Last week we headed into The Lanes for a different perspective on life in lockdown. Before March 23rd, the streets of this vibrant enclave were teeming with tourists and shoppers. Now, there is no one, except for locals and people running businesses selling take-away food. Wandering the deserted streets felt like standing in a empty theatre whilst being given a glimpse of the actors backstage. What we found was a tight-knit cast of characters who know and care about each other. They told that they love living in this part of the city because of its unique vibe and they showed us - through small acts of kindness - what it means to be part of a close community.
One encounter was particularly affecting. We had just spoken to the lovely Ricky from Korean street food restaurant Namul. He suggested we meet his friends at The Real Junk Food Project next door. Before we had even explained who we were and what we were doing, two stools had been pulled up and we’d been given some baklava and a raspberry kombucha. We sat down, perched two metres apart, and started to get to know Adam Buckingham, who set up the Brighton branch of the organisation, and volunteer Zubair Anjum.
Their passion for the project was palpable. The idea is simple - intercepting food waste and using it to feed people on a ‘pay as you feel’ basis. In 2013 Adam, a chef by trade, had taken a break from cooking and was working as a security guard. He heard about the environmental movement, which originated in Leeds, and wrote to its founder asking if he could help in any way. The response was almost immediate - Adam was offered support to create a Brighton version. Next, he secured a grant of £5000 which enabled him to buy a van, some weighing scales and pay to his rent for a couple of months. In 2014 he served his first customer. It was two years before he could draw a salary but, in the meantime, he recruited volunteers and set up pop-up cafes in churches and community centres across the city.
Since the beginning of lockdown, The Real Junk Food Project has fed thousands of people through take-away services at St Luke’s Church on the Old Shoreham Road, Hollingdean Community Centre and Brighton Table Tennis Club carpark. There are only several paid staff. It runs mainly on volunteers.
Zubair is one such volunteer. He moved to Brighton from London at the end of last year and started helping out in the kitchen of One Church on Friday mornings. However, for months now, instead of his day job as a project manager he has dedicated his time to helping Adam get the first permanent cafe on Gardner Street ready for business. They have renovated the building from top to bottom. There is thought and care behind every decision. They have created a wall, for example, that adults and children can write or draw on in chalk, giving people the opportunity to express themselves. The Gardener is now ready to serve takeaways and they are looking forward to a time when they can welcome people inside.
Zubair and Adam have become firm friends - a shared sense of purpose bringing them together in these strange times. They talked about how lucky they’ve been to have something positive to focus on. Zubair did not dwell on his contribution to the project, but instead talked about how blessed he feels to be involved. They spoke of their belief that kindness and compassion are the real keys to success and happiness. They also talked about the importance of community and about how crucial it is to make time for people.
And then something happened that epitomised their approach. A young woman they had never met before came charging towards the cafe, visibly distressed. She spoke fast, telling them that she’d had a fight with her boyfriend and giving details of her traumatic childhood. She showed them her arms, which were scarred as a result of injecting heroin and self-harm. She wept a little and said she was ashamed of herself for having taken drugs. She said she was now on methadone and did not want to relapse, but she was clearly on the edge. She asked if they would charge her phone so she could ring her mum. Adam offered her a seat, took her phone and plugged it in. Zubair went inside and made her a coffee. They talked to her and told her that addiction did not make her a bad person. They showed her kindness and they made her feel human. Forty minutes later, her phone was charged and she was calm. She smiled as she said goodbye and thanked them both by name. Their small demonstration of humanity had clearly made a big difference to her day.
Over the last month, we’ve met people regularly volunteering - whether it’s cooking for NHS staff, walking a neighbour’s dog, shopping for a vulnerable person or just having a chat over the phone with someone who feels isolated. WhatsApp support groups have sprung up across the city and many people do seem to be more aware of who lives around them.
Fittingly, today marks the start of Volunteers’ Week. Organisers have advised people not to use the word ‘celebrate’, but instead to use the slogan ‘Time to Say Thanks’. They recommend physical events move online and they are reminding people to take care when handing out items to volunteers. Most importantly, they ask their supporters to keep telling volunteering stories. “People are stepping up in ways we’ve not seen before in the UK. Telling their stories is a great way to thank them for all the great things they’re doing.”
Thank you to everyone at The Real Junk Food Project and to every other person and organisation across Brighton and Hove doing their bit to make this city a kinder and more beautiful place to live.
In the words of Adam Buckingham: “If we have care and love as the focus rather than money, there is nothing we can’t achieve."
On a normal May weekend in a normal year, Brighton and Hove would be packed with tourists and locals enjoying all the wonderful things our city has to offer.
But these are not normal times. People across the globe are fighting to save lives and minimise the impact of coronavirus in their communities. For the past two months in England, we have been asked to stay at home, cut contact with the outside world, shield the vulnerable and save our NHS.
Here in Brighton, we were one of the first places in the UK with known cases of COVID 19. But back then, life carried on. People went to work and school, met in pubs and restaurants and at each other’s houses. Doctors and nurses were unencumbered by PPE. No one had died.
Now, cars are stopped on the roads leading into the city and turned away, whilst mask-wearing locals dodge each other on the promenade through fear of spreading the deadly virus. There has been a seemingly endless stream of pictures in the press of police looming over locals on Brighton beach. If you didn’t live here you might think there was nothing else going on. But the truth is very different.
Two weeks ago, we decided to head out, armed with a camera and a notebook to ask people, at a 2m distance, what was really happening in their lives. We didn’t know if people would stop or what they would have to say. We had no idea who was out there. All we knew was that we love this city and wanted to get to know its people.
Pre-pandemic many of us were stuck without realising it, nailed down like horses on a merry-go-round at the funfair. Round and round we went, following the same established patterns - the well worn grooves of habit and familiarity offering an unquestioned sense of self and a false sense of security. Now, life has taken an unexpected turn, like the scene in Mary Poppins when the horses fly off the carousel and into the unknown. But this is not a family film. It’s a stark new reality and each of us must choose how we react.
As well as taking lives, this virus has stripped us of our illusions. It has put up a mirror to our fears. The tide has gone out and we are now standing on the shoreline, on rock and sand, looking at what has been there all along, hidden from view. It is up to us to interpret what has been exposed. Talking to the people of Brighton and Hove about what they have discovered in their own lives has been both moving and uplifting.
We are under threat from something that no one - neither scientists nor politicians - can even pretend to fully understand. Some people have found this uncertainty hard to cope with. Others have told us how vulnerable they feel, talking about how their lives have been turned upside down and openly sharing their fears for the future. But they have also shown us something else - that they are often stronger than they think, that they are adaptable and resilient, that they are kind and that they are creative. They have shown us that people can still find joy and peace when all around them is chaos.
The people we have approached have been extraordinarily generous. They have been happy to have their portraits taken as they are in that moment - no special lighting, no direction, no filter. And they have stopped to talk - not always as we expected, for a few brief moments - but sometimes for half an hour or more. We have realised that now, more than ever, people want to share their experiences. They have told us about their childhoods, about past relationships, about lives lived on boats, on-and-off planes and in far-flung countries. They have told us about their struggles with anxiety and addiction and about the unexpected joy of solitude. They have given us their time.
For many of us, this most precious commodity - time - is the one thing we have more of. We have more time to think - to reflect on what is good in our lives - and time to understand what needs to change. We’ve had more time to do the things that bring us happiness and to reconnect with the people we love. We have had time to stop, to be silent, to breathe. Some of us have become so used to our new lives that we wonder how we will re-emerge into the world.
The Brighton Festival 2020 should have been coming to an end this weekend. The Festival and Fringe would have attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. These people - us included - were looking forward to gathering in venues across the city to get involved in the astonishing creativity on offer, with events spanning art, cabaret, comedy, literature, theatre, debates, music and family. People would have been sitting in the Spiegeltent, sharing a drink and a laugh. People would have been having fun.
Today, this is not possible. So instead, perhaps we should ask ourselves, what is? In his forward to the Festival programme, written months before the outbreak of coronavirus, this year’s wise and wonderful guest director Lemn Sissay wrote:
“I have travelled the world but never as far as the imagination can take me. We live inside our heads inside the world. That’s okay. We seek digital connection to feel better. This is good. There is no such thing as virtual reality anymore. Only reality. Brighton Festival is the reality fed by imagination.
“Please be open. There is going to be something for you in this festival but broaden your horizons and try something different too. The moment you step into Brighton, the moment you drive into Brighton, the moment you cycle into Brighton, whichever way you choose, this festival starts in you.
“I want you to have a great time. I want you to shake off the tribalism of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and to unite. I hope we meet through the month of May and that you will say hello.”
These beautiful words resonate. We may not have the Festival, but we still have our precious imaginations. It is exciting to talk to people about how they are trying new things and finding ways to adapt to the fast-changing circumstances. We have heard from people rekindling passions for making music, drawing, painting and cooking. We have heard from others who are finding creative ways to support each other and the NHS. We have spoken to business people who have adapted to move their work online and to restaurant and cafe owners who are continuing to make food and offer delivery services - even if it means they are barely breaking even. They are rarely doing it for profit, but rather to make a contribution to the outside world and to continue to give their staff meaningful work and to protect their mental health.
We hope that Brighton people carry on coming together to break down any sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In this respect, we are at an advantage. We are a diverse and liberal community - people are attracted to this place for that very reason. We have met men and women from all over the UK as well as from Brazil, Italy, Poland, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, France, Lithuania and elsewhere. People want to live here, not only for its cosmopolitan vibe, but also because they have the freedom to be who they really are, not who they are expected to be.
People who have travelled the world have decided that this - above anywhere else - is where they want to live, like the fabulous Cireena Simcox, who we met last week on our travels along the seafront. Cireena, a writer, playwright and teacher, has lived a colourful life in places such as Papua New Guinea, Australia, South Africa and Egypt. She moved back to Brighton from China six years ago. She said:
“When I decided to come back all my friends and colleagues said there’s only one place in England you’ll ever feel alright Cireena and that’s Brighton. They were right.”
Thank you Peeps of Brighton and Hove for stopping to talk to us and for being so open. We are loving every moment! As the world continues to change, we want to continue to shine a light on you - the incredible people of our incredible city.
Daisy and Justine x
PS Please stop and say hi if you see us or drop us an email at the address below!