I’m not sure anything could appeal to me more than the photography exhibition I’ve just seen at the Museum of London. Entitled “London Nights”, it gathers together over a hundred years of photos of the city, lit up at night and twinkling like a cruise ship, or dark and threatening, full of shadows and fog. And whether blacked out in the Blitz in 1940 or dragged up at the Blitz in 1981, London and its inhabitants never fail to thrill me. I could look at pictures of the place all night. The collection is wide-ranging: Piccadilly Circus in the 1930s and a snow-covered modern market in Tower Hamlets; the Tube and the night bus, windows steamed up and smeared with rain; the moon over Tower Bridge; huddled bodies in the underground during a bombing raid.
There are shots of a 1980s office party, all perms and pussy bows, and the tower block that features on the cover of The Streets’ album Original Pirate Material, squares of window illuminated, glimpses of lives inside. Fashion and poverty sit cheek by jowl, grime artists share the walls with Teddy boys. Through it all you can smell the fumes and hear the traffic roaring beneath a sky full of invisible stars.
I gazed in wonder at the pictures, bursting with memories, all my teenage dreams of London at night. Coming up on the train to go to gigs, I’d join the queue outside the Lyceum and then inside we’d lounge on the floor, boys and girls in and out of the boudoir, everyone up to no good. I took speed at a Gang of Four gig and afterwards raced over Waterloo Bridge, before heading home to a sleepless night in suburbia.
In 1980 we discovered sophistication and jazz, and would head to Soho for Vic Godard’s Club Left, dressed up to what we thought were the nines, in thrift shop Fifties skirts, suede jackets nipped in at the waist and shiny at the elbows, stilettos one size too small. Afterwards we’d sit outside Bar Italia, pooling what cash we had left to buy a single coffee, sharing Sobranie Cocktail or menthol cigarettes.
And after a party in Camden, in a first-floor flat overlooking the high street, I stared out at the darkened market, which would come to life next morning and where I’d thumb through second-hand records, raffia handbags and old film magazines. The romance of it all has never left me. No music ever sounds as good as in the back of a cab when you’re speeding across the river in the dark, lights blurred and rushing towards you, drunks tottering and weaving at the edge of the pavement.
Rose-tinted glasses, I know. Not everything that happens at night is good. I can dig up bad memories too. Skinheads running through a tube carriage. The clatter of boots. And always the worry about the last train home; the anxious waits at Finsbury Park and Highbury & Islington.
If I was braver I’d walk the city late at night, like Dickens did, like a proper flâneur, but that kind of walking is done by men. After dark, women walk with purpose, keys between our knuckles, crossing and recrossing roads, avoiding footsteps that sound threatening.
At the exhibition a series of captioned photos told of a woman’s encounter with her would-be rapist and how she talked him out of it via the power of drunken argument. The threat of violence always there in the background.
And other kinds of danger too. The most moving exhibit was not a photograph at all, but a short film called London River Burning made by Chloe Dewe Mathews. Images of light flickering and reflecting on moving water played out on the screen, with a soundtrack of a man narrating his experience as a survivor of the Marchioness disaster.
Anyone my age will vividly remember that tragedy: in 1989, 51 young people drowned when their boat sank after being hit by a dredger. A literal collision between the working city and the party city. The thought of that night has always horrified me, but in the voiceover the man speaks of his immersion in the Thames as a kind of baptism, an ordeal by water from which he emerged as a new person: transformed, reborn. Changed by the city, as we all are.
This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone