The late, late show

<strong>Night Haunts: a Journey Through Nocturnal London</strong>

Sukhdev Sandhu <em>Verso, 160pp

Have our cities been robbed of their mystery? Has the London night, once a grotesque, chaotic place populated by miscreants and thrill-seekers, been sanitised and turned into a series of commodified "entertainment management zones"? That's what the author and critic Sukhdev Sandhu sets out to investigate in Night Haunts. Taking his cue from H V Morton's 1926 travelogue The Nights of London, Sandhu has embarked on a series of after-hours journeys across the capital. For each chapter in this short book, Sandhu shadows a different kind of inhabitant of the London night; from Thames bargemen, to sleepless nuns, to fugitive graffiti-writers.

Other urban explorers, particularly those engaged in the dubious pursuit of "psychogeography", have been more interested in the shapes and shadows thrown up by the city than its inhabitants. Sandhu's approach of actually talking to people uncovers stories that are far spookier than anything the supernatural has to offer. A Bangladeshi taxi driver recalls the night he picked up a passenger whose wife had just given birth, before realising this was the same man who had beaten him up in a racist attack three decades earlier. The scariest thing about the exorcist Sandhu follows around is his litany of medical complaints.

Sandhu's night-time is a place of emotional darkness. He unfurls an "atlas of suffering" during his time spent with the volunteers who man the phone lines for the Samaritans' nightwatch. Between the hours of 3am and 8am, the "cranks and sex pests" who clog the line at other times of day have disappeared and the volunteers are left with roaring, tedious silence, punctuated by calls from the truly desperate and suicidal. If it seems prurient to go poking around in the misery of others, then it's a worry shared by the Samaritans themselves, who on one hand are keen not to be portrayed by Sandhu as "kaftan-wearing, granola-munching Christians", yet at the same time recognise that their position of power has its own sinister undertow. "Sometimes you wonder if you are a voyeur," says one. "If the calls are a way of getting a fix."

Night Haunts unpeels London layer by layer, from the police helicopter with its infrared bird's-eye view, to the "flushers": the men who work in London's sewers. As the success of the recent BBC documentary Boys from the Brown Stuff shows, we appear to have an insatiable appetite for our own effluent - this small band of workers (there are only 39 of them in the whole of London) must now be as adept at fending off interview requests as they are at chiselling through the layers of white, solidified fat that fester beneath the drains of West End restaurants. Here, as elsewhere, the author is torn between his own, myth-seeking imagination, which wants to see these people as "Styx-dwellers", rulers of an underground republic that stretches beneath the city, and the somewhat less magical results of his conversations: "One day, my son, if you work hard, and study all your books, you could get a job like this. Fucking hell, we do a unique job, but we're not designed to go underground."

You could modify this sentiment and say that we're not designed to work at night at all. Yet more and more of us are compelled to do so. Around seven million people in the UK are economically active at night (either earning or spending, according to a 2004 report by the Future Foundation), and that number is expected to double in the next decade. In the 21st century, the ghostly apparitions of the London night are being rapidly crowded out by living, breathing people doing low-paid, stressful and dangerous work. Minicab drivers may be invisible to the drunken passengers who "vomit and kebabify" their cars after a night on the tiles, but Sandhu picks through their multifarious experiences: the parts of London they hate to visit; their accidental role as co-conspirators with adulterers and inveterate gamblers; the all-too familiar "tiny noise you hear when a knife is being unsheathed".

Urban explorers often travel from their own, comfortable homes to seek out dereliction and poverty, poking around in a city's dark corners to bring back literary riches. The people Sandhu meets, however, are not rendered as exotic objects, but articulate, sharp individuals. White-collar staff in the looming towers of Canary Wharf either ignore the cleaners they share a workplace with, or treat them as second-class citizens. Yet, as one cleaner points out, "London would collapse if the cleaners would go on strike for just one day. If they were radical, the whole of London would be a mess." But a night-time's drudgery only allows for fleeting moments of confidence. At dawn, when they are alone in the building, the cleaners take mobile phone snaps of each other, gaze out over the city and imagine themselves as masters, rather than wage-slaves.

With a writing style that mixes down- to-earth reportage with lyrical flights of fancy, Sandhu simultaneously builds up and dispels the mythology of London. Its more seductive qualities are revealed to be the workings of a great machine, devoted to the accumulation of capital and supported by legions of people who are there to mop up the aftermath. Night Haunts grew out of a project commissioned by the arts organisation Artangel. Like Artangel's best-known commission, Rachel Whiteread's 1993 plaster cast of an East End terrace, it turns the city inside out, exposing its innermost workings to the light of day.

Daniel Trilling is NS deputy arts and books editor

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq