Will Self: If you want to see London with completely new eyes, take a night-hike out of town

We sought out the high point, and there it was: the panorama we’d been seeking.

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London, Friday 20 June 2014 – it was the evening just before the shortest night of the year, so what could have been more fitting than to walk the 16 or so miles from my house in Stockwell to the high point of the North Downs near Woldingham? I wanted this view at dawn – I wanted to see the city with the startled provincial eyes of a waking Wordsworth, rather than from the gritty perspective of a cockney wordsmith; but I also wanted the experience of getting there: the sole-shuffle over tarmac and paving as the city fell into slumber around me. I entertained the notion that because I’d be journeying from the insomniac centre to the always stuporous suburbs, I’d be acting as a 21st-century knocker-up, bringing with me the dawn of the longest day in the neoliberal calendar.

For companions, I had the writers Nick Papadimitriou and Matthew Beaumont; the former’s book Scarp is a sort of prose eulogy for another outer-London massif; while the latter’s Night Walking, a cultural history of the human subject cast adrift in the urban darkness, will be published by Verso early next year. Heading up Stockwell Road then wending our way through Brixton, we were still paddling in the urban millrace: the Portuguese smack addicts outside the bookie’s; the Afro-Caribbean devotees of plantain; the evening footballers whooping it up on the greensward of Brockwell Park – we were at one with them all as we strode, the litre flask of espresso in my backpack banging against the kidneys the coffee was soon to flush through. From the top of the park we had an excellent prospect of central London, with its new skyline of hypertrophied desktop-toys. It was dusk as we left the park; dusk, too, when we gained Tulse Hill Station and Nick bought a plastic-encapsulated polypropylene sandwich from Tesco’s.

Yet by the time we’d reached the top of Knight’s Hill, and Matthew and Nick – I thought this distinctly infra dig – were taking snaps of the Crystal Palace radio mast, night had definitively fallen. It seemed fitting: we were walking through the lofty suburbia immortalised by Patrick Keiller in his 1983 short film Norwood, a twisted fable of death, disappearance and unclipped privet in the time of Thatcher. Norwood is filmed in black and white – and we inhabited a similarly leached environment, with the lights of Croydon beginning to twinkle below us and to the south.

Descending through the darkness from Upper Norwood we passed through a cluster of pubs and takeaways around Norwood Junction that were patronised entirely by shaven-headed men wearing England football shirts and by their blowsy womenfolk. The fascistic jollity that gusted from the open doors was . . . bracing, but then we’d left white-town and entered black-town: African groceries lined the road, men in colourful dishdashes dashed from their cars to their front doors, and we passed a pub that had been transformed into an African-themed nightclub, complete with fake ele­phant tusks bracketing the doorway and a sign announcing that “Fine African Wines” were being served inside.

But by then it was already too late for such quaffing – the streets of the world city were emptying of traffic, and we stopped somewhere in Addiscombe for a coffee and chocolate, Nick and Matthew bench-bound while I stretched out on the pavement, luxuriating in the bivouac of sodium light pitched by a street lamp. A police patrol car schmoozed by. Then, coming down the hill towards Shirley, we were trudging in the middle of the shadowy lane when a BMW thrumming bass came up behind us. Its driver wound down a window and goggled in marijuana bemusement: these odd tramping magi, acting as if we were kings of the road. On the outskirts of Shirley we halted on a bosky traffic island for another pick-us-up, and as we sipped our coffee the moon rose in a cowl of milky, deliquescent mist.

Nick had the better night sight, so he navigated on for us down avenues of beeches. We tripped over smoothed roots, kicking up the grey sandy soil. Dawn winkled us out of the woodland, and we found ourselves blinking by the lychgate of St Leonard’s Church, a little gem that dates back to the 13th century, tucked away on the outskirts of Warlingham. Then came the final slog up the ridge of the North Downs, with the sun not yet risen but the eggshell sky cloudily cracking overhead.

In the field were sluggish bullocks my Jack Russell, Maglorian, was too tired to pester. We sought out the high point, and there it was: the panorama we’d been seeking. I could make out the blocks of flats near to my home and the chimneys of Battersea Power Station. Nick thought he could see his own tower block off of the Finchley Road. Only Matthew’s home, in Kilburn, was lacking the necessary salience.

I stared at London spread out before us, and it seemed as strange to me as any landscape. This might have been an alien planet, or some virtual realm, conjured up in Silicon Valley and downloaded straight to my psyche. It was that much of an in­version of ordinary experience – the night-time promenade out of the city – that all conventional measures of space and time and urbanity had been abandoned: as the sun rose, London was made anew, and so, perhaps, were we. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown