On the westbound platform of Bethnal Green tube, a couple is recreating Rodin’s The Kiss. They are, I estimate, 40 seconds from puking on each other. It’s 2am. Usually, I suppose, this is when the ghosts come out and mingle. Especially at a station like this where, in 1943, nearly 200 people were killed in a crush while trying to shelter from an air raid. Purported paranormal goings-on aside, Bethnal Green underground is one of the eerier stretches of tunnel in London’s arterial system. Although assorted drunks make it less so.
This is night two of London’s Night Tube service. On night one, Sadiq Khan tubed triumphantly for pictures. He smiled an “I effected change on the capital’s nervous breakdown of a transport system” smile. Admittedly, I assumed the Night Tube would never happen. After talks and delays and delays and strikes (dating back to those more innocent times in which Boris Johnson was just a mayor) and unionised meltdown after meltdown, the Night Tube became increasingly hypothetical. Or so it seemed. It was, at its low point, an entire city’s answer to that novel you keep on meaning to write.
Now it’s here and I’m about to get on it. I’m on my way home from Unskinny Bop – my favourite East London queer club night. Normally, my journey home to south-west London from Unskinny is a kebabbier version of Homer’s Odyssey, complete with sirens that are actually sirens. And Cyclopes that are men pissing on bus stops. Underground, the atmosphere is more subdued. I notice this is probably the drunkest I’ve ever been on the tube. I’m bus drunk. As I zigzag down the platform, a pair of feet appear from what very much seems like nowhere. They belong to a woman slumped against the wall like an eighteenth-century cautionary tale. I do a little gallop over her white sandals and say, “fuck”.
An actual, real-life Night Tube train turns up like a celebrity. I think someone says, “Wheyy”. A door hisses open and reveals a sleeping man. In case you’ve ever wondered, a reasonably tall man is four tube seats long. On the Day Tube, men manspread; on the Night Tube, they manlounge. This guy is shaven-headed, with biceps like babies strapped to his arms. His t-shirt has ridden halfway up his torso, revealing a hairy belly that rises and falls to the rhythm of his own oblivion. The train is – surprisingly perhaps – empty enough for him to do this quite easily. Before becoming completely hypnotised by the undulating stomach of a drunk, I get off at Oxford Circus.
“Eight minutes is fine. Eight minutes is cool,” says a man forming part of the herd waiting for the Victoria Line. He raises a beer can to nothing and no one. The eight minutes is, according to the display board, the time before the next train. A woman in a long, grey coat seems too well dressed for this entire situation. She’s better than bellies and beer cans and she knows it. She stands at the edge of the platform with her back to the Hogarthian scene playing out behind her. But there’s a quietness to it all. Night Tube drunk seems less aggy than night bus drunk. It’s languid, belly-ish and altogether less desperate. Everyone just seems to want to get home which is, for London at 2am, almost noble.
On my next train, the disembodied tube voice announces all the lines that are “suspended”, which seems redundant as – until this autumn – the only lines running at night are the Central and Victoria. The others aren’t suspended; they were never… pended.
“The District Line is suspended,” says the tinny, automated voice, “The Jubilee Line is suspended. The Northern Line is suspended. The Circle line is suspended….”
It sounds like the apocalypse.
I get off at Brixton and ride the escalator back to noise. Passengers are greeted by folded-armed and fluorescent-garbed police. Many of them. Too many, it seems, for the oddly sluggish Night Tube crowd.
As it happens, the final stretch of my journey involves a night bus. At my stop, a group of early twentysomethings is singing something just about recognisable as “My Heart Will Go On”. It’s Céline Dion, as sung by a bag of forks being emptied into a skip. This is the true sound of late London. Never forget, Night Tube-ers. Never forget.