Dusk till dawn: writers share their experiences of London at night

London is a magically different city after dark. Leading us from sunset to sunrise, 11 writers recount a memorable nocturnal London moment in stories and poems
By Time Out London contributors |
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5.15pm, Epping Forest: Luke Turner

I walk stiffly out of the woods, feeling the twinges in my arms and legs. Around me, the dark steals through the trees like water. It conspires to drown the mind with ancient fears of woodland.

It’s the end of a day with The Epping Forest Conservation Volunteers. With chat about the fortunes of West Ham and beekeeping, we hacked and sawed at the choked undergrowth, felling beech saplings, stubborn holly, flimsy silver birch, piling the wood on a fire that scored the sky with a pillar of flame. It will take days now to cool. The forest has been there longer than London and will outlive the city, but for the last thousand years its ecosystem has been held in delicate balance by human hands. To cut and burn the forest brings light to the mulch on its floor which, paradoxically, makes it a place to which wildlife might return and thrive. It’s also the best exercise I know; splinters, scrapes and aches create a connection that dissolves nocturnal fears of the woods in darkness.

Back in the forest behind me, the fire is still burning, a circle of dying flames and embers on the cold of the winter forest floor. I’ll go to sleep tonight imagining the smoke rising through the spidering tendrils of naked winter branches, silhouetted against the distant glow of London.

Luke Turner is the author of ‘Out of the Woods’.

9pm, Catford: Inua Ellams

When I say Britain is so wild, sometimes animals are treated better than humans, this is what I mean. Catford, 9pm, off to a friend’s place, stopped on a pavement, no zebra crossing in sight, traffic unreasonably busy, wheels like teeth gnashing the tar and the breaks between cars too brief to even consider. I’d been trying to cross for five minutes when a ball of fur blurred past me into the road, headlights outlined the sombre orange of a fox. I shut my eyes expecting to hear a dull thump, an airborne body, a crash and wheels mashing its life away, but none of that happened. I inched my eyes open, saw the fox turn and begin the journey back to our pavement… when the driver beeped his horn twice. The fox stopped, looked at the van as if to nod in gratitude, turned and cantered safely to the other side.

You have to understand this happened incredibly quickly, in the space of a few ridiculous seconds. Ridiculous because, when I deconstructed it, this is what happened: Firstly, the driver slowed down, intending to communicate to the fox – It’s all good, homie, I’ll wait, you cross. Secondly, his method of communicating wasn’t a waving hand, a tender voice, a pointed finger, but the sharp retort of a horn – and he assumed he would be understood. Thirdly, he actually proceeded, actually ‘spoke’ to the fox. And fourthly, most ridiculously, the fox understood him! The fox got it.

I wondered later that night if something else had guided their interaction, a sort of language beneath language that living things plug into when desperate. Something primal, telepathic,
in the base of our consciousness. Only later did I remember the fifth and final thing…

The van driver didn’t wait for me to cross.

Inua Ellams is the Tower of London’s 2018 Poet in Residence, leading a year-long programme of spoken word and performance events called Confessions at the Tower.

‘I shut my eyes expecting to hear a dull thump, an airborne body’

10.49pm, Montagu Square: Laura Freeman

I am a law-abiding soul. Library fines and nothing more. But private squares are a temptation, ‘Keyholders only’ signs a provocation. Secret gardens in open, democratic London. A square is different on the inside looking out. Charles Dickens visited Russell Square when it opened to the public for the day: ‘The place known as Holborn must be at least a hundred miles away.’ As children, my brother and I were told the story of a little boy, like an Edward Gorey urchin, who, climbing the railings, lost his grip and skewered his neck on a spike. At six, I believed it. Now, I think it was a tale like ‘The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb’ in ‘Struwwelpeter’ (whose thumbs are cut off with tailor’s scissors) told to frighten us into good behaviour.

In my early twenties, obsessed with Dickens, I spent nights vaulting, trespassing. Squares are not equal. Pembridge Square Garden’s walls are nasty. The ironmonger cast stiletto-width spikes between each railing. While Queen’s Gardens – triplet squares in Bayswater – are as easy as country stiles. Bryanston Square is high. I can do no more than stand on the pavement like Alice peering into Wonderland: ‘Even if my head would go through, it would be of very little use without my shoulders. Oh, how I wish I could shut up like a telescope!’ Nearby Montagu Square is low, scalable. Fat finials to hold as I heave myself over. In the dark, benches and paths are edgeless. I don’t night climb for the view, but for the hush. The glorious sense of aloneness in a stilled city. Until a car horn breaks the spell.

Keep the climber’s charter. Wait for the square to empty. Frighten no keyholders. Break no branches. Trample no snowdrops. Leave not a wrapper behind.

Laura Freeman is the author of ‘The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite’.

