Wanted: More scuzziness and sleaze

London Essays – Issue 6: Night

Wanted: More scuzziness and sleaze

A sanitised nightlife is a nightlife in decline.

By Alex Proud

As you might expect, I’m a big fan of the night. I own a number of bars and clubs, all of which have Proud in the name: Proud Cabaret, Proud Camden, Proud Brighton and so on (feel free to make your own joke here about my not being over-burdened with modesty). As a result of this, for much of my life, I’ve worked in the dark. For years, I knew London better by night than I did by day.

I couldn’t have done this if I didn’t love it. Nightlife – in its broadest sense – is a huge part of what makes London London. If you want to know what a city is really like and what really drives it, you could do a lot worse than be in a bar at 11pm.

The bright lights of London were what lured my younger self away from Tunbridge Wells (where I really did grow up) to the then strangely affordable neighbourhood of Primrose Hill. Over 20 years later, London continues to exert the same pull on anyone who craves energy and excitement.

But London’s nightlife is much more than a siren call to the young of the sleepy suburban shires. Nightlife is part of the very fabric of the city. It’s the alleys of Soho and the streets of Camden. It’s the heaving mass of Shoreditch on a Saturday night. It’s 400-year-old pubs and and pop-up supper clubs. It’s the Ayia-Napa-for-the-red-jeans-set that is Clapham High Street.

And yet, when you try to pin down the exact source of all this energy it’s not easy. What is it? A useful start might be to say that it’s a sort of idealised mix of restaurants, pubs, bars and clubs. I’d say that Soho in the 90s had the recipe just right. And perhaps Shoreditch did too, sometime in the early 00s. But these places are not quite as exciting as they once were.

The reason for this is that there are many secondary ingredients in the night-energy mix, too. The effect of these is much more subtle. It’s like adding an anchovy when you start cooking a beef stew – you don’t notice it when it’s there, but you miss it when it’s not.

In the case of nightlife, the anchovy is often scuzziness and sleaze. I’d be hard pressed to make any rational case for the prostitution and sex shops and drug dealing that were once ubiquitous in Soho. But, honestly, it’s poorer for their absence.

When I walk around Soho nowadays noting how many glitzy new restaurants and private members clubs have opened and how the last few dives have closed, I could be New York or San Francisco. Increasingly, Soho is a 53-year-old American’s idea of an exciting part of town. In the Soho of 20 years ago, you felt anything could happen. It was unpredictable, and that gave it a certain energy. These days, you know anything won’t happen. You’ll have a nice expensive meal with friends who work in law and the media and then you’ll get your Uber home.

You can see this happening in Shoreditch, too. I visit Shoreditch about twice a year. Despite what I’ve said about it, it’s not a bad barometer of modern London. Inner east London, for all its faults, remains a kind of Darwinian jungle for trends and hipster ideas. Where else could give us a café serving only breakfast cereals or a cactus shop called Prick?

But nowadays, especially around Old Street, I detect a sort of tweeness. It all looks a bit fake and scrubbed up. Hipster Culture 2.0 looks worryingly like Hipster Culture 1.0 with a corporate, sanitised twist. All the crappy old stuff that held out for years is going, going, gone. And so we come back to the anchovy. Does it matter that a weird shop that sold handbags nobody would ever buy has become another cocktail bar run by hipster mixologists?

It does, although I’d struggle to give you a good reason why. I suppose it’s that places like Shoreditch and Soho draw a lot of their energy from vibrancy and contrasts. When your £15-a-drink bar is next to a shop selling dirty magazines, that’s great. When it’s next to another £15-a-drink bar it’s not so cool. I suspect, in this sense, fashionable nightlife is a bit like tourism. It makes areas vibrant and exciting and creative and then, eventually, it kills them.

I recall a friend who lives in Notting Hill describing this cycle back in 2000. “In the end,” he said, “the bankers will move in to any area and kill it stone dead.” This has gone on for years, but I do find myself wondering what the effects of a hard Brexit would be. Could the bankers start moving out? Could Notting Hill become a creative place again with energy and nightlife – and entertainment that doesn’t involve planning disputes between billionaires?

I suppose it’s worth asking why there is such a connection between a creative city and one with great nightlife. The obvious answer is that young, arty people like bars and restaurants and clubs. So if you have these in abundance, they will come. It’s why London is still (just about) funky and cool and exciting. And it’s why Geneva (which is much squarely aimed at servicing the old and wealthy) is not.

There’s also an element of a virtuous circle to it. You can open a restaurant for eating naked in London because there are enough creative, experimental people to patronise it. And that in turn will mean more interesting people come. Is any other city big enough to support the esoterica that London supports? Probably not, in the UK. But on the continent you can see that places like Berlin have got it right – and are possibly doing a better job of it than we are.

I won’t get too bogged down here in the very well-rehearsed Fabric débâcle. You probably know as well as I do that club closures are huge threat to our nightlife. I’m also going to assume you’re sophisticated enough to realise that it’s not just evil developers moving into areas that formerly rejoiced in a certain amount of freedom that are at fault. What is at fault here is a range of factors, including a dysfunctional planning system, underfunded councils and license hearings that start with the premise that clubs guilty until proven innocent.

What can be done about this? Well, what we really need is the government to view nightlife as a hugely important part of any city rather than just a cause of noise complaints and petty crime. We need it to be seen as a tourist attraction and a source of dynamism and energy. I’m not exactly holding my breath in the current climate. But perhaps Sadiq Khan’s Night Czar will be interested in taking us forward to 2050 rather than back to 1950.

Hyper-gentrification and club closures are a very real cause for concern, yet I believe there are some reasons for optimism. The energy of London’s nightlife can still perform a remarkable kind of alchemy. That magic is what enables rather quotidian run-down neighbourhoods (as Peckham was in 2012) to become global destinations in the space of 12 months. Even now, I find myself baffled by what has happened to SE15. But it’s undeniable that without the buzz that comes from nightlife, it would just another inner city suburb, like next-door Nunhead.

I’m also very excited about the Night Tube. It’s come 20 years too late for me but it’s brilliant news for kids of today. When I was younger and poorer I remember watching parties and bars and clubs lose 20–30 per cent of their customers at two minutes to midnight as people rushed to get the last tube home. The 24-hour Tube is to be welcomed because it’s not the people who are able to shrug off a £30 taxi fare who make a city a brilliant place to be.

I must confess I’m a lot less excited about Oxford Street staying open late. Perhaps this is because, as a child of the late 60s, I struggle to associate consumerism with creativity and excitement. Will being able to hang around John Lewis at midnight result in a surge of creative energy? I can’t see it myself. Whenever I think of fabulous, 24-hour European cities that I’d like to see London emulate, being able to buy a duvet at 11pm is very low down my list of priorities.

This is a comparatively minor point, though. The two big things London can do to retain its night­life are to sort out the current licensing system and tame hyper-gentrification. If it can accomplish both of these things, it stands a chance of holding onto the bars, pubs and clubs that have for so long been such a source of energy and excitement. And then, in another couple of decades, it will still be just as much of a draw for 20-year-olds who have grown up in Tunbridge Wells.