Urban Somnambulism

A small pleasure of mine involves riding the night bus around London. Most people look at me disbelievingly when I say this, since night buses in London tend to host the worst of citizens, where drunkenness and rabble-rousing are par for the course. Despite the numerous problems that may occur during a night journey (though to be honest, they don’t happen that often), I still love them because they allow me to see the city in the dead of night. Living so far from my friends and the action has made me grow accustomed to the long journey back home, sometimes several hours after midnight. London is transformed in those hours before the sun rises and banishes the shadows back into memory. The night is ruled by not only by revellers, but by those normally hidden (or ignored) during the day. One of my first night walks involved leaving a Jazz Bar in Dalston late at night and walking to London Bridge once I reached Liverpool St. Marvelling at the quiet streets, I ended up getting on a bus with cleaners all ending their shifts. It’s not very often that the bus is occupied solely by young and older ladies drawn together by profession and memories of homes left behind. I luxuriated in the subdued happy chatter that surrounded me and started to think about the world that exists once street lamps turn on.

The city spends half of its existence as a somnopolis, a reflection of the day. Places like East London continue as usual, filled with the noise of traffic and hipsters stumbling from one venue to the net. But once I near central London, the streets grow empty and quiet. The only noise around is my own thoughts, magnified by the silence, interrupted every once and awhile by a few people trying to make their way home. The city becomes unreal, the streetlights giving everything a hazy glow as if I’ve stumbled into a forgotten film set. Though I am normally uninterested in landmarks, they become more forbidding and mysterious in the dark, looming sentries which stand starkly against the sky. Ghosts become more apparent, forgotten relics which eye passes over so easily when the sun is out. Statues seem to watch when passed, and disused train stations- the spectres of the Underground- beg to be touched and entered by passengers once more. This experience becomes heightened while on the bus, I feel as though I am being given my own tour of the city’s secrets, an accomplice in its double life. At this time the city is best for the solitary, the introverts and dreamers, and those that don’t want to be found.

London is still lively at night, though it is muted. While some places become ghost towns, there are still pockets of activity all around. Along the Thames, photographers set up their cameras to take pictures of the South Bank, Westminster and the river itself as ships sail though inky blackness (the river at this time gives a pressing sense of menace, leading to unwanted thoughts of falling into its depths). Once in central London, quiet streets can quickly lead to noisy crowds, though not in the claustrophobic cluster of the daytime. Diners, chip shops and kebab shops operate as they do in the day, bustling and mouth-wateringly odorous. Empty shops, brightly lit, still attract window shoppers waiting for taxis and buses to take them on their way. Even when returning home to the hinterlands of the city, kebab shops light the way, beacons for the hungry and weary. In a recent discovery, there is even a market on the main road near my house open 24 hours, selling Polish, Middle Eastern and Caribbean goods. I like to think of it as the culinary UN, drawing disparate groups of insomniacs together in order to eat fresh produce and canned vine leaves. My nightly travels even end with the same burst of life, birds singing high and clear in the trees. Moving around the city at night makes every experience and encounter more cinematic, more intimate. I look forward to more night journeys to come.

What I’ve been listening to today, serendipitously:
London Nights

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