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Six to Six
By Neil Gaiman
'Oh, don’t do nightspots,' says My Editor, 'someone’s already done them. Can you do somewhere else?'
I crumple up a carefully planned evening that takes in every London nightspot I’ve ever been to and a few I haven’t. Fine. I’ll just play it as it comes, then. Maybe hang around the West End streets. I tell her this.
She seems vaguely concerned. 'Be careful,' she warns. Warmed and heartened, pondering imaginary obituary notices, and adventures ahead, I stumble out into the late afternoon.
Six till six.
6:00 I’m seeing my bank manager. We’re standing out in the hall, discussing the use of the word fucking in contemporary magazine articles. I tell him I can use fucking in 'Time Out' whenever I want, at which point someone with a suit glides out of an office and stares at us. The tinkling laughter of his singular secretary, Maggie, follows me as I flee.
I try to get a cab at Baker Street, but the yellow 'taxi' light, holy grail of London emergencies, proves usually elusive. I tube to Tottenham Court Road, where a queue of taxis lurk, yellow lights blazing.
Head down to the basement of My Publishers, make some phone calls, stumble over the road to the Café München in the shadow of Centre Point, where I drink with 'Temporary Crisis' Editor James Robinson, awaiting the arrival of My Publisher.
My Publisher is late but I bump into huge rock star Fish (late of Marillion); we haven’t seen each other for years, and catch up on recent events, interrupted only by a shady-looking fellow who’s setting up ‘the biggest charity in England’ and wants Fish to lend support, and a prat who asks Fish to write out the lyrics to 'Kayleigh' on a napkin so he can win a £50 bet. Fish says he can’t remember them and sends the guy away with an autograph. Still, somebody made £50 off of it.
My Publisher turns up, and we head off to grab something to eat (La Reach in Old Compton Street, great couscous), promising to meet Fish later in the new, moved Marquee. He’ll put our names on the door.
11:15 We turn up at the Marquee to be met by 'Sorry, mate – we closed at eleven o’clock.' When I was a teenager the Marquee (possibly the cheapest sauna in the metropolis) scarcely opened before eleven. Dreams of a peculiar rock-’n’-rolloid night vanish. I still don’t know what I’m going to be doing this evening.
My Publisher is heading down to Wimbledon to try to fix an antique laserdisc player he sold to an old friend. I go with him.
1:00 Laserdisc player still doesn’t work, which means My Publisher is unable to view 'Miami Spice' ('Those "Miami Spice" girls sure have a nose for torrid trouble . . . a porno pool party . . . our passionate policewomen are ready for the big bust . . .' Fnur fnur).
1:30 Driving back into town through empty Wimbledon we get pulled over by a police car – they’ve noticed the antique laser-disc player in the boot, and have leapt to the not unreasonable conclusion that My Publisher is in fact a burglar. Nervously, he hides Miami Spice under the seat, gets out of the car, hands the cop his mobile phone and tells him to phone people to prove his identity; the cop stares at it wistfully. 'They won’t even give us one of those,' he sighs. He asks My Publisher about his (Barrow-in-Furness) accent and announces that he comes from Bridlington himself. Waves us on our way. My plans of an exciting night crusading against police brutality – or better yet, journalistically, spent in the cells – founder and crash.
1:45 Victoria Station. Something must be happening at Victoria . . . nope. A sterile expanse, full of fluorescent ads for things you can’t buy at this time of night. (Prawn Waldorf sandwiches?) My Publisher explains that London pigeons have lost their toes through decades of inbreeding and pollution. Tell him this sounds unlikely.
2:10 Pass the Hard Rock Café. Nobody’s queuing.
2:45 Soho. We walk past a street of empty wine bars and book-shops, and My Publisher tells me it used to be brothels once, a long time ago; then, 'Miami Spice' and a functioning laserdisc player ahead of him, he tears off into the night.
I decide that I’m just going to wander aimlessly, resolve not to disappear into any seedy drinking clubs, even if I can find any (like Little Magic Shops, they have a tendency to vanish the next time you want them, replaced by brick walls or closed doors).
