My adopted hometown of Brighton and Hove has always had a somewhat well-to-do image, it’s fair to say. Though we have pockets of poverty, I was surprised by the size of the houses and gardens — room for a pony! — when I started going to house parties on the notorious Whitehawk estate. The old Cockney phrase ‘You think your aunt’s come up from Brighton!’ to denote a person who is free and easy with their money pays tribute to this agreeable state of affairs.
But although B&H may appear affluent, it hasn’t really been posh since the Prince Regent pushed off. There’s always been something disreputable and no better than it should be about the money washing about here, coming as it does from every ne’er-do-well from theatricals to gangsters — as the late longtime resident Keith Waterhouse put it, ‘Brighton looks as though it is a town helping the police with their enquiries.’ Even our most famous peer — Lord Olivier of Brighton — was a bisexual actor married to an insane nymphomaniac; hardly the stuff of Debrett’s.
My husband has lived in Brighton since he was a tot, and says that it was always a pretty mixed place, class-wise. Until a few years back, that is, when the voices of the young people in pubs and clubs just got posher and posher. These are generally students from Sussex University — one of several institutions of higher and further education in a relatively small place — which, from being a hotbed of revolution in earlier times, has now become very ‘social’.
And they’re the most irritating type of young toff — the kind who think they’re carefree hippies, but are even more entitled and unapologetic about their privilege than their parents. I call them the Shrieking Violets, as they often have Victorian parlourmaid names: Violet, Lily, Daisy.
Because of all the college and university education going on here, buy-to-let is having a real moment in Brighton, with landlords cramming as many students as they can into houses built for one family — not just around the universities and centre but right up into the suburbs of the city. I’ve had many friends who’ve suffered from student neighbours over the past few years — the usual eardrum-busting music and knock-down rows from 9 (p.m.) till 5 (a.m.) — but never as nastily as what kicked off in my best friend’s street last month.
My friend, who is disabled, bought a three-bedroomed house in a fairly rundown but respectable neighbourhood in 2009 with money that her mother left her, having lived in council houses for most of her adult life. She, her shy young daughter and her severely disabled son were delighted to have a bit of space at last, with even a small concrete yard at the back. At first there were only a few student houses in the street, but within a couple of years the families on either side of them moved out due to the rubbish and the noise — these houses were then snapped up by beady-eyed buy-to-let landlords who promptly set about turning three–bedroom family homes into six-bedroom student hovels, and the dastardly domino effect of scholar-squalor just kept on going.
By the time the unpleasantness took place, around a quarter of the unfortunate houses in the street played host to almost 100 students. There had already been a few weary years of the usual yahoo-ing in the early hours of the morning and repeated protests from the non-student residents that they had to get up for work in a few hours — but the Violets kept on shrieking, to the extent that families with young children were taking the extreme step of booking into hotels when big bashes were imminent. Then the male counterparts — the Gileses and Mileses — starting urinating over non-student cars and doorsteps, targeting those who had the temerity to complain. The message was clear — this is our territory now.
In the early hours of a weekday morning in December, my friend went into her backyard and shouted over the fence at her Shrieking Violet neighbours and their incontinent swains — celebrating a 21st birthday so noisily that items were literally falling from the shelves in her house — to keep the racket down. They chucked garden furniture, beer cans and bottles over the fence at her — and then the real nastiness began.
On their front doorstep, posh drunken students taunted my friend and her daughter with lovely bon mots such as ‘What are you qualified for — working at Morrisons?’ ‘What will you amount to, you lower-class slag?’ ‘This is a student street now — move out if you don’t like the noise!’
When a young father from a nearby house came out to remonstrate with them, a gang of the male students surrounded him, headbutted him and punched him in the face.
The one good thing to come from this vile incident was that due to the police involvement in the assault, Sussex University have warned the students in this particular street not to have any more parties, so my friend and her family are experiencing the wonder of unbroken sleep for the first time in years.
I know that the Shrieking Violets are not any more typical of students than Charlie Gilmour, who famously swung from the Cenotaph while off his chump on drugs, calling himself an anarchist while having recently swanked ‘I’ve always loved good-quality clothing. My parents said that if I got into Cambridge they would buy me a Savile Row suit.’
But it is ironic that the terrorising of ordinary people in their own homes — which should be the safest space of all — has come to fruition at the same time as cry-bullies on campuses across the land are acting like tinpot tyrants towards anyone who dares to dis-agree with them.