Rewriting history

Photo:North Laine sign

North Laine sign

Photo by North Laine Traders Association

North Laine or North Laines?

By Sarah Wright, North Laine resident

The idea of community

During the 1960s North Laine was almost entirely derelict and despite a desperate homelessness problem throughout Brighton most of the properties in the area were awaiting demolition as part of the national slum clearance programme. By the 1980s political favour had swung towards 'urban renewal' and North Laine emerged as a locality in which strong-minded and articulate residents developed a confident and clearly defined presence. Could this be described as a 'community'?

Resurrecting an old name

The term 'North Laine', as it is used to describe this part of central Brighton today, is a scholarly area reference, reflecting the historical awareness of its residents, but the resurrection of this old name is a comparatively recent event. In this context, 'laine' refers to a local 18th century measurement of land. In addition to North Laine, the downland around Brighton's coastline was broken up into West, East, Hilly and Little Laines, all eventually overtaken by development. A 'laine' is therefore not a 'lane' in its familiar modern sense but quite a sizeable field or chunk of land, unlike the more twisted network of medieval streets known as 'The Lanes', with which it is often confused.

A current change

However, it is interesting to note a current change that is rapidly entering the popular culture. When a few years ago a woman, obviously a stranger, asked me where the 'other' lanes were, I was unable to enlighten her. But puzzling this over afterwards... lanes? ...lanes? ...aha, I thought, she means North Laine - nothing more annoying than thinking of of the right answer too late.

In fact North Laine's local community paper, the North Laine Runner, has been campaigning against this generalisation for some years, but despite this 'North Laines' seem here to stay!

Remaking history

This may not appear significant in casual speech but the next stage is that this popular amendment starts to be endorsed by new lettering on local shops and pubs. This is remaking history!

But what is the nature of the change that has been brought about by just one letter? Apparently a matter of casual convenience, of conferring a new title that has a generally accepted and understood form - in other words, by pressure of popular usage - the ancient and arguably more interesting meaning of the word has been buried for no better reason than to bring North Laine into line with 'The Lanes', already a familiar part of local tourism, and the populist idea of history.

Nevertheless, this is to a lesser or greater degree, rightly or wrongly, at least a process that has developed as a result of everyday usage; and all through history this is the way that representations of locations and events have changed shape and identity.

Promotion of the area as a conservation area

In the mid 1970s Kenneth Fines, then Borough Planning Officer for Brighton, pronounced that:

"the Council should be concerned with preserving the best of Brighton's Victorian heritage ... The North Laine area .... has a distinctive intimate character ..." [North Laine Runner, December 1992:2]

And so in December 1975 a small group of residents living around North Road met to consider the possibilities of promoting the locality as a conservation area.

In 1976, in a district already renowned for its specialist trade, the Body Shop opened its first outlet in Kensington Gardens. In the same year the North Road Runner (the first name for the Community Association's newsletter) was renamed the North LAINE Runner and a newly established tradition - to change the future by cooperative action - was well under way.

He poured scorn on the idea

Adam Trimingham, columnist for the local Evening Argus, poured scorn on the idea, later feeling obliged (North Laine Runner, December 1992:4) to retract his statement:

"Back in the mid 1970s when the North Laine conservation area was first proposed, I wrote a piece headlined 'It's tatty tour time' in the Evening Argus, saying that it would never work. Fancy, I sneered, trying to make a conservation area out of a district with so much dereliction and tat. Well, some of the dereliction and tat is still there but now the area has a pride in itself and a zest that was not there before."

The North Laine Community Association, which arose from the conservation area proposals, is the main reason for all that. It was really the first modern association of its kind in Brighton and it has worn well.

[Previously published in the 'North Laine Runner', No 116, July/August 1995. The article was based on extracts from an essay by Sarah Wright on 'North Laine: Political and Populist Historicism and the Idea of Community - the Life History of a Place and its Residents'.]

This page was added on 31/07/2008.

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