1.07am, Peckham High Street: Bridget Minamore

Peckham is a place I’ve known for
longer than I’ve known myself. Some
days I walk along Rye Lane and
breathe in both the scents and sense of
foreboding; stale weed smoke that has
mingled with ironically rolled
roll-ups smoked by white boys wearing
sportswear that tries and fails to hide
the truth of their private-schooled pasts.
Daytimes here have been stolen by
these gentrifiers, but Peckham
at night morphs into a different
beast. I saw in Christmas Eve with
two friends, walking down the high street
at 1am. The art students
had disappeared, instead the roads
awash with black and brown roadmen
– all the older side of mandem –
who had congregated in groups
by why-are-you-still-open-now
barber shops. We approached them with
apprehension, knew a comment
or catcall was likely not far
off, but the thing about Peckham
is round here we always like to
have a laugh. One of them looks us
up and down, locks his gaze on Jo
whose crop top is hidden by a
large lime green fur coat. He smiles and
shouts out ‘Oi green/I’m gonna roll
you in a Rizla/and smoke you
and I laugh, and laugh, and laugh. This
is nighttime in my ends. Humour
so entrenched I can forget that
in a few years, these shops and these
men and my Mum and her friends might
be cleared out to make space for the
people once too scared to come here,
people whose parents tell their friends
with thinly veiled horror that the
kids have bought houses in Peckham!

Bridget Minamore is a poet and journalist. Her pamphlet ‘Titanic’ came out in 2016.

1.30am, Lambeth Walk: Vinay Patel

I’d never owned a pet until I suddenly acquired three cats in July of last year. Their old owner, a neighbour, had died and as I already ‘knew’ these cats from their roaming on my estate, I offered to look after them.

Two integrated seamlessly. There was, however, a hold-out. Biggie. Named after the rapper, Biggie was notorious in his own way: a muscular, bitey bastard of a feline, determined to stay unmoored.

So it was one night when London was hit by a torrential thunderstorm. With two cats safely inside, I stood in my doorway, eyes straining against the downpour, searching for their elusive brother. A howl! There he was, hiding under a car. Flimsy umbrella in hand, I attempted rescue. He backed away from my grasp. Trudging back inside, absolutely drenched, I was tempted to leave him. But his cries were wrenching. I had to do something. This is how I ended up putting on swimming trunks and scrambling under a stranger’s car in the early hours of a Saturday morning. A passing drunk encountered me in my triumphant moment – this delirious, half-naked man waving a terrified cat in the rain.

Vinay Patel’s ‘An Adventure’ runs at the Bush Theatre Sep 6-Oct 20.

‘I don’t night climb for the view, but for the hush’

2.55am, Shoreditch: Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

There’s a bar in east London that’s special to me. Past midnight it transforms and suddenly raw jazz music bleeds from the pores of the performers, twitchy hands settle on drumsticks and raspy voices belt out scat notes that never form words. It’s the second time we’ve been there, and three shots down you stop talking to the blonde singer and take my hand to dance. It’s nearly 3am when we leave and find ourselves in a vegan-centric gentrified supermarket that is bizarrely open this late. It’s definitely not a place I’d usually shop in
but in a drunken whirl you charm me by offering to buy a basket full of whatever I ask for. As a test, to see how far this can go, I throw in kippers, truffle oil and açai berry juice. They pass through the scanner and we giggle our way home, sidestepping laughing-gas-touting dealers and late-night Ubers. Six months on, that night sits sweetly, stupidly in my mind as I hold your hand in bed and tell you I love you at 4am. I still feel guilty about the food.

3.40am, Hyde Park: Matthew Beaumont

If you kneel on the battered tarmac road and position your ear above the drainage grill beside The Bird in Hand, a pub off Kilburn High Road that’s recently been boarded up, you can hear the subterranean rush of the River Westbourne – like blood in your head – above the constant noise of night-time traffic.

I had set out to track this forgotten current – which starts at Hampstead Heath before meandering underneath the streets of north London to the Thames close by Chelsea Bridge – at 1am. I’d hoped that, by tracking an ancient watercourse through deserted roads in the dead of night, I might invoke the primordial landscape that centuries of construction in stone, brick and concrete have cemented off from our consciousness as we move through the streets in our everyday lives.

Tracing the lost stream of the Westbourne through the empty, moonlit city, as it travelled downhill to the river, I recalled the real earth on which London is built. And nowhere was I more conscious of this primitive geography than in Hyde Park, where the Westbourne still secretly feeds into the Serpentine. Having climbed over its railings at 3.30am, I found a bench that partly protected me from the cold. There, beneath the sinister forms of the trees, as I half-closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of slightly brackish water, I could just imagine the forested valley inhabited by those ancient tribes that lived here in scattered clearings before the Romans arrived…

Matthew Beaumont is the author of ‘Nightwalking’.

‘I ended up putting on swimming trunks and scrambling under a stranger’s car’

4.35am, Ludgate Circus: Phil Lawrence

‘Hello, can you help?’ She shows me her phone. ‘I can’t find this bus stop. I’ve been looking for an hour but I can’t find it.’ Panic and fear.

I look at the dot that is her and the blue bubble that is the bus stop.

‘It should be up there,’ I point.

‘I know, but I can’t find it.’ I feel her fear. In the distance the shouting of drunks, far off a siren.

