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The Londoners who stay up all night

By Andy Hill

Who are the Londoners that stay up all night? Andy Hill and David Clack meet them. [Photography: Rob Greig.]

Alan Kingsott, Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

‘Not everybody realises the Tower of London is a 24-hour operation. My main role at the start of a nightwatch is conducting the ancient ‘ceremony of the keys’, which happens nightly at 10pm. It’s my favourite part of the job. I personally conduct the ceremony and subsequent nightwatch at least once a week. I am theoretically on call until the following day, ready to react to any incidents which might take place, for instance, getting the emergency services into the Tower in the event of a fire. If an incident happens, my job is to attend as quickly as I can; I don’t necessarily need to put on the whole uniform, but I probably wouldn’t leap into action in just my pyjamas.

‘Touch wood, we haven’t had to deal with much, though we have had the odd reveller who thinks it’s a good idea to take a short-cut through the grounds. I don’t give chase at my age, but we soon catch them. They can’t go anywhere, unless they jump in the river. There are all kinds of weird and wonderful ways they sneak in. Once, two ladies squeezed through a narrow gap in a fence. When you looked at the width, you couldn’t believe they were able to do it.

‘There’s a community here: 120 people live in the Tower of London. That’s 40-odd families, including my own. It’s a prestigious job, so my family don’t mind me working the odd night. To put the uniform on and be a small part of the history of the Tower is an honour.

‘At night, patrolling, I very much feel the weight of previous centuries, especially in autumn or winter, when there’s a fine mist in the air: the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I just have to wonder what would it have been like with just torch flames?

‘Some have suggested it’s haunted. I’ve never seen or heard anything. Nothing strange, at least. Not on my watch.’

Josey Rebelle, club and radio DJ

 ‘I feel more comfortable under a cloak of darkness. As soon as it starts getting to night time, I just feel alive. A little bit vampirish, I know, but the night’s my time.

‘When I play during the daytime, at a festival, say, I feel so exposed. I still get the job done, but there’s something about the night which makes me feel protected.

‘I don’t ever feel tired after I’ve been DJing, because I love it so much. It’s more day-to-day life that makes me tired, to be honest! I have to be dragged off the decks quite a lot, even when it’s not my party. Playing just gives me energy. The night my favourite club, Plastic People, closed back in January 2015 was a classic example; I went from raving all night directly to my three-hour radio show on Rinse FM, powered by vibes.

‘I’m really lucky in that I don’t get any aggro off wasted punters. People who are drunk normally say really nice things. To me, anyway. They’re just in your face a bit. But normally saying something lovely.

‘When people talk about London culture, they tend to focus on theatres and dance and that kind of stuff, and often sneer at “nightlife”. How many people have had horrible weeks, and gone to a rave and had an amazing time, and found the energy to carry on?’

Dr Karim Ahmad, consultant in emergency medicine

‘My first night shift in emergency medicine was back in 1999. I was one year out of uni, single-handedly responsible for an entire emergency department. Back then the nurses essentially ran things and you were just the consulting doctor. You did your best, but it could be scary.

‘These days the expectation is different. The Royal London is a major trauma centre: we see far more, and far sicker patients. There are now senior staff and a sizeable team present around the clock. Nobody enjoys working nights, but we absolutely believe that patients deserve the same level of care and expertise if they show up at one in the morning as they would at one in the afternoon.

‘Fridays and Saturdays we get a lot of patients somewhat the worse for wear from drugs or alcohol. That can be challenging, and you can get overwhelmed but the team all pull together. The kind of work ethic you see is astonishing. It’s not unusual for people to work two hours over on a 12-hour shift, to not have a toilet break, or anything to eat or drink.

‘At the end of a weekend of night shifts we sometimes go out for breakfast together. Our breakfasts are legendary. Staff from the three main east London hospitals convene at the Cock Tavern in Smithfield. Occasionally, “breakfast” has got quite ridiculous. It’s not unheard-of for the team to end up in Paris, dancing all night long.’

Samuel Onyema, environmental manager 

 ‘I was born in Nigeria, then migrated to Germany before coming here eight years ago. For the past eight years I’ve worked for Veolia, and for the past two as a night-time environmental manager in Westminster.

‘I grabbed the opportunity to work nights. I can give more time to my wife in the daytime; I have three children, if they have meetings at the school, I can attend.

‘Our job is to show up, do what little we can do when the people are around, then after they go home get the streets clean before the new day begins. I enjoy that I’m doing something environmental.

‘We take care of some very busy areas. Leicester Square, The Strand, Oxford Street, Regent Street and Marble Arch. We meet people from Australia, America, China, Japan, Germany. Most of our team are from different parts of the world. I speak German. If I meet Germans on the street we talk. If anyone needs directions or anything I can usually find a member of my staff who can help them.

‘We go out with a good spirit. We laugh, we joke. We love doing our job. We are like family. We stick together, nobody complains. People tell us we do a great job, and they’re grateful.

‘New Year’s Eve is the best time you can work in the West End. You see people from all walks of life, everybody wishing happy new year, hugging and even kissing. When you work nights you see fashion at its best. Stand with me in Leicester Square and watch the influx and outflux of people coming and going. It’s like a catwalk.’

Shankara Smith, race director for the Tooting Bec Self Transcendence 24 Hour Track Race 

 ‘The aim of the 24-hour race is to run around the track as many times as you can in 24 hours. Our record distance run is 166 miles. We’ve been at Tooting Bec for the past 18 years. We can host a maximum of 45 runners. The full 45 never make it. A good year is finishing with over 35 on the track.

‘My role, as race director, is to oversee the running of the race, and make sure it goes as smoothly as possible. Looking out to see if the runners are eating or drinking enough, or that they’re dressed properly for when the temperature drops overnight. Or if they need physio and they’re reluctant to come off. I have to stay awake all night, but I’m constantly moving around.

‘The race starts at midday. Some similar events start at 7am, but we think the hardest hours are when it gets dark. Once the runners get to 6am and daylight hits, most will keep going. It gives an extra boost.

‘At night the atmosphere builds. It’s really special. This race is my favourite thing I do all year. As you get past midnight, a few people have dropped out. It gets difficult then and the runners have to dig deep. 

‘At two or three in the morning, you really feel the energy and enthusiasm coming off the lap counter. The lap counters are calling out to the runners “Simon: got you”, “Carol: got you”, or “Fantastic, you’re doing great!” Every time someone reaches 50 miles or 100 miles, a massive whoop goes up.

‘We have amazing regular runners like Geoff Oliver, who’s 8! this year. He’s run the race pretty much since we started. Last year, he did 99.7 miles in !4 hours. And then continued for another lap to break the 100- mile record for his age category. Remarkable.’

Lady Lloyd, DJ and drag queen

 ‘For me, a good night out is all about dressing up. I usually get ready at about 7pm and get to the venue where I’m DJing for about 9pm or 10pm. I live pretty centrally, so sometimes in the summer I’ll walk to work. I wear skimpy outfits, bum out, and all that. That’s the great thing about London; I’ve never actually – touch wood – been beaten up or anything. Obviously you get the odd catcall, but overall I feel safe.

‘I’m usually on until midnight, then it’s time for me to get drunk and have a dance. I’m always the last to leave: they’re usually begging me to leave, if I can’t convince them to have a lock-in.

‘The thing I don’t do really is public transport – I hear a lot about drag queens getting “started-on” on the night bus, and it only takes one person to bop you on the nose and your face is fucked.

‘I’m forever jumping taxi fares. I tried to start using Uber, but when I’m pissed I can’t press the buttons on my phone, so I normally just get in a dodgy minicab. I’ve got into the habit of not paying them, which is terrible: they’re all after my blood. I don’t do it on purpose, I just get too pissed.

‘A lot of people say Soho’s not as good as it used to be, but you could say that about anything – you could say that about Madonna. I miss places like the Astoria, but Soho’s still buzzing, especially at the weekends. The chains aren’t open at night, so I can just ignore them.

‘On warmer nights I’ll walk home. Apparently I was once spotted throwing an empty bottle of champagne off Lambeth Bridge – some friends went past in a taxi and saw me chucking it into the river. I have been known to walk literally miles home, by myself, pissed.’

Check out our guide to London nightlife.

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