Knock On Any Door: Chronicling C20th life in Tarner, Brighton

Posted on 17/04/2012 by


A 200-page book that chronicles 20th century life in a neighbourhood that Graham Greene once called Brighton’s shabby secret will be launched on April 18th 2012. It is part of a two week long exhibition at the Fishing Quarter Gallery situated on the city’s sea front between the two piers.

Funded by Heritage Lottery, Knock On Any Door grew out of the work of a Brighton community centre that has been serving the unemployed and low waged for 30 years. A team of volunteers based at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project were trained in oral history interviewing and talked to past and present residents of Tarner, an area in central Brighton next to the Pavilion that visitors to the south coast city usually pass by.

Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 gangster novel, was partly set in Tarner and played a significant role in creating a dark and dangerous image for Brighton as a whole and for the Tarner area in particular. Greene later admitted, however, that he was guilty of “manufacturing this Brighton of mine.” One interviewee is still angry by the way Tarner has been dismissed as a slum area. “They talk as if we’re a different race – we’re not,” says Beryl Tucknott.

The book’s title comes from the advice given to children in wartime Brighton if they were away from home when the air raid siren sounded. The area was badly bombed and a school clinic and cinema took a direct hit. ‘It also sums up what we’ve been doing,’ says project leader Jess Huffman. ’Oral History projects are all about knocking on doors to find a story.’

Richly illustrated with photographs of past and present Tarner, Knock On Any Door will be distributed to schools and libraries. “Some history books give the impression that the past was black and white or sepia,” says Chloe Howley, the project leader who has taken responsibility for the book’s design. “Our team of volunteer photographers have been out on the streets recording the fine detail of ordinary life to produce a book that’s colourful and vibrant, something you want to pick up. We’ve also had wonderful donations of photographs.”

Writer in residence Bridget Whelan has edited hundreds of hours of interviews. ‘It was an extraordinary experience. The hairs on the back of my neck lifted when I read the transcripts for the first time. You meet one interviewee as a cheeky eight year old fighting off ambulance men when he tested positive for diphtheria because he knows it’s a killer disease. Next you see him jitterbugging on the Palace Pier in the moonlight and delivering a baby in the blackout. I’m a novelist and there’s material for a dozen novels here.’

Based at the Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project, Tarner Stories is a community confidence and skills building project exploring the changing landscape and culture of this central, yet marginalized area of Brighton. Through interviewing, creative writing, photography and art workshops Tarner Stories is creating a permanent record of the area and its people for future generations. More about the project and the work of Tarner Stories, including oral history audio clips is on-line at

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