Under the tacky neon glare of Brewer Street a young woman holds a polystyrene head with a red wig on it. The Vintage Magazine Shop has the OZ ‘schoolkids’ issue in the window.
3:31 At an all-night food place – Mr Pumpernincks – on the corner of Piccadilly, I run into Ella. She’s blonde, with smudged pink lipstick and red pumps, Day-Glo acidhouse wristbands. Looks fifteen, assures me she’s really nearly nineteen and tells me not to eat the popcorn because it ‘tastes like earwax’.
Turns out she’s a nightclub hostess. I assume this is my first encounter tonight with the seamy side of London nightlife. She shakes her head. Her job, she explains, is to sell as much champagne as possible on commission, pour her glass on the floor when the customer ‘goes to the loo’, spill as much as she can. It’s all a con, she sighs: £12 for a salmon sandwich, £12 for a packet of forty cigarettes, no one spends less than £100 a night, and last week she was offered £5,000 by five Swedish men to sleep with them.
She said no. She doesn’t think she’s hard enough for the business. Ella comes down to Mr Pumpernincks to drink the rotten coffee and sober up every night. She came up from Bath to the big city a month or so back; her ambition in life is to steal a Porsche 911 Turbo, and possibly even to get a driving licence.
4:30 I’m in Brewer Street again. Six pigeons on the road in front of me; one of them doesn’t have any toes. My Publisher was right.
In Wardour Street a small heap of Goths huddle together, walking warily. I can’t figure out why: there’s no one around to menace them, but maybe they don’t know that.
It’s sort of boring; there’s simply no one about. I start fantasising a mugging to break up the monotony of empty chill streets; I could probably claim it back on expenses.
Ella’s gone the next time I pass Piccadilly.
In one of the back streets behind Shaftesbury Avenue, I walk past some accordion doors with something written on them. Walking towards them it reads oprig. Parallel it says no parking. Looking back over my shoulder it reads nakn. I wonder briefly if somebody is trying to tell me something, then conclude I’m getting tired, or transcendently bored.
On the Charing Cross Road a little old Chinese lady teeter-totters on the pavement, gesturing at taxis that ignore her. She looks lost. Leicester Square is utterly deserted.
It’s nearly five a.m. I stop a couple of cops I’ve seen across the roads all evening. Ask them about the West End – is there anything happening late at night? They say no, say the area’s still cruising on a reputation it hasn’t deserved for over a decade. They sigh, wistfully. 'You may get the odd rent boy hanging round Piccadilly, but that’s all they do: hang around.'
They’d seen three people in their last sweep through every dangerous dead-end alley and mysterious Soho street. They’re almost as bored as I am; I’m probably the most interesting thing that’s happened to them all night. If I had a mobile phone I’d let them play with it. Five thirty, they tell me, things hot up; the cleaners begin to come round.
5:20 I pass a McDonald’s. Already the McPeople who work there are in, McScrubbing the McCounters and unloading McMillions of McBuns from the McTruck.
5:40 Ponder the touching concern in My Editor’s voice when I told her I’d wander the streets, her obvious worry that terrible things were going to happen to me. I should have been so lucky.
6:02 I’m in the taxi going home. I tell the driver about my abortive evening. ‘Fing is,’ he explains, ‘everybody relates to Wardour Street, Brewer Street, Greek Street as where the action is. They fink people hang round the ’Dilly still, addicts waiting for their scrips. Fuck me, man, you’re going back twenty years. Notting Hill, that’s where it’s all at these days. The action’s always there. It just moves. And the West End’s been cleaned up so hard it’s dead.’
Conclusion (statistical breakdown)
Murders seen: 0
Car chases involved in: 0
Adventures had: 0
Foreign spies encountered: 0
Ladies of the night ditto: ½ (Ella)
Rock stars encountered (in Café München): 1
Encounters with police 2
This is an extract from Neil Gaiman's 'The View from the Cheap Seats', published on May 31 2016. It was first published in Time Out in 1990.