When the underbelly of Brighton reveals itself, all I have to keep me safe is a kebab

Only Friday and Saturday nights are usually lively in the city, but the night before lockdown the air is thrilling with sirens. 

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The night before lockdown. My nerves are frazzled, what with the US election, and other things that I will mention more fully one day, so I accept an invitation from my friend Jed to have a drink at the Eddy, or the Edinburgh, a pub to which he is fiercely loyal, on the grounds that it is very close to him, and that he and the landlord have struck up something of a rapport.

The landlord, whose name I have forgotten, took over the place in January, under the impression that he was on to a good thing; well, you know how that turned out. But he’s a tough-looking guy: that is, he looks tough, and clearly has strength of character to go with it.

Towards the end of the evening, a nasty little rat-faced runt of a man, in a moment of extreme unwisdom, decides to square off against the landlord. He seems to be one of those men who does not need a reason to do this kind of thing. He informs the landlord that he has recently come out of prison. Maybe he thinks the landlord will be impressed. The landlord, who has enough on his plate without being menaced ineffectually by tiresome little shits, is not, and tells him that he lived in Chicago for 32 years and isn’t going to be bothered by the likes of him.

Jed, his wife and I look at the scene unfolding and shake our heads. I’m impressed by the precision of “32”, but also a bit upset at runty man’s behaviour: he’d come over to our table earlier and I’d given him some tobacco and a packet of rolling papers, which I thought might have put him in a better mood.

[see also: An expired laptop is yet further proof that Fortune’s Wheel still has me in a spin]

Walking back in the crisp night air – the weather has been lovely today, if you like that kind of thing – I notice that Brighton seems to be buzzing rather more loudly than usual. Week nights are usually quiet – this is Brighton’s dirty secret, that only Friday and Saturday nights are lively – but the air is thrilling with sirens, and there are hordes of drunken revellers parading down the Western Road. (Yes, I know that “hordes of drunken revellers” is a bit of journalistic boilerplate, but this is exactly what they were.) There is hysteria in the air.

I head up to my flat, carrying my doner. (I hasten to point out that the kebab in question comes from Kebap [sic] Doner Mania on the Western Road, and they make the best kebabs I have ever eaten; they are my weekly treat, and so good that they can be enjoyed while stone cold sober.) As I turn the corner I am halted in my tracks by a band of blue crime-scene tape, several police cars, and at least two dozen policemen. There is an ominous-looking huddle almost outside my very front door. A rather spooked-looking policeman asks if can help me.

“I live here,” I say. Absent-mindedly, I hold up my kebab, as if it offers some kind of proof, or explanation. The policeman confers with a colleague.

“All right, go under that bit there,” he says, pointing to the corner of the taped-off section on the other side of the road.

I duck under the tape, feeling rather excited to be doing so, but another policeman tells me, rather peremptorily I feel, that I am not allowed to do this after all. I am told to go round the block and approach my home from the other side.

Which is itself, of course, taped off, and the whole process begins again. I think to myself: thank God I had a pee before I left the Eddy.

But they let me through this time. Clearly, something very bad has happened.

[see also: Down at the shoreline at night, the navigation lights on the horizon start speaking to me]

Later on, as I stand in the front garden having a cig, a policemen tells me not to step outside the front gate. He then takes my name and phone number, even though I am not a witness to anything. He is very polite, and so am I, because I’m one of those people who believes in being polite to the police, on the grounds that they (a) do a very tough job and (b) can arrest you. This policeman also looks a bit spooked, and I don’t imagine that Brighton coppers spook that easily.

This morning, I learn from the Argus that there was a mass brawl, with one man sustaining serious injuries. It took place at 10:15, at just about the time I was ordering my kebab. If I hadn’t decided to get one, I’d have been caught up in it. There’s still a police car parked diagonally in front of the place.

It’s funny to think that one of the reasons I took this flat was because the street it’s on looks so genteel: the gatepost has the address painted on it in the style of a bygone century. But only one block away is the Western Road, which not even the brooding presence of Waitrose can tame. It’s probably not as tough as Chicago, but it’s funny to think that a kebab might just have saved my life. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 13 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump

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