‘Then let’s try this way,’ I say and we walk towards Cannon Street and she talks. And talks. The dot that is us moves no nearer the blue bubble that is the bus stop. We walk back. Try more ways.

She tells me about the restaurant she works at, about living in Hong Kong, Berlin, hints of a failed relationship. Born and grew up in Norwich. And now back here. A restaurant in Smithfield.

‘And what do you do?’

‘I’m a bouncer,’ I say.

‘Oh.’

We try my first guess and stand dot on bubble where there is clearly no bus stop. I pause and look around. She is silent beside me. Then I see it.

Holborn Viaduct, the spiralling stairs up to the streets above. I laugh and point.

As we climb the stairs (beer cans and the smell of piss) she asks me why I have helped her.

‘Karma: I found out today I’ve been accepted on the counselling course I really wanted. And Tao: fate gave me a task to complete.’

‘A counsellor and a bouncer?’

‘I know.’

At the top she yells with joy and runs to the bus stop. ‘I know this place! This is it!’ Her bus arrives in two minutes. She climbs aboard. The bus pulls away towards Angel and I descend.

4.50am, Upper Clapton Road: Lucy Jones

‘Could you go a little slowly over the bumps, mate? She’s in labour,’ Jim said to the driver. My T-shirt was hitched up above my tummy, filled to the brim with baby, as I grappled with the wires of the TENS machine. I registered our beloved local shop, beaming on the corner, with its pickles and labneh and tubs of olives and clouds of coriander, open always. We set off down Upper Clapton Road, over the roundabout and towards the hospital, for the second time that weekend, hoping my cervix had dilated to the holy-grail 4cm after 30 hours of early labour. There was the Turkish place we’d eaten at the night before last, our final supper à deux, as the rain made the road outside slick and red with brake lights. A contraction filled me, filled the car, like a tornado or banshee. Then, the hairdresser, the vet, the computer repair shop, the big round church, that weird crystal place, pizza joint one, two, three, all the shop frontages I knew, the colours of the signs, how their carpets smelt. The mundane and familiar were comforting at a time of ultimate strangeness, as I passed through an unknown portal, in an Uber, to Magic FM, down my Clapton Styx.

Lucy Jones is the author of ‘Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain’.

‘We both felt tired, but one of us had previously felt awake’

5.15am, King’s Cross: Megan Nolan

I moved to London in a boiling June, on a whim, having alienated myself from every part of my old life. At first the novelty of a strange city in the heat helped me ignore the panic: I swam in lidos and kissed strangers. But as the summer waned so did my energy.

One night in September I finished an evening shift at an office in King’s Cross – one of my three temp jobs – and went on a date. The guy was an off-puttingly handsome music producer who bought me mojitos until my tongue felt fuzzy with sugar. He asked me to go home with him. I ordinarily would have, but I was too tired, finally, to go home with another guy I didn’t particularly like, to take drugs and have semi-satisfactory sex and never see him again. I was too tired for London, or that’s what it felt like at the time.

I said goodnight and went to the McDonald’s on Pentonville Road to kill the three hours until my next shift started. On the stools next to me, two drunk teenage girls tried to roll a cigarette, giggling and scattering loose tobacco over their half-eaten nuggets. On the other side a man ate a McMuffin, smiling shyly as he texted somebody. I looked hungrily at him and the laughing girls, wanting to feel human again, to be fed, to grin at my phone because someone I cared about was on the other end.

Outside the sun was coming up and the well-dressed real adults had begun to appear, trotting along to get their trains. I wondered if this place would ever feel anything like home.

6.25am, Waterloo: Travis Alabanza

As I marched down into the brightly lit Underground station, vodka bottle still in hand, I noticed the commuter’s eyes and where they looked. First down at my six-inch silver platforms. Then slightly up at my tight blue leather skirt. Then a squint at the bulge printing through it. Then to my midriff, hair surrounding my belly. Up to my broad shoulders. Pausing at my lips, painted gold and silver. Resting on my eyes, noticing my proudness and registering confusion.

When you occupy a body like mine – a body that is black, is hairy, is labelled male but defies the idea of it, is trans, is mixed-up, is wearing things that many have tried to ban me from – stares become something that you are used to. A familiar touch, not welcomed, but one that you have adapted to. So, when their stare fell upon me at 6.25am in Waterloo, it felt more like being greeted by an old friend than a reason to be alarmed.

At first I could not see much in common in the commuter’s gaze, yet I noticed that in both of our sets of pupils there was a longing to get back to bed. I had been out for far too long, since 6pm the previous day. I had danced, and jumped, and enjoyed moments of bliss without stares. They, in their suit and constricting tie, longed to be back in bed too. Up far too early, morning breath still lingering in their mouth.

We had both forgotten what day it was, but for different reasons. We both felt tired, but one of us had previously felt awake.

They say I am the outsider, the oppressed, the marginalised, but in that moment of locking eyes, I realised, it wasn’t just a longing for bed that I saw in the commuter’s eyes: it was jealousy. 

Illustrations: Louise French

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