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A Journey through the London Night
The words are those Alan Jenner, the skipper of the Thames barge Gabriele, but the invisibility he’s describing is equally true of all the subjects of these incisive and poetic vignettes.
The people who are active in London at night pass largely under the radar of the city’s daytime inhabitants: they are the forgotten, the overlooked and the never-even-thought-about who are either clearing up the mess of the day, keeping the city functioning or using the darkness as cover.
Commissioned by Artangel to journey into night-time London and write about what he found, Sukhdev Sandhu eschewed the obvious like prostitutes and black cab drivers and went instead in search of the more obscure, and it’s probably no coincidence that some of them are positively archaic occupations – from the nuns of Tyburn who pray for the souls of Londoners to the Flushers, labouring deep within Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers to keep the capital’s occupants blissfully unaware of their own effluent via – unexpectedly – latter day exorcists.
The modern world is represented by the airborne police, graffiti artists, minicab drivers, urban fox hunters, sleep technicians and – saddest, perhaps, of all – Samaritans …
3am is eternal. 3am is infernal. It’s the hour of the wolf. The time at which fear and sadness and regret rack up so that it becomes impossible to get to sleep. Insomnia and self-pity: it’s a recipe for hysteria, for wild, lunging desperation. 3am is the dark heart of the city, when the carefully repressed anxieties, aspirations and dreams of its emotionally parched inhabitants can no longer be contained. The silent night amplifies the din in our skulls, returns us to a primal solitude.
And it’s in the chapter on Samaritans (who apparently stopped called themselves The Samaritans in 2002) that the thread which runs through the whole of Night Haunts comes to the surface: the homogenized lives and emotional impoverishment of so many modern city dwellers.
The Thames bargers glide almost silently down the darkened river, past the shells of the once-vibrant docklands:
They look around, gazing, mystified and sometimes trembling with bitterness, at a ghost architecture of decommissioned power stations, wharves that have been torn down in order to make way for storage spaces, warehouses that have been converted into apartments for bankers and designers …
… The bargers laugh that the new riverside dwellers, when they’re actually resident in their luxury pads, and not swanning around on foreign beaches or ski resorts, are always agitated. Many of them, regarding the Thames as mere wallpaper, a toney backdrop to their manicured lives, had bought their flats unseen and are now always on the phone to their agents complaining about the noise of boats going past or because they can spot power stations from their balconies.
The minicab drivers – universally demonized as rapists and conmen – experience much the same thing:
The neighbourhoods in which they were raised and through which they now drift are full of phantom architectures, bogus street fronts. The cabbies’ minds wander, and they recall how the internet cafes and tech-house clubs beyond the traffic lights on the left were once the dancehalls where they themselves first asked out their future wives, the picture palaces where they stared at and dreamt of being Tony Curtis, the tailor shops where they were measured up for their very first work suit. The places where they became men, where they grew up to become fully-fledged Londoners: all these have disappeared.
It isn’t simply that the old buildings are being razed – change is after all inevitable, it’s that the heart is being ripped out of our inner cities and being replaced with surface gloss and essential emptiness. And minicab drivers, especially those operating at night, see the inhabitants of that glossy, vacant world at their very worst (it’s a minicab driver speaking):
Londoners are just like rats. They climb over one another. You see the way they try to get to a certain destination, their meanness, the way they fight with each other, try to get to the top of the pile. What is their goal? It is to buy a very expensive car or to buy a swimming pool in their garden. Maybe they want to go on the most expensive holiday they can afford. It is all so blind. There is no morality to them.
All of which makes Night Haunts sound desperately grim and depressing – which it certainly isn’t. It’s illuminated and lightened by the humour and humanity of its subjects and by Sukhdev Sandhu’s simply beautiful prose.
He went on a journey, and as always happens on the best journeys, he learned as much about himself as he did about the people he was studying. In Night Haunts he shares both the journey and the lessons – even the uncomfortable ones:
They laugh a lot as the morning creeps forward: at the erratic movements of a party-goer returning home late; at the wobbling midriff of a City jogger crossing one of the bridges; at the crowds of suits milling towards town. “I see them and think: if one falls, they’ll all fall. They’re like little robots. You have to laugh.” But I don’t laugh. In fact, I feel like crying. Whether it’s because of the river’s brittle, pale beauty at this time of morning, or because those robots remind me of myself, I can’t quite decide.
Artangel and Verso. 2007. ISBN: 978-1-84467-162-5. 147pp.
(Or read it online HERE – with the exception of the chapter on the nuns at Tyburn, which is missing, for some reason.)