Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Night Haunts

In Night haunts: a journey through the London Night (Verso, 2007), Sukhdev Sandhu asks ‘Whatever happened to the London night?’, arguing that while in Victorian times ‘Gas lighting opened up the night’, nocturnal London was still seen as the other of daytime life: ‘The night was seen as lawless, foreign territory teeming with rogues and banditos… It was a hive of fascination and to it came a steady flow of gawkers, boulevardiers, solitaires, rubberneckers, slummers and sex tourists exercising their right to roam’.

Sandu suggests that the second world war ‘Blitz did for the London night. It produced life-threatening fear rather than flaneurial frissons’ and that is has been further killed off by ‘a slicked-up form of commodity urbanism… the ‘London night’ has morphed into, and been rebranded as, ‘London nightlife’’.

Night is no longer ‘a distinct, cordoned-off territory in which we may immerse ourselves in strange possibilities or make ourselves susceptible to off-kilter enchantments’. Instead it is a focus of a whole industry: ‘Fun – its conception, manufacture, and promotion – occupies hundreds of thousands of people… Night London is endlessly studied and written about – not for any mysteries it may hold, but because it is now seen as an economic unit… Acronyms clog the pages – TfL, EMZs, the latter standing for Entertainment Management Zones, a new term that describes areas in which large numbers of young people like to hang out in the evening’.

Nevertheless Sandhu still thinks it’s worth his while to explore, hanging out with nocturnal workers and other denizens of the dark – mini-cab drivers, office cleaners, nurses in a sleep clinic and Benedictine nuns at Tyburn Convent praying for the souls of Londoners in a ceremony called the Night Adoration. The image of prayer unites Sandhu’s night-time pilgrims: ‘Listen carefully. People are praying tonight. The blue-light ambulance driver tearing through the streets of South London in the hope that he can still deliver a hit-and-run victim to A&E before it’s too late. The young Chinese vendor who has spent the last few hours ducking in and out of New Cross pubs trying to sell knock-off DVDs, and who now sees a group of toughs looking enviously at his backpack… Prayer is the true language of the night. It is the sound of London’s heart beating. The sound of individuals walking alone in the dark’.

There is something seductive about Sandhu's prose and his argument about the taming of the London night certainly strikes a chord. Still he is well-enough read in Londonist prose to know that there is nothing new about lamenting for the glories of London 's nocturnal past. H.V. Morton, whose The Nights of London (1926) Sandhu takes as a model, mentions that 'Old men who drink port have told me, when warmed up, how beautiful London was at night in those [Victorian] days of side whiskers and plaid trousers and Ouida'.
It also seems to me that in eschewing London 'nightlife' as simply a managed industry, Sandhu has missed out on what is still exciting for many. Nocturnal London isn't just one long dark night of the soul, populated by lonely wanderers whistling in the shadows. There are surely still many making a collective journey on to the dawn and having adventures along the way.

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