Abandoned Brighton

The Dalai Lama tweeted back in 2013, "If you have too much expectation, you may come away disappointed."

The fact that I'm actively taking life advice from a global spiritual leader on his Twitter account is almost as millennial as spending £18 on smashed avo on toast with a side of vegan bacon. 

When I first read this Tweet, I was 18, and going through what I now like to call my Blue Period. If Picasso has one, I can have one too, goddamnit! My Blue Period was a time of immense mental suffering, lots of self-harming habits, stress eating (and bingeing) and general unhappiness. It was July, winter in Australia, and I can remember it being bleak.

I took a picture of the reflection of a tree in my chai tea outside of an art gallery in South Melbourne with my art school friends. It was the end of my semester (from hell), I was trying to channel Wolfgang Tillmans, and I had also said no to a side of honey with my tea because I was trying to be vegan.

As I carefully took a sip of my scalding tea, the pixelated advice from the Dalai Lama popped up on my small smartphone screen. Miniature in size, but profound in wisdom. I realised, in that moment, that a lot of the unhappiness I was experiencing was the result of unrealistic expectations.

Expectations are something that are thrust upon us at a young age. We develop and learn to expect situations to unravel the way we envision. 

The first time I became consciously aware of what having an expectation meant was on an Easter family holiday in the late 1990s. We were living in Western Australia, and my parents would pile my younger brother, myself, and our two dogs (Misty and Charlie) into our 4x4 Datsun with a hand-painted map of Australia on the back marking all the points we had lived or travelled to together around the continent. 

We were driving down dusty red-earth roads to a caravan park. Mum had shown me printed out images of a luxurious looking "grotto pool" that we would be able to swim in with our floatation devices (floaties, as we called them) that were just as puffy as my baby fat cheeks. However, upon arrival, the grotto pool didn't look quite so magical and mysterious - like one expects a grotto to look - in real life. I was disappointed. In fact, I probably threw a tantrum about it, to be honest. The wide-angle lens the photographer used for the image in the brochure successfully deceived my young eyes. 

I’m a daydreamer at heart, and it’s easy for my mind to fall in love and run off with a story that might not entirely be true. After being continually disappointed by my high level of expectation about literally everything - my first kiss was nowhere near as eloquent as Disney made me believe, those bastards - I decided to take the Dalai Lama's advice on board.

My new life motto became: “Enjoy something for how it presents itself to you, stop getting disappointed by a false reality you made up inside your head.”

My newfound wisdom served me well. Travel became more enjoyable. Reality became a great story, even better than what my mind could conjure up. But every now and then, I would visit a place I had thrust those pesky expectations on as a teenager. All you need to do is read my memoir about Paris to know how terrified I was of the one place I had dreamed about most not living up to my ideals.

One of those places is Brighton. My interest in the city was sparked after one of my ex-boyfriends used to play songs by The Kooks to me on his guitar through Skype. He lived in the next country town over from me. We met in a cheap department store. It was obviously true love. He’d call me after school and sing, “About your hair, you needn't care, you look beautiful all the time,” the lyrics seeping through the family laptop all tinny-sounding and lacking base notes.

The Kooks are from Brighton, and I can remember Googling the city while I was busy obsessing over Luke, the lead singer. It was around the time when Tumblr became a bit of a thing. My fame and notoriety definitely peaked (lol) on the platform, and I found myself reblogging every grainy old film photo of the pier onto my page. It made its way onto my travel bucket list very quickly. I imagined myself running along the shoreline hand in hand with a boy in a black jacket sweeping in the wind. Faces red where the wind whipped against our cheeks, laughing a lot, and a little sweaty from a packed pub gig with pints.

My friend Ashley came to visit me a few weeks ago and I saw it as the perfect opportunity to book two spontaneous bus tickets down to the seaside village. She was wanting to explore the country, I just needed to get out of London and see the ocean for the first time in six months.

Ashley and I met because I decided to sneak into the hostel she was living at in Taupo, New Zealand. At the time I was living out of a car, or as my brother and cousins liked to say in our group chat, I was somewhat homeless. By choice, of course.

I desperately needed a shower, and all of the public facilities were closed by 5pm. A German backpacker I met over chocolate milkshakes in McDonald’s told me I could come back to her hostel to freshen up. After a resurrecting shower, I joined the hostel guests in the common room which is where I was introduced to Ashley.

We clicked right away through our mutual interest in photography, and ended up several shots deep at 2am in the local club covered in glitter and UV paint a mere few hours after meeting.

We took the bus to Brighton painfully early, head-drunk from our late night dancing shenanigans with my colleagues from Facebook at some overpriced bar in the city where eighteen-year-olds came to spend mummy and daddy's hard earned cash on booze and dresses in order to impress each other.

The extent of my knowledge of the city, beyond the fact that The Kooks originated there, was as follows:

  • There’s a cool pier with a fun fair at the end of it. Like Coney Island, but British.

  • It’s apparently great for vintage shopping.

  • The beaches are made from pebbles instead of sand… which is kinda weird.

  • A lot of photographers I like, live in or visit the city regularly.

Camera in hand - as it always is - I had in mind a particular set of images I wanted to create from my visit, based on my expectations and weird nostalgia, of course. As chance would have it, instead of the angsty, moody images I sought out to capture, I ended up producing the series of work in this post. A somewhat abandoned Brighton with a whimsical post-apocalyptic feel. Like if Wes Anderson directed a horror film.

About halfway down the pier, I turned to Ashley and said, "Don't you think it is just bizarre how there seems to be no one else here?" It was that moment that the lightbulb switched on and I thought - this is a body of work just begging to be created. All my expectations flew out the window and I allowed myself to be engrossed in reality.

Travel, PhotographyCarolyn West