On certain bank holiday weekends the seaside soundscape of Brighton – surf-on-shingle, raucous herring gulls – is augmented by the rackety putt-putt of two-stroke engines. The city remains one of the prime rallying destinations of mods, and they have been rolling into town on their scooters for well over half a century. Once, their arrival, along with their subcultural nemeses, the rockers, would have been dreaded. Some locals fretted that the violent, amphetamine-fuelled melees on the seafront – in which the rivals whaled on one another with deckchairs and any other makeshift weaponry which came to hand – harmed the town’s standing as a place for innocent fun and healthful leisure. Proclaiming this sort of wholesomeness betrays a dubious civic self-image. Free associate on the town’s name and ‘dirty weekend’ won’t take long to come up, and complaints about intemperance date back to at least 1805 when Eleanor Creevey wrote to her husband Thomas about visiting the Prince Regent at the Royal Pavilion:
Oh, this wicked Pavilion! We were there till half past one this morning, and it has kept me in bed with the headache till 12 today. The invitation did not come to us till 9 o’clock: we went in Lord Thurlow’s carriage, and were in fear of being too late; but the Prince did not come out of the dining-room till 11 […] When the Prince appeared, I instantly saw he had got more wine than usual, and it was still more evident that the German Baron was extremely drunk.
Queen Victoria never liked the place (she was the last royal owner of the Pavilion and got shot of it in 1850) or its people (‘very indiscreet and troublesome’). The town’s reputation wasn’t much better in the early part of the 20th century. Precisely confirming Victoria’s assessment of the populace, in 1902 Rudyard Kipling gave up his house in nearby Rottingdean after a skeevy Brighton coach operator started offering day-trippers rides to catch glimpses of the great man in his garden from the top of a horse-drawn double-decker. Patrick Hamilton’s The West Pier and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock both dwelt on the place’s abundant seedy aspects. It seems likely that it was a condition of the town’s council that, for allowing location shooting for the 1948 film of Greene’s book, the producers should include this disclaimer after the title sequence:
Brighton today is a large, jolly, friendly seaside town in Sussex, exactly one hour’s journey from London. But in the years between the two wars, behind the Regency terraces and crowded beaches there was another Brighton of dark alleyways and festering slums. From here, the poison of crime and violence and gang warfare began to spread, until the challenge was taken up by the Police. This is a story of that other Brighton – now happily no more.
Unfortunate commuters would take issue with ‘exactly one hour’ and that ‘happily no more’ proved unwarrantedly hopeful. Within a few years the police had to rise to the challenge again. One of the bigger scuffles between mods and rockers occurred in Brighton during the spring bank holiday of 1964, and this became the setting for a central sequence in Quadrophenia (1979), the film roughly derived from The Who’s album of the same name. The release of the movie coincided with probably the largest of the mod movement’s serial revivals and it became a touchstone for the new mod generation. A very specific site of pilgrimage is the alley where Jimmy (Phil Daniels) and Steph (Leslie Ash) have a hectic upright coupling after retreating from the seafront battle. The alley has been informally rebranded, and gives its name to a long-standing mod outfitters on its north side.
Elsewhere in Brighton the mod economy thrives too. Local clubs capitalise on the bank holiday weekenders, and Quadrophenia Alley is just one of a number of boutiques selling The Look.
An indication that mod is a subculture defined by a particular slice of modernism, which now amounts to nostalgia, is evident in the shop shown below. Not explicitly part of the scene, the store specialises in mid-century homewares, it acknowledges an allegiance that is – at least – mod-adjacent, being marked with one of the tribe’s shibboleths, the RAF roundel.
The old enemy has faded away, or at least, their designation has. One still sees the rocker uniform occasionally – Brylcreemed quiff, leathers, denim, pudding-basin helmet – but almost everyone would now call these hold-outs bikers. On bank holiday weekends the only two-wheeled tribe rivalling the mods is the local chapter of the biggest bike brigade in the world, the food delivery riders.
Without an active foe, the mods have become entirely peaceable and residents no longer worry when they ride mob-handed into town. These days the neighbourhood threat comes from two other fearsome out-of-town gangs: the hens and the stags.
¶ Sources. The excerpt from Eleanor Creevey’s letter is taken from Chapter III of The Creevey Papers. ¶ Images. Any images included in this post may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license.