I find myself on the tube at one o’clock in the morning heading towards Oxford Circus. I have decided to take a walk through an area that I have explored countless times during the day, and wish to relearn it and experience it anew during the night. My first cause for concern is the harsh winter at this time of night and the cold that comes with it. While sitting on the train I realise that I, as a Londoner, am experiencing something new in the City’s history, the night tube. Perhaps sometime in the future someone will write a book documenting the stories of the night tube.
I start my walk from Oxford Circus tube station and head down Oxford Street towards Marble Arch. What immediately strikes me are the large Christmas lights that decorate Oxford Street every year. I have wandered down this street countless time during the Christmas period and never once cared to think why the lights are such a big deal, mainly because every time I walk down Oxford Street during this time of year I am trying to navigate the mass of people without going into a fit of rage. It turns out the festive decorations on Oxford Street do not span as far back as my childish imagination thought they did. As it happens the tradition started in 1959, a full five years after Regents Street had the idea. The decorations were lead by an article in the Daily Telegraph which commented how lacklustre London looked at Christmas. With the streets so well illuminated walking down Oxford Street did not feel any different at night than it does during the day. I turn around and head back to Oxford Circus.
Once I returned to Oxford Circus I decided to head towards Carnaby Street. This is a place where my friends and I have spent countless hours for some reason. Now at night time there are significantly less people compared to the day but like when I was on Oxford street it still felt the same to me. Even without the crowd. Perhaps it was the fact that the area was so familiar to me. So I resort to actively look for something exciting because at that moment my walk was rather tame. So from Carnaby street I begin to walk through the dark alleys of the area hoping something or other might happen. Venturing down said alleys I never really felt a significant amount of unease but perhaps it has always been installed in us when we were children to be wary of these sorts of place. The only thing that really alarmed me whilst heading around the alleys of Soho was the sight of rat that was too large for comfort and subsequently had thinking of how much I hate rats.
At this point in my walk I have not decided how I should feel whilst walking around at night. This is new to me. I have never walked around London at night with the sole purpose of walking around. So I consult the people before me who have walked around London in the dark, primarily Matthew Beaumont and Charles Dickens. Beaumont’s recent book ‘Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London’ offers the ideas that London is both ‘earthly and unearthly at night… the night time City is a different City’.(Beaumont, 2015, Pg. 2) With this quotation in retrospect, I can see how London may feel different the fact that the streets are so empty and the darkness envelops the City and this may feel exciting and edgy to some. However, I can not help but disagree with Beaumont. Perhaps this comes from the fact that I am a Londoner and have always been exposed to London be it at day or at night. The city will always feel the same to me because it my home and associate many memories I have had with it regardless of the time of day. The city does not feel new to me at night because of this. Additionally, perhaps it is the modern age that taken some of the mystery of night time London, with the amount of street lighting, CCTV cameras, and mobile phones. Especially mobile phones. If anyone is now lost in night time London there is no more worry or even sense of adventure, as some on can easy just pull up a map on their phone and head to the place they wish with the quickest and easiest route. I admit that Beaumont’s book was published in 2015 so he is observing the same London as me, but I feel as a youth of London that it has not kept its sense of mystery because it may be that I have been moulded by London at night. This is not to say that to any visiter of London that night time walking at London is not something special. This city is different, people are more relaxed than during the day, but for the modern city itself I cannot say it is ‘unearthly’. However, if by magic I ended up in Charles Dickens’ London I will have something much different to say. There are moments in Dickens’ ‘Night Walks’ where he describes Covent Garden and its people as ‘wonderful company. The great waggons of cabbages, with growers’ men and boys lying asleep under them, and with sharp dogs from market-garden neighbourhoods looking after the whole, were as good as a party.’ Nowadays I find it highly unlikely that the market of Covent Garden would have these sorts of things going on. This is why I cannot associate myself with Beaumont’s thinking, gone are the days where boys would be asleep under wagons and people bantering and shouting before market. I feel as if London has lost this or it is harder to find. London has changed in this sense.
From Carnaby Street I decide that my walk was not exactly what I was hoping for. It was rather tame. So I come to the decision that observe some people and try my hand at becoming a flaneur for a bit. I mean, I was slightly well dressed I fit the part ever so slightly. I decide to post up on the corner of Shaftesbury avenue and Wardour Street. I came to this decisions as I felt that this was an area where at this time of night there was significant crowd and interesting people I could observe. I stand on the corner for several minutes. As the minutes increase I feel more and more uncomfortable. In my head I felt as if was attaching attention as it was odd that I was alone on the corner and just watching people go past at this time of night. The people of this night all seemed a happy go lucky bunch and enjoying their night and the cold did not seem to deter people from a good night out. I see a potential group that I could “observe” (this sounds more formal than just saying that I was following them) however my flanerie was cut short when I saw they entered the near by McDonalds, which personally didn’t seem worth my time. By chance I saw Hen Do walk past a couple minutes after my disappointment. This perked my interest to observe them as I remembered during a seminar at my university people discuss how if a Hen Do walked past there was a sense of unease. So I wanted to see how this specific Hen Do interacted with the general public of London. So I follow them for about 15 minutes to see how they interact with world around them. I notice immediately is that this group has decided to stick to the main well lit streets and avoid the darker streets. This immediately made me think back how I felt walking down darker paths. It seems to me that night time London is different for everyone, what might not seem scary or uncomfortable to some may be to others. So everyone in the night time city seems to have different feelings and assumptions towards it. I notice that this group does not really seem to have a care in the world, shouting, laughing, and generally having a good time. Making me think that at night the people in London generally do not care how they are perceived by others. During the day people are rather reserved and mind their own business, but it seems that once in the later parts of the night people do not really seem to care. The stress of day is lifted and they can express themselves. Even though the group stuck to the main roads I see a bit of confidence as they holler at people walking past and some even looking uneasy. I decide to stop following the group and head back to Oxford Circus. The success of my nighttime flanerie is debatable. I never felt as a ‘man of the crowd as opposed to the man in the crowd’ as Tester argues the flaneur should.(Tester, 1994, Pg. 3) This may be the case because I decided to follow a Hen Do, and honestly I could never fit in there. However I did enjoy my time observing this specific crowd and how they interacted with the public sphere around them, so I feel the success of my flanerie is debatable.
Beaumont, Matthew, Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (Verso Books, 2015)
Coverley, Merlin, Art Of Wandering: The Writer As Walker, 1st edn (Oldcastle Books, 2012)
Dickens, Charles, The Uncommercial Traveller, 1st edn ([Gloucester, U.K.]: Dodo Press, 2007)
Tester, Keith, The Flâneur, 1st edn (London: Routledge, 1994)
White, Edmund, The Flaneur, 1st edn (London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2008)