by Mary Reed
How about this for a chilling opening to a novel?
Hale knew they meant to murder him before he had been in Brighton three hours.
Thus begins Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, set during the 1930s in the darkest corners of the cheerful, somewhat vulgar British seaside resort, and a novel that has become, and rightly so, a noir classic.
But what about the titular rock?
Well, it’s a cylindrical stick of that hard, pink, sticky peppermint-flavoured confectionery as much a part of British seaside trips or holidays as kiss-me-quick hats, a boat trip round the harbour, or a paper cone of winkles with a pin to, er, winkle the salty treats out of their shells.
And let’s not forget Walmington-on-Sea’s Novelty Rock Emporium in the much-loved Dad’s Army sitcom! The Emporium’s stock was never shown but I suspect some was similar to the novelty rock I purchased in Blackpool. It was formed in the shape of small bananas, apples, and oranges, presented in a papier-mache punnet identical to those in which supermarkets sell mushrooms or strawberries.
Unlike Edinburgh rock, a soft, crumbly sweetie, you had to be extremely careful of your teeth when chowing down on a stick of rock. We took ours home unnibbled and smash it with the poker, that handy household implement also useful for opening coconuts once their milk was drained out via holes made with a hammered-in screwdriver. Ah, the joys of innocent childhood!
The abiding mystery was how the name of the resort could be written in miniscule letters inside the entire length of the stick of rock, a feature used to great effect in Greene’s book. After one character observes that people change, there comes the reply:
“Oh, no, they don’t. Look at me. I’ve never changed.It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.”
Brighton Rock is a dark work to say the least. The 1947 black and white film is a magnificent effort but to my mind spoiled with a different and much less effective ending than the novel (no spoilers here…move along…nothing to see). Even so and bearing that in mind, it’s still well worth seeing for the stellar performances of Richard Attenborough as the young gang leader Pinkie Brown and Carol Marsh as Rose, his hapless girlfriend and later wife.