Ambulances and ASDA vans: a night on Bear Road

Once more the sound of crying
Is number one across the earth

‘The Sound of Crying’, Prefab Sprout, 1992

Wednesday 25 March 2020. Seven o’clock in the evening.

It is 48 hours since Boris Johnson announced the government’s new restrictions on people leaving their houses. Staying in is the new going out. In such a short space of time everything, it seems, has changed. I am thinking about how to spend my permitted time outside of my house for today’s exercise break. This is not unusual. I routinely finish a day’s work in my home office and then procrastinate about where to go for a run. But this is unusual. There are different things to consider and navigate now. Things I would usually take for granted. Spaces, times, and ways and speeds of movement. As someone who researches and writes about how other people access and/or are excluded from social spaces, I have become the object of my own analytical gaze. I start to ask and answer my own questions. Can I avoid other people and maintain social distancing? How far and for how long can I go out? I need to do something new. I need to go somewhere else. I decide to walk up Bear Road.

I was born in Brighton and have lived here for forty-two-and-a-half years. I have driven up and down Bear Road hundreds of times. I have strolled and run up and down sections of it. I have never walked all the way up. It is one of the longest and steepest hills in the city. Too long, too boring, too difficult I have always said to myself. Why bother? Time for a change. Tonight’s the night. I leave my house, step into the empty streets, and head to the Vogue Gyratory. I cross Lewes Road and look up Bear Road. Its peak, which would be out of sight even in daylight, seems so distant. It really is steep! Here goes.

Walking by night, perhaps obviously, contrasts to walking by day. You may see less detail but alternative senses are invoked. Sights and sounds I wouldn’t normally stop to consider resonate in new ways. They are accentuated by the current environment we are living in.

At the bottom of the hill I pass The Bear pub. Like all others, it is closed for the foreseeable future. I think about the livelihoods of its owners and employees, and how those who use it – who need it – as a source of sociability are coping without it. Pubs all around here have closed down or been gentrified over recent years, including The Newmarket Arms which once stood further up the road. How will the service economy fare after this crisis? How will lives that relied on a daily pint return to normal?

Over the wall, to the left as you face upwards, the bus garage stands quiet. Buses return home periodically. Each one I will see tonight has no more than a single passenger on board. They all seem to be sitting right at the back. Together with the drivers, I am reminded that the choice and ability to “stay at home” is a privilege not afforded to all workers.

After the Riley Road turn-off, Bear Road becomes primarily residential. It is just like most other streets in this part of Brighton, including my own. Rows of two-up, two-down terraced houses. Lights on, lights off. Through windows with undrawn curtains I can see people watching television, eating their tea. Someone is playing a piano. Another house has loud music on. With time itself seemingly taking on new scales, qualities and functions at the moment, these rituals offer a degree of comfort and fixity when everything else around us is changing so quickly. I contemplate the conversations taking place in households in Brighton (and elsewhere) tonight. Questions and answers. Plans made and cancelled. Hopes and fears. And what about those people who haven’t left the house today, haven’t spoken to anyone? Are they ok?

As I pass the old Newmarket pub, the houses on the right-hand side give way to a long flint wall, well over head height. Not much to see here. I know what’s on the other side of the wall. This part of Bear Road, eventually on both sides, is synonymous with the city’s crematoria and cemeteries. How many people will be visiting them in the coming weeks and months, saying goodbye to loved ones or friends who were taken before their time? Funerals are one of the few social occasions where people will be allowed to gather, albeit in small groups. I think about NHS staff and the life and death decisions they face. Their pleas to stay at home. Am I doing the right thing? I reassure myself I have only passed about three people and I have walked up the middle of the road when necessary to stay well apart from them.

The junction with Tenantry Down Road signifies where Bear Road takes on a new, distinct character. It becomes semi-rural almost. Allotments on the right and some stables on the left, as the downs open up and the back of Bevendean comes into sight. I feel very distant from the city now even though I know it is still very close. It is really quiet now. There are hardly any cars and just a couple of people in the distance. Those vehicles that come towards me have a similar, familiar boxy shape. I guess each one: ambulance or ASDA van? Sometimes I see the flash of blue lights, more vivid than ever in this nightscape. There are no sirens. They are not needed. There is no other noise to compete with. When an ambulance reaches me, my visceral reaction is to stop, clap my hands in applause and offer two thumbs up. I don’t know if the paramedics notice me but that doesn’t matter. I want to show my gratitude to them and this seems appropriate. For now. It is a gesture that signifies my own powerlessness as much as anything. Where are the vans going? Where have they been? Images of empty supermarket shelves, crashing grocery websites, crying nurses on social media and elderly relatives stream into my consciousness. I convince myself the vulnerable have not been forgotten. I wave to the delivery drivers.

I am now at the top of the road, on Race Hill. This is my favourite vista, but I have never experienced it outside, in the dark, alone before. I can see the lights across the whole of Brighton: Woodingdean, Whitehawk, the Marina, the city. I feel like I am looking in on my people, my home, checking they are alright. The sky is so clear, after a bright, cloudless day. I look at the stars. I can see no aeroplane lights. I think about current media reports of decreasing air pollution and the cleansing of the water in places like Venice. I feel a sense of hope at a time when so much else seems hopeless.

I continue along the brow of the hill, past Dobbies garden centre. I start to descend Elm Grove. I pass Brighton General Hospital. A young woman, wearing shorts and carrying a rucksack is entering the grounds. I wonder what role she has, what challenges she will face over the next few hours. Ditto the staff at the adjacent ambulance station. Elm Grove is silent. Just a few minimarts and newsagents are open, providing specks of light on a darkened, and usually busy, thoroughfare. Soon I am back on Lewes Road.

I have come straight home and sat down in front of my computer. Just under an hour after going out. When I left, writing something about my walk was the last thing in my mind. I was trying to clear my head, not add more stuff to it. But in strange times, the everyday can take on new connotations. Streets, buildings, institutions, sounds, ways of being and moving can all adopt different meanings. They force us to think outside and beyond their conventional signifiers, to make connections, comparisons, contrasts. And the act of writing can help us to make sense of things, individually and collectively. Part analysis, part catharsis, part communication. I reflect that I have asked more questions than I have provided answers. I don’t have the answers right now.

My feelings of general work unproductivity are lifting. I do feel productive now. I want to be productive now. I feel a responsibility to be productive now. Maybe it’s because I have something to say, something that I feel is worth being productive about. I am warm and have worked up a bit of a sweat. As I sit down and take off my hat, Prefab Sprout come into my head.  I reflect on all the crying that will be heard across the world tonight. And tomorrow. And the day after that. My walk has also made me think of the silences and the absences. Those who are not here. Those who will not be here. Those who are still to come. I think about them all and I start to type.

Daniel Burdsey