London Myths No.1 – The 24 Hour City
In the next Bryant & May novel, ‘The Lonely Hour’, the Peculiar Crimes Unit switches to night shifts for a week, and utter chaos ensues. To write the novel I stayed up until dawn and watched what goes on around town. Answer; nothing pretty. But there are a lot of people working very hard to ensure that the next day starts according to plan. When you have nearly nine million living in one rowdy town, there’s always clearing up to be done.
‘I want to be there…in the city that never sleeps!’ Oh, sorry, that’s New York. Why are the songs about London all so rubbish? ‘London Calling’? ‘Baker Street’? Oh, ‘Waterloo Sunset’, I’ll give you that. It’s the same with this All Night London thing. The night tubes have been running for two years and according to the Mayor’s office they’re bringing in bags of swag. So, if it’s working that well why is nothing open after twelve? It’s great having an all-night tube but not if the waiter is putting his coat on at 11:30pm.
When I lived in Knightsbridge (incredibly, dear reader, it once offered affordable accommodation) there was just one ordinary shop in the entire area. It was called the Midnight Shop, and we all thought it was such a novelty to have a shop that stayed open until Cinderella’s bedtime.
That was in the 1970s. Now things should be different. But, being a theoretic democracy, London prevaricates and never adopts a new idea completely. So it looks sort of open late and isn’t, unless you know where to look.
On the train last week two Americans asked for a list of restaurants they could go to just as they were (they were wearing football shirts and shorts). It was 12:15am, and I had no idea, apart from the bagel joint on Brick Lane.
So, how many all night restaurants could the Evening Standard drag up for a special feature this week?
Two were overpriced joints in those tall glass penises, the Shard and the Walkie-Talkie. The third was a café and the last was a sandwich bar.
Stay to the tourist routes through the West End and you might find some haunted-looking bloke selling Fanta and rolling papers after the pubs shut, but that’s about it. When licensing hours were extended, very few pubs took up the offer because they didn’t want to pay staff extra time.
Clubs were mostly wiped out in the great property purge. The only places near me are junk food joints like McDonald’s. The internet has made us 24-hour-live, but the shops are still shut.
Weirdest of all are Sunday Opening Hours. Due to a peculiar mantra that decrees we should ‘Keep Sunday Special’ large shops aren’t allowed to open until midday, but they can open for browsing an hour earlier. Which leads to the peculiar sight of Waitrose shoppers standing around with full trolleys unable to pay for anything.
The time limitation problem began prior to the First World War, with the fear that munitions factories would not function unless pub hours were radically reduced. But the habit lingered on to the end of the 20th century. I always got the Sunday papers on a Saturday night from King’s Cross Station because they were being loaded on trains to the North, and I thought that was excitingly novel.
The one 24 hour place every Londoner once knew about was the Boots chemist in Piccadilly Circus, through which passed a steady stream of injured drunks and junkies. Hours are generally less draconian now but all-night clubs now feel as rare and secret as anarchist meetings. In Berlin they’re hopping trains between clubs with beers in their hands, no problem. In Barcelona they don’t go out until 1:00am. In London the dustmen have finished hosing down the street-pizzas by then and everyone else is fast asleep.
Or are they all out having fun? Somebody please tell me they are, for I fear the Youngs are all glued to their laptops now, financing startups instead of drinking cheap vodka and peeing in front gardens.