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28 July 2021

In Brighton, you never know who might run into you. Or who might run you over…

One of the most delightful things about Brighton is that every bus has someone’s name on the front, resurrecting the obscure and the forgotten.

By Nicholas Lezard

As I write, Brighton swelters, and so do I. The window is wide open, bringing in the city sounds: traffic, ringtones, angle grinders and hammers from the building works next door. The wood pigeons have been drowned out. I am lying almost nude in bed. Having lost some of my lockdown paunch since being given the boot, this is not as distressing a sight as it could have been.

You’re not going to see it, though, as no one visits me in the Hovel, unless it is my friend N—, whose life experience has prepared her for the extremes of human depravity, and who came round to clean up my kitchen for free and drop off a couple of presents, just for the heck of it (my latest haul: two linen shirts and a very handsome leather book bag). My friend S—, a film producer who has been trying to turn this column into a film or a sitcom for years now, has come from Los Angeles for his mother’s birthday, and is going to swing by here before taking me to the Basketmakers for lunch (WhatsApp conversation yesterday. Me: NB I have no money. S: That’s a given). But even if he’s desperate for the loo I’m not going to let him in, and we’ve known each other since we were three.

All in all, it’s been quite the social whirl around here. I even made a new friend, who came down to visit from the north. She asked me where my favourite place to go walking outside Brighton was and I suddenly realised I had never been walking outside Brighton. I had seen the outside of the city: I went to get jabbed at a medical centre in Withdean and was struck by the way it ends, bang, on this side of the A27. Too many other cities peter out gradually, overstay their welcome. Brighton, northwards at least, knows when to leave, like a good party guest. Beyond roll the Sussex Downs. Must go there one day, I thought. To think that I’ve been living here for three years, with a year off in Scotland, without having gone for a stroll in the countryside… What the year in Scotland taught me, apart from that Scotland is in many respects more civilised than England, was that I really, really liked living in the countryside as well as looking at it. (Why is there no other word for “countryside” than “countryside”?)

[See also: Looking at the smashed teapot lid, I thought: there, in a nutshell, is my life]

I had spent a surprising amount of time in Brighton contemplating the front of the 77 bus, which terminates at Devil’s Dyke – which Constable described as “perhaps the most grand and affecting natural landscape in the world”. (I learn this from Orlando Gough’s charming and excellent Coming & Going, one of the best books I have ever read about Brighton. Look it up and buy a copy, make the author happy.) But this time my new friend and I went on it, and had a delightful, un-arduous stroll. The place is buzzed by paragliders, like a picnic with wasps, and I wonder about the appeal of sitting on what looks at a distance like a garden chair while ascending several hundred feet above the earth. Given that the view on the ground is already spectacular, I wonder what those few hundred feet can add to the experience apart from the fear of death. But bully for those that like it.

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I forgot to check out the name of the 77 on both voyages. One of the most delightful things about Brighton is that every bus built since 1999 has the name of someone who has been associated with the city displayed on the front. One never knows whom one is going to run into – or, if you are careless crossing the road, be run over by. Ivy Compton-Burnett would be classy. As would Kitty O’Shea, Charles Stewart Parnell’s lover, who roams the streets with purpose, to a timetable. As does, somewhat surprisingly, Derek Jameson, but good for him. Adam Faith used to be on a bus but no longer is.

[See also: My sporting summer had all too short a lease, which is why I want my heroes to go on and on]

There are quite a few names I haven’t heard of, but Brighton and Hove council has a website with details for the curious. I love how the obscure and forgotten have been resurrected. James Hurdis, anyone? “In the 18th century, many small villages had vicars who were well-known and scholarly men. They were expert in subjects ranging from science to history. Typical of them was the Rev James Hurdis, vicar of the peaceful parish of Burpham near Arundel.” William Ainsworth? “A prolific writer of Victorian historical novels, but went out of fashion even before his own death and has never been revived.” (Sic.) Joy Bennett? A “champion riveter” who fixed Spitfires during the Second World War. To be included the nominee must have once had a degree of fame, and have been dead for at least a year, which means I will never know if I, one day, will be on the front of a Brighton bus. I can think of few greater honours. 

[See also: Grief can unhinge, taking up your entire emotional bandwidth]

This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special