The haunting hills of the Cuckmere Valley have gripped my imagination. I see them in my dreams and think of them everyday, rain or shine. With the lights of clusters of houses and the odd inn in sight, they aren’t far from civilisation, but still possess the mystique of an uninhabited island. The valley isn’t as desolate and bleak as the Yorkshire moors, but feels powerfully empty. Walkers go about their business, lovers indulge in their quarrels, high-spirited men display their bravado by confronting the cows grazing in peace on the hillside- and the river flows undisturbed into the sea, a quiet spectator to all our melodrama.
On Sunday, we walked down the trail at Seven Sisters Park, following the roughly-hewn (or made to appear so for aesthetics) wooden signs all the way to the beach. The sun had just begun to set and though the chalk cliffs and the clouds conspired to block it out, we could still see a thin rosy rim on the horizon. The gurgle of the stream harmonised with the splash of the serene waves on the pebbled beach- never has any music more beautiful than this been created. The wind rose and fell, carrying with it the petulant cries of various birds. Time stood still and it felt like a return to something we’d known earlier but forgotten over the years. We sat down on the pebbles, resting our tired legs and skipping stones on the water where the river met the sea. The only sounds we heard were those of nature until an aeroplane flew by, cutting crudely into our reverie. The spectacular white faces of the chalk cliffs rose on either side of where we sat loath to leave. The sea, having provided a brilliant display of colour all day, going from green to blue to grey in a few short hours, began to merge with the sky as the shadows lengthened. If I ever write fiction, I know this is where the scenes will have to be played out. All the horror stories I’ve written in my head now have a name for their backdrop. How can a place be brooding and invigorating at once?
The wind played games with us again on our walk back to the bus stop, just like it had the last time we were here. The rain stayed away though, and we were spared the solicitude we’d felt on our previous visit all the young women in Victorian literature who had to run away from home and negotiate harsh conditions in long skirts and corsets (think Jane Eyre!). An added cheerer-upper came in the form of the news that India had managed to get the better of Pakistan in the Asia Cup tie- however, considering that both my companions were Pakistani, I stayed placid and contented myself with a discreet mental fist-pump.
The bus ride to Seven Sisters had followed a sunny, delightful morning at Brighton. The beach wasn’t too crowded for a Sunday and we had plenty of time on our hands. Crossing the road at one point, we spotted a man whom my companions recognized as the actor James McAvoy, walking with his wife and carrying his son on his shoulders. Brighton, I’m told, is a good choice if you want to run into celebrities. The people I’d really like to meet are mostly long-dead writers- but the ghost walk we intend to go on one of these days will probably offer me the opportunity I’m looking for. Surely Kipling is still attached to pretty little Rottingdean where he once lived? We stopped on the edge of the town briefly to walk on the hillside, and then to climb down on the beach to observe the seaweed-covered limestone rocks at close quarters. Not too far from here, the Greenwich Meridian reaches its southernmost point in Britain at Peacehaven.
Three years ago, Singapore was the place I wanted to live in forever. I found it a lovely city to walk in, and on certain days looked forward to nothing more than getting lost among crowds of people, secure in the knowledge that there was always an MRT station at hand if I‘d had enough oblivion. Fresh from small towns, I enjoyed living in a city of skyscrapers and important people, where everything assumed the tremendous magnitudes I‘d only read or heard of. I fell thoroughly in love with it and I haven’t got over it. Brighton now rubs shoulders with it. I can’t explain the charm of Brighton- it is to be seen to be thoroughly understood. The aura of mystery and the underbelly of depravity that Graham Greene attributed to it in Brighton Rock are almost palpable; there is an old-world feel to the town, evident in the psychedelic lights on the pier and the vibrant life that masks and overpowers the private lives of its inhabitants. It is so compact that you see the same people more than once at the same places. Walls embellished with street art jostle with Regency buildings. You can almost see the dalliances and read the epic stories, superimpose them on the lives of ordinary people on the streets and imbue them as you will with the fantasy of pulp fiction or satire or the classics. Being here is like living in a book (and it is certainly not Julian Barnes’ England, England)- and I’m in no hurry to come to the last page yet. Seven months on, I still feel like a wide-eyed schoolgirl- all the years of reading have done their job thoroughly. Reality can wait.