A Journey through the London Night
It was all very wicked, the London night. It was seen as "lawless, foreign territory teeming with rogues and banditos." This before the coming of the nineteenth century and gas lamps, bobbies, and eventually electricity and trains and subways and street-life.
Now, according to Sandhu, it can be just as spooky as it was back then for those who work it and live it. People on the edge, the insomniacs, the trash and sewage workers, the mini-cab drivers, the graffiti artists and bargers and the Nuns of Tyburn who maintain a constant prayer through the night for the souls of Londoners.
In June 1944, a German V-1 bomb hit the convent. "The sister who was in the middle of her Night Adoration shift ignored the falling masonry, as well as the unusual sights of the nuns without glasses or false teeth crawling out from the wrecked cells, and carried on regardless."
Sukhdev Sandhu is a critic and author of two previous books, and he is a crackerjack writer. I started this one on page 60 (I like opening new books in the middle ... as test, to see if the author is as good in media res as at beginnings and endings) and I instantly found a tribute to not only the London sewer system, but to the "flushers" who work through the night to keep down the logjams.
Logjams in sewers, of logs? No, of fat. "Fat is the bane of flushers' lives ... the effluence of affluence. I wade through some of it at Victoria Embankment."
It is at once crunchy and spongy, like putrid bran. Brown and white and grey: a pigeon-shit potage sprinkled with an extra top layer of mop heads and tampons."
"Flushers tell stories of accidentally sucking in "the sewer flies who feed on the fat or of metal grating giving way so that they fell into eight-feet deep fat-quicksands, the mouthfuls of the stuff they swallow leave their guts raw and hollering for months on end. But it's the bouquet that makes their flesh crawl."
I stop right here, to spare me, to spare your ... the horror, the horror.. For Sandhu can churn our bowels with the sights and smells and sounds encountered in the sewers, on the Thames, or even in a nocturnal sleep clinic: "sometimes the patients flailing and shaking and screaming so hard. You think: their vocal chords can't take it. It's like the devil is in the child."
It's a brief volume, scarcely eleven stories long. Yet the writer is so good with the words that fine ideas, phrases, and truths drift through the pages. For example: The urban foxes, now numbering in hundreds of thousands, creeping into London, because of the sprawl of its 8,000,000 inhabitants. they are "sharp-toothed soft treaders who are drawn to its cemeteries, industrial estates, overgrown gardens."
There are even "gourmand foxes," who fall victim to the fox-pest control patrol:
Their fur, when they've finally gunned down, will be sleeker, redder, more textured than that of their prole brethren rooting about the dustbins of East End council estates.
Or the graffiti artists who always take along a camera because a "painting is never really complete until it has been shot and entered into the artist's noctographic studio." One might see them as
part of the chatter, the spectrum interference that city authorities feel obliged to silence. They tattoo the skin of the city, disfiguring it or, according to the perspective of the viewer, beautifying it.
"Graffers are so used to being labelled vandals that they learn to embrace the tag. They revel in the fact that those outside their circle think of their painting as vomit, artistic flytipping."
§ § §
Then there are the 45,000 mini-cab drivers --- mostly Pakistanis, Afghanis, Ghanans --- who hate hate the city, but more, hate those who throw up in their cabs, or those who hold a knife --- they can hear the swish of a switch-blade --- to the backs of their necks.
They too, under the artful hand of Sandhu, are allowed to have their poetry, to become someone else, for "Journeys at night tend to be longer than those in the daytime, with customers happy enough just to be on their way home to worry too much about the time the ride is taking."
They're in comedown mode, reeling off sad and funny and self-incriminating stories. The drivers, though they affect to have heard everything before, get sucked in by these tales. They move for a small while, from being mere people-ferriers to fellow travellers. They become passengers, prurient and complicit.
If you or a friend or a love are planning to go to London, forget Moon, Lonely Planet, Michelin, Baedeker (do they still do Verlag Karl Baedeker?) Get Night Haunts instead. And instead of settling into your insomnia in Piccadilly or Clapton, put on your boots to follow in the footsteps of this amiable writer.
Who, he tells us, is only following in the footsteps of the highly popular potboiler from 1926, The Nights of London. Who said ... walk: you will be "uniting both heart and head, for walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them."--- C. A. Amantea