Caught by the River

Only After Dark

Dan Richards | 8th December 2022

While most of the rest of us sleep, Dan Richards opens his eyes to the goings-on that keep society ticking over, repaired, safe, stocked, informed, and secured under cover of darkness.

You join me on the bridge of the MV Hjaltland in the middle of the dark North Sea. The Hjaltland — old Norse for Shetland — is a roll-on-roll-off ferry, call Sign VSTY8, 125 metres long, 19 and a half metres wide, gross tonnage: 11,720. Seven times a week she makes the trip to Shetland, carrying passengers, cars, livestock and freight the 232 miles north, reaching Lerwick at seven in the morning, having left Aberdeen night before — a vital link for the island’s 23,000 inhabitants.

It’s 2AM around midsummer. Calm seas, the ship’s belting north. Beneath us, some 600 souls are asleep. Before us, the sky still has a whisper of light, but the bridge is blacked out save for the swirling radar screens and low-lit arrays of buttons and dials. The third mate sits in the captain’s chair — the captain having retired to bed around 9PM, the first officer around midnight. Next to the mate sits a young able seaman from Orkney, chatting about ‘coos’, but their talk is hard to follow because ‘Orange Crush’ by REM is blaring and my eyes are drawn to the Blade Runner rigs flaring infernal ahead.
A lull. Then the riff to ‘Enter Sandman’ starts.

This scene is one of hundreds etched in my mind from the past few years researching a book named Overnight. Without wanting to go too “Tears in Rain”, I’ve seen things you people mightn’t believe, which happen every night to keep society ticking over, repaired, safe, stocked, informed, and secured whilst most of us are asleep. Time and again I’m brought up short by how cocooned my circadian rhythms make me, how blind to the world after dark. We live in a society where things ‘just get done’ overnight — a host of 24 hour operations go on out of sight and mind — and it was a shock to discover how reliant and ignorant I was about the night economy. I came away astonished and ashamed in equal measure, my eyes opened as never before:

Small hour search and rescue helicopter call-outs, bleary-eyed in bakeries at stupid o’clock, helping count hibernating bats down a slate mine, mail trains above and below ground, a night under observation at Edinburgh’s sleep clinic — following on from the Covid hospitalisation I wrote about here, last year. Exercises with the Fife RNLI, eyeballing owls to better understand how they see the nocturnal world, crepuscular ice fishing in Finland, the 24 hour race at Le Mans, evenings at the V&A, the vespertine harvesting of eiswein in Germany, a return trip on the Hjaltland in a Force 9 gale…

I’ve been up in Liebherr super-cranes at Southampton docks: 30 metre tall rail mounted gantry cranes which span and service multiple tracks and trains, like two enormous printers, the galaxy of global trade narrowed to a man in a glass box picking things up and putting them down.

The port — a district of concrete, containers and cranes, miles of ziggurat box-parks patrolled by a motley crew of sci-fi forklifts, pantechnicons, and stilt-legged transporters; the worker bees of the Tetris maze. And, looming over all, angle-poised on the horizon: the super-cranes, themselves dwarfed by the 20-storey mega-ships to which they tend – ships such as the 400m Ever Given which was, at the time of my visit, blocking the Suez Canal.

Walking through the port’s arid grid of asphalt and chain-link – idling locomotives, flashing level-crossings, scrapyards, silos, pylons, diagonal acres of new cars; thundering container trucks, one two three – the thought occurred that I could be anywhere: Botany Bay, Dubai, Dieppe, Shanghai, LA. Which made sense because every port is a temporary home to ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ from all of those places; containers don’t live anywhere, they’re always moving on.

Contrast that with the work of St. Mungo’s, helping the homeless on the streets of London every night of the year, offering accommodation, legal help, or tea and conversation, whatever’s needed. They see and talk to the long time destitute and those just arrived in the capital; the desperate and distracted, the freezing and frightened. Were you aware of the NHS outreach teams with their mobile clinics? The triage vans with X-ray units attempting to stop folk dying of TB; treating and caring for those with trench foot, addictions, and fungal infections. They’re out there overnight offering advice and mental health help: underfunded, resolute, energetic teams treating people like people rather than the manifestation of a social ill.

A couple in a broken tent down an alley off Paddington High Street.
Midnight, a basement carpark — broken sprinklers gushing, flood-lit, freezing. The team from St. Mungo’s, alerted by the public, approach and talk to the occupants. They don’t want to move. They don’t want a hostel. They don’t want to talk. Go away. Thank you but go away.
I stand round the corner and listen to the conversation and wonder how they got to the point where this was the answer to the question of where to spend a night — and not just one night, many nights; their lives. What was their story? What led them here, to this scant soaking shelter behind a telephone exchange?
Thrown and angry, I ask myself how many times I’ve walked past such a scene.

Later, in a churchyard, the Westway thundering white to the left, houses and flats glowing warm to the right, we discover a blanket on the vestry steps; thin, worn. Wet. The person isn’t there, only their possessions in two carrier bags. We don’t look. The team make a note to return another time.
That was a month ago, when it wasn’t so cold.

At the time, Helen, my producer — Overnight having spun off and become a Radio 4 series named Only After Dark — asked me to put the scene into words and I tried but probably failed to do it justice because I was upset, all the while aware my guilt and distress were doing no good. But the team from St. Mungo’s encounter scenes like this and take positive action to aid those affected every night.

The thing that struck me most powerfully during my time out with them was that it is homelessness that is shameful, not the homeless. Homeless people need help. St. Mungo’s are helping. It shouldn’t fall on charities to lead the line in this but it has and they are. All power and support to them.


The first episode of ‘Only After Dark’ airs tonight at 8.30pm, and will be available here thereafter.