‘I can’t sleep at night. I lie awake, in silence, in darkness, my limbs twitching, aching, longing to get up, while my tired consciousness tries to will my body into slumber. Yet sleep’s own weird logic tells my body to have its way. It says: don’t lie there, get up and do something different – and that doesn’t mean bimbling about on your computer. If you share my condition, then I suggest you take yourself on a voyage into the London night. You might as well, if you’re wide awake. You could try a ‘dérive’ – an attempt to get wilfully lost. Go out of your door. Turn right. Take the first turning on the left, and then the first on the right. Repeat until you don’t know where you are.
Notice what you see, and tomorrow night, when you still can’t sleep, remember your trip instead of counting sheep, which doesn’t work anyway, even here in Radnorshire where I live and where there are lots more sheep than people. I know, because I’ve counted them, and I’m still wide awake. I lived in London at the turn of the millennium. I ran a secondhand bookshop on the Charing Cross Road before the coffee grinders drove us out. We closed at nine in the evening, and it was my delight when the weather allowed me to walk home to Islington through the labyrinthine London night, always trying to find new ways to get lost.
If you want a guided tour, start in Brick Lane. You’re going to need energy, so get yourself a salt beef beigel from the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is a place of wonder. Now you should head off into the City, which is magically empty by night. Make for St Paul’s. You will be almost entirely alone on the journey. About ten thousand people live in the City, and pretty much all of them will be asleep. See how far you can get walking up the middle of the streets, which you certainly can’t do by day. I always find Cheapside astounding, because it was the high street of the old Roman city; and at night, you can dream as you walk, and with the traffic gone, imagine yourself in Londinium.
Arrive at St Paul’s, and call in at Occupy London if they’re still there. There’s always someone awake and willing to talk, and whether you support, oppose, or are indifferent to their cause, night-time is the right time to pop by, to soak up that authentic festival vibe. And then on to Smithfield. It opens at 3am, which is when the gutters start to run with blood. There is coffee to be drunk, fags to be smoked, and new colourful language to be learned. Cross the road for a breakfast pint at the Fox and Anchor. They open at 7am, and it’s a bit zhoosed up these days, but the breakfast is still proper, even if there are more City types in there now than actual butchers. A pint and a fry-up before eight will help you sleep all day, take it from me.’
‘Something of the Night’ by Ian Marchant is published by Simon & Schuster.
All photos from ‘Dark City’ by William Eckersley, published by Stucco Press.