For most of my adult life, I wanted nothing more than to be asleep. I’d developed insomnia in my late teens, when a patch of wakefulness during my A-levels became a debilitating, all-consuming habit I couldn’t seem to break. Some nights I’d get five or so hours of fidgety kip. On others, none at all. Finally, in my 30th year (after my new GP refused to give me any more of the pills I’d been crunching like Polos for years), I managed to turn things around, thanks to an app called Sleepio. I didn’t miss the bone-deep weariness, the constant hunger and the occasional alarming hallucinations. But there was one thing I felt wistful for: night walking in London, something that made me wish that, ironically, I was still an expert at staying awake.
For a while I’d been turning my difficulties with sleep to my advantage, getting up very early (or going to bed very late, depending on which way you spin it) and wandering around places like Soho and Camden, which were always busy enough to feel safe but still magically quiet. After midnight, I found the main arteries unclogged themselves and the streets took on a different, more promising shape. I missed seeing the city like that. So not long ago, I started getting my old night bus into town and retracing my steps, watching the after-hours world go by.
This makes me, I suppose, a flâneur (or the female equivalent – a flâneuse). Not to go all Blade Runner on you, but I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. A fox turning its nose up at a discarded kebab. A man quitting his job by leaving his boss an answerphone message at 2.45am outside Koko. Whole secret lives being uncovered during the wait for an Uber. Sometimes it seems like you’ve slipped into a parallel universe – a neon-dappled one where none of the normal rules apply; ‘that feeling of luminescence,’ was how artist Antony Cairns put it when he was talking about his show of nocturnal London cityscapes at the Tate last year.
‘Not to go all Blade Runner on you, but I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe’
That said, if you go night-walking a lot, you’ll start to see familiar faces, much like you would on a commute: the same bakers opening up at 3am, the same club kids waiting for the N38 outside Electrowerkz in the early hours of Sunday morning. Of course, you have to be vigilant. And watching the sun rise from, say, the plush surrounds of Duck and Waffle on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower is very different to being forced to watch it because you don’t have anywhere to sleep. Being able to experience the night as a tourist is a privilege, you should never forget that.
When the Night Tube arrived in 2016, it was trumpeted as the dawn of a glorious new 24-hour era, but in reality London has always been a city that comes into its own in the small hours – think of Charles Dickens’ after-hours walkabouts, Don McCullin’s 1965 shot of sheep being herded along a deserted Caledonian Road, and the pubs that were open well past midnight until the First World War. And summer, as Robert Frost might have put it, is the season to get acquainted with the night. It’s warmer and dryer, obviously, but there’s something about the scarcity of the darkness that seems to concentrate people’s minds. With less of it to go round, everyone makes the most of the time they have (carpe noctem and all that). You see beginnings and endings everywhere. First kisses. Last kisses. If you’re into spinning tales (who isn’t?), there are plenty of prompts to pick from: solitary lights left on in blocks of flats, abandoned shoes, ghostly trails of glitter in the road. And if you’re into food, the choice is just as dazzling. From skewers at Bun House’s tea room underneath Greek Street to gelato at Gelupo, hand-pulled noodles in Chinatown and bagels on Brick Lane, there isn’t much you can’t get at night in London.
So if you’re tossing and turning in the heat, take heart – roll out of bed, pull on some clothes and make a virtue out of necessity. Maybe I’ll join you.
Emma Hughes is a freelance journalist and keen flâneuse