Night haunts

There are Australians living in the flat beneath me. They have developed a habit of throwing parties, with lots of people and lots of very loud, appallingly rubbish, music, courtesy of Spotify (it’s always especially annoying when adverts rise up through the floorboards). But, rather peculiarly, their parties take place during the day. Yesterday’s one lasted from three o’clock in the afternoon to ten at night. My afternoon of reading the papers, drinking tea and eating cake had the vile soundtrack of drunken shouting-singing along to Christmas songs, and naf Latin American music punctuated with repeated inflections of ‘Oo, oo’.

I wonder if they’re stuck on Antipodean time – if, for them, the party kicked off at 2a.m. and was a rave that lasted all through the early hours. Or perhaps they want to keep their nights free for other things.

London nights are full of secrets. Their life is rarely mentioned, rarely even noticed, aside from the neon-bright-lit drinking side. Sukhdev Sandu decided to explore it and his book Night Haunts, just out in paperback, throws a more subtle light on this rather shady time.

Sandhu spends his nights with a wide variety of Londoners – from mini cab drivers to Samaritans, graffiti artists to office cleaners, sewer flushers to Thames bargers. Each chapter is the most poetic of investigations. Even in moments where Sandhu voices his outrage at popular treatment of some of these night haunters, such as cleaners and mini cab drivers, is with a mellifluous tongue. Mini-cab drivers, for instance:

sustain the contemporary London night … And yet, perhaps because of their wavering accents, or the general pall of disrepute that hangs over them, and despite recent regulations that means [sic] they must fill out reams of official paperwork to prove they’re not illegals, they are dismissed as qat chewers, stubbly lechers, illicit sharks, conmen who fiddle the companies for whom they work as well as their hapless passengers.

His beautiful language elevates his subjects, his muses. Their accents, ‘wavering’, make them sound sensitive, uncertain, on the verge of tears, a sharp contrast to the harsh, fast-paced, insults of ‘qat chewers, stubbly lechers, illicit sharks, conmen’. His language is almost argument enough that other Londoners need to stop treating these people like scum.

Aside from these moments of rage, Sandhu’s prose is usually remarkably tranquil. Nights are slow and dreamlike, even when he’s in a helicopter, chasing criminals with the avian police. Then, Sandhu focuses on the beautiful vision of the city spread out beneath – ‘the panoptic sublime’ – rather than dwelling on the pressure of listening to six radio channels at once.

What comes across again and again is a Them-versus-Us attitude, a division of those special few who do things during the night, and all the other Londoners with their 9-5 commutes and office jobs:

Aborigines. That’s what Papa, one of the cleaners at Tottenham Court Road station, calls the tens of thousands of commuters who skelter past him as he sweeps the Underground floors. He suspects they may belong to another civilisation. Racing, frowning, dashing – always in flight to some profoundly important destination. Even the girls with scanty dresses or the mascara-clad boys out to pout at Nag Nag Nag seem to be in a rush. Their speed makes them, in his eyes, insubstantial. Hollowed men and women. ‘They are ghosts,’ he announces, ‘Dead spirits.’

The cliché of the urbanite, always impatient and in a hurry, is given fresh resonance here. By moving so quickly, under the illusion that it is because they are so important, have such pressing tasks to do, the commuters actually make themselves ‘insubstantial’, ghostlike.

The image reminds me of old photographs which relied on long exposure times, where sometimes one can spot the faded outline of a person, half-caught on camera, half-too-impatient to stand still.

Look at the blurry head and faded body of the chap by the door of H. Brooks & Co, for instance. (The photo is from the magnificent Lost London by Philip Davies, a large tome filled wtih similarly haunting photos.)

You must be still and patient to count, to matter, to have an impact, Sandhu seems to be saying. And that is exactly what so many of these night haunters do. They stay still, cleaning the station, or an office, all night; they patiently wait for their cargo to be loaded on to their barges, ready for transport down the Thames; they sit and listen for hours to people on the verge of suicide, who phone them at 5a.m.; or they watch over insomniacs, plugged into breathing machines, giving them a rare good night’s sleep. It is ironic that these people who are still and patient and make such a difference to London are invisible to us. Really it should be the commuters, in their endless blurry rush, who have little substance.

Night Haunts has certainly made me see the night differently. Now, as I am drifting off to sleep, my mind doesn’t wander down the road to Dalston where I imagine the trendies out partying, or over to the West End and high heels tottering across vomit-smelling sticky floors. Now I think of those overlooked people of the night, who are cleaning offices, or culling foxes, or flushing sewers, or the Tyburn nuns – one of whom will be praying for Londoners, kneeling in a night vigil just a short step from Oxford Street.

Now I just have to wonder what it is, exactly, that the Australians downstairs are doing with their nights. I suspect they’re probably just watching telly.

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