his mighty fist holding the lance as it runs the dragon through.]
The building in De Courcel Road is now no longer either a convalescent home or a retirement home. In 2007 it was converted into 14 luxury flats and the property is being carefully maintained, as it deserves. However, the conversion does not disguise the fact that the ‘Gothic window frames’ are on the right-hand side of the garden, not the left. Alas, all trace of the interior fittings of the chapel have vanished. The space has become ‘Apartment 4, The French Apartments, De Courcel Road, Brighton’.
However, the clinching detail which reveals that the author / narrator did not know the building well is the description of the ‘driveway’. After the child has been in the old folk’s home for a while, both parents arrive to pay him an all-too-short visit. He is naturally distressed as he watches them leave:
la Frégate s’éloignait dans l’allée ocre qui conduisait à De Courcelles Road … La Frégate avait viré à gauche au-delà de la grille. [The Fregate disappearing along the ochre coloured avenue which lead to De Courcel Road … the car had turned left out of the tall gates]
The photo below, of the north side of the building, was taken in May 2020. It is quite evident that there could never have been an avenue of trees between the property and the road. There were no massive gates shutting him in. But importantly, we can feel for the child. As a metaphor for his unhappiness, the sentence is very evocative, as is much of the sensitive writing of what we must now call The Novel. Perhaps Gonzague Saint Bris’s memory was of the nearby entrance posts to Lewes Crescent.
Apart from inaccurate references to the building, other little quirks creep into the narrative. For example, lighthouse enthusiasts might well criticise the statement which claims that:
À l’horizon, apparaissait parfois un phare rouge et blanc dans l’opale des eaux [on the horizon a red and white beam would occasionally appear across the opaline waters.]
Neither Beachy Head nor Shoreham Lighthouse can be seen from Black Rock in Brighton and the light beam from each is white. But what a beautiful sentence in French. The rhythm of the words far outweighs the historical inaccuracies.
Other parts of Sussex are not spared anachronistic reference:
le Bluebell Railway, ce vieux train à vapeur dont le parcours de Sheffield Park à Horsted Keynes le remplissait de nostalgie. [The Bluebell Railway, the old stream train which, on its route between Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes, overcame him with nostalgia]
Trains on what is now the Bluebell Railway section of the former London, Brighton and South Coast Railway ran as a normal, public service between East Grinstead and Lewes until 1955. The Bluebell Railway did not open until 1959. But does it matter? Let’s hope that French readers will be inspired to come to Sussex to take a trip on at least one of our wonderful heritage railways.
The ‘memoir’ is full of extraordinary characters that the child meets. They are mainly eccentrics, fascinating creations, but entirely from the imagination of Gonzague Saint Bris. Read the book if you can (unfortunately there is no English translation). Sympathise with the child. Enjoy a quirky view of Brighton. Revel in the bizarre dramatis personae. But please don’t think of this book as anything more than work of fiction.
Footnote: Gonzague Saint Bris was killed in a road accident in Normandy. He died on the night of 8 August 2017. He was 69 years old.