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6 March 2024

Sadiq Khan’s silent city

London is no “24-hour city”. It struggles to stay up beyond midnight.

By Will Lloyd

The strangest thing about living in the middle of London is the noise. There is none. Sometimes there is less than none. If you write for a living you get used to awful stillnesses – you crave them most of the time, and are grimly cognisant of sacrificing friends, partners and money at this altar – but still, the weirdest thing about renting out a shoebox halfway between King’s Cross station and Russell Square is the perfect nightly silence. Everything shuts early. After midnight, the city is as talkative as a corpse.

Of course, I am being dramatic. There’s an O’Neill’s at the end of my road that is open until 2am. But do I want to get drunk in an O’Neill’s? (Snobbery has to start somewhere, I’m afraid.) There are nearby hotel bars that never really close, where the cocktails are mostly water, unhappy composite liquids that share glasses with skull-sized ice cubes. Twenty pounds for an ice cube? It’s not a great deal. I could walk north to the Lexington (open until around 3am, but it smells), or south into London’s warm, unwashed armpit, the West End, where almost the only places open for a late drink are the Leicester Square casinos. You have fallen very far indeed when you find yourself at the Genting on Shaftesbury Avenue at 3.30am, staring into a double whisky while shoals of mute Chinese gamblers float around you.

I suppose you could pay to join the members’ club Soho House. But then you would meet what passes for the membership most nights: accountants, solicitors, consultants. Who among them will listen to me explain why Lytton Strachey was a better essayist than Noel Annan? In Soho it’s easier to get drunk after dark in a restaurant (try Speedboat’s beer towers) than in a pub.

This morgue is what Sadiq Khan calls a “24-hour city”. According to the mayor, “other global cities look to us for inspiration”. They might include Sydney, Bologna and Madrid – cities where his £116,925-per-year “night tsar”, Amy Lamé, made privately funded trips between 2022 and 2023. (I have read the job description for the “night tsar” several times now. It makes less sense with each reading.)

Have you ever met somebody who’s come back from Bologna and raved about the nightlife? I have lived in Sydney, a city that was once home to the louchest square mile in Oceania, Kings Cross. In the 2010s it was strangled by licensing laws and punitive policing. Sydney is a city where the Opera House was fined A$15,000 following noise complaints about a Florence and the Machine gig. I sort of like Florence, and I’m sure she’s loud enough, but she’s not exactly Deep Purple.

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The fine was a very London move. Noise complaints are as common and annoying in the city centre as lost tourists. In recent years councils have used them to threaten pubs and music venues, while also citing potential noise as a reason to prevent new ones from opening. The Compton Arms, a crooked backstreet pub that George Orwell used to haunt, had its licence reviewed by Islington Council in 2022 after complaints about boisterous guests (it was saved). There are dozens of similar cases in every London borough. Westminster Council wouldn’t even let the Greggs on Leicester Square stay open for 24 hours. Did they think people were going to mainline steak bakes and smash up the place?

Last year, the same council put Trisha’s – a nasty, heavingly full, but essential Soho basement bar – licence under review. After a two-week closure, Trisha’s was allowed to reopen. Amy Lamé appears to have had nothing to do with saving it – maybe she was at one of those famous Bologna nightclubs. But other venues have not been so lucky. When Khan made Lamé, a long-time Labour activist, a “tsar” in 2016, he said hers was possibly “the toughest gig there is in City Hall. The job [Lamé] has is to make sure clubs stop closing down, to stop live music venues closing down.” Since 2020, 1,165 venues have closed in the capital.

This is why there are screams of rage whenever Lamé uses part of her week to put in a media appearance, as she did on BBC London earlier this month. She blathered on about policy and plans and stakeholders, and has spoken about protecting the LGBTQ community, even while gay bars are closing. The anger Lamé attracts does not feel like the everyday disgust inspired by somebody simply doing their job badly. It feels like something else.

A few minutes from my flat in Bloomsbury is a slouching, elegant Georgian house: 46 Gordon Square. When Virginia Woolf moved there in 1904, aged 22, she wasn’t simply changing addresses: she was making the paradigmatic move further into London. Away from sad and stuffy parents, towards what the capital’s mayor would no doubt call a “vibrant, inclusive, diverse” city. That was how Woolf remembered moving to Bloomsbury: “Everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.” Bloomsbury was then a bohemia where the children of the rich rebelled, lived cheaply and messily, with the space and time to come up with new ideas. I imagine it was also possible to get a drink in after midnight back then.

London’s disappointment with Lamé, and by extension with Khan’s capital, is really disappointment that the city Woolf moved to no longer exists. You do not move to London to find that everything is new, different and on trial. You move here and discover that most of the restaurants won’t seat you after 9pm, that the pubs are closed by 11.30. Bohemia only lives in old books.

[See also: Mark Drakeford doesn’t understand Wales]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain