London's nightlife has a disease. One that has seen clubs and bars crumble away, replaced with expensive new flats, built exclusively for people who already own expensive new flats. And despite mass public protests, hearings and the election of a new, night-friendly mayor, the city has powered on, closing more than half of its clubs over the past eight years and making it clear the disease is terminal.
But hey, is it all that bad? London still has more clubs than Stevenage, or Ipswich, or Blackburn, and some of them – XOYO, Corsica Studios, the Bussey Building – are actually good. Then, of course, there are also loads of slightly more maligned places to spend £6 on bottles of beer, but in times of desperation perhaps we should be giving them a chance? Looking past their reputations as disgusting shit holes and making the most of what's available to us?
There's only one way to find out if this is worth it: down two cans of extra strength Polish lager and tour the worst clubs London has to offer (according to the experts on TripAdvisor). The best place to start? Clapham, a 220-acre absence of culture in the south-west of the city, filled exclusively with Australians, young people who watch rugby and Instagram clean-eating gurus.
INFERNOS, CLAPHAM – #932* of the 1,278-strong "Nightlife in London" list (via TripAdvisor)
First, let's see what people who take the time out of their day to write online reviews of nightclubs think of the place:
"Probably the smelliest club in London."
"Overpriced, Disgusting, Tacky. Full of disgusting perverts."
"Quite possibly was the worst nightclub I've ever been to, unless you were looking to hook up with a 40-year-old while listening to the Macarena."
A solid start.
I've got a lot to get through tonight, so I arrive at Infernos for 11PM. It's hard to capture a smell in a photograph, but the above is the best I can do. The legend is right: the first thing you notice upon entering the place is that distinctive locker room stench – years of spilt vodka-Cokes, lager farts and BO coalescing to form a scent you can almost taste.
People begin to dribble in over the next hour or so, and from what I can see they're not really disgusting perverts, per se, but more estate agents with nothing to say to each other. People sit around the edges, like at a school dance, giggling and grimacing into fluorescent pitchers of mostly Monster energy drink. It's like something from The Inbetweeners, a show I'm told was partially filmed here. It's so bereft and empty, I would take anything at this point. So to tilt the odds in my favour, I head over to the DJ for a request.
"Macarena" time – the oldest trick in the book: the place goes off. Threes of people polish off their drinks and surge towards the dance floor. How wrong I'd been! These people know how to party!
I can't see myself topping this, so I finish my drink, head out and stop in the shop next door for a couple of bus tinnies. Asking the guy behind the counter for the card limit, I hear a loud voice from behind me: "What's the limit on card? Yam! Yam! Yam!" it says. Turns out it belongs to a man in a blue shirt. "Sorry, mate, it's just I'm Welsh and I'm always having the piss taken out of me for my accent. When I hear a Brummie voice, I've got to get my fill!"
Clocking the stamp on my hand, he shrieks: "You're leaving already?!" I nod. "Why, mate? My sister is here for the weekend and I've brought her specially to Infernos. You've got to come in! It's tragic!" I shake my head and walk off to the bus stop, wondering 'If everybody can equally see and smell the tragedy, who is the Infernos joke even on?' The Brummies, evidently.
TIGER TIGER, OXFORD CIRCUS - #68* (!) of the 1,278-strong Nightlife in London List (via TripAdvisor)
And some more indications of what I've got to look forward to:
"Had the worst night of my life in this club, ruined by the rudeness of Australian manager Sam. Being in VIP was a complete waste of money. Never ever again."
"Cheap night club feel, the toilets were dirty, urine on the floor up the seats, spiders and cob webs in the corners, toilet paper all over the floor, stunk of urine, and cocaine traces all over the toilet roll dispensers!! Disgusted!! If that's how they keep their toilets, I dread to think what the kitchen is like! When I approached one of the staff, he rudely dismissed what I said so I didn't make too much of a scene in front of other diners."
"Did not see anyone dance all evening"
Straight off the bat, the VIP point appears to check out.
It's strange place, this: doesn't really seem to have a demographic. It's just a paddock of disparate people, some dancing, some trying to eat their halloumi skewers in the inexplicable restaurant portion of the club, some just nursing a solitary pint.
I make my way to the dance floor, where a giant grabs my shoulder and I hear, in a thick Irish accent, "Go on then!"
Dermot and I hit it off. We chug through drink after drink, until he knowingly leans into me. "This place is fucking shit, isn't it?" I say. "Yeah, of course it is, but that's the game," he smiles. "London used to be decent!" I reply. "Yeah, well, it's decent still; it's just decent at being really shit to go out in." We agree it's time to move on.
I'm looking for a promising pocket of Carnaby Street – the Cirque Le Soir, where I've read stories of clowns groping punters. Dermot likes the sound of this too, takes the address and hails a rickshaw.
After a rickety ride, we pull up. This doesn't look anything like the Cirque Le Soir and, hopping in the queue, I realise it isn't. Dermot has brought us to SophistiCats, which, as I'm sure you can guess, is a strip club. "For fuck's sake – classic Dermot!"
Theo, the photographer, and I leave our new friend behind and finally make it to Cirque Le Soir. Alas, it is a members' club. It is at capacity. It is a pre-book only job: we can't possibly get in. No biggie. Twenty minutes up the road, the next on the list is Bonbonniere, number 965 of the 1,278-strong London nightlife list, and the one thing the city has always been missing: a sweet-shop-meets-nightclub.
Though there's a light on, nobody's home. I thump the door until someone pulls up alongside me and warns I stop, as this place just "opens when it fancies it." Best avoided, then. So I find myself on another fucking schlep away, to number 928, Heaven.
Well, holy hell. I ask the guy on the door how long a wait we're talking. "Two hours, pal." I shoot back: "Fine. Will I get in?" He looks me up and down. "If I'm honest, it's unlikely." Jesus: it's hardly Berghain, is it? Why is every post-midnight pint here such a fucking war? Desperate, I jump on a Santander bike and listen to my ears. The stream of trotting heels lead me to the edge of the Thames: bingo.
OPAL BAR, EMBANKMENT - #946* of the 1,278-strong Nightlife in London list (via TripAdvisor)
"Worst place I ever been in London."
"It's a rather tatty affair. Sticky worn cream leather sofas give it the feel of a minicab's waiting room."
"We were told to 'sit on the kerb for 10mins' before coming in even though we had only had 2 drinks each and it was raining. I was appalled by the bouncers' attitude and even now, considering the venue was absolutely empty, we were asked for ID and searched, it was ridiculous. We were not made to feel welcome at all."
I toss an empty can in the bin and tuck my Santander Cycle away. The doorman watches me doing the whole thing. He's shaking his head as I approach, saying, "We're at capacity," but I'm not having any of it: "I don't care what you're charging, just please let me in – give me your VIP experience if you have to." He starts nodding, then speaks into a Bluetooth headset. Miraculously, there's room all of a sudden and the rope is unclipped for me to make my way through.
You know what? They sure do know how to treat a guy here. Tepid fizz from a plastic goblet! A large leather sofa and some goth-coloured balloons all for me! The magic this night so desperately needs.
Turns out Opal Bar's not so bad. In fact, after those previous dives, this is paradise. I order three drinks in the space of ten minutes; I live for this shit! Bounding back to my leather seat for round number four, I drop a lighter and scurry down to grab it. It's then that I see it.
A birthday cake, on the floor. A birthday cake, on the fucking floor. Staring deep into the half-footprint taken from its side, I snap out of my trance. I'd been suffering from full-on Stockholm Syndrome. Shaking hands with security guards, winking at the bar staff and giggling as they accepted £14 for two singles with mixers; I was so desperate just for somewhere to actually let me in that I'd put up with anything.
I have to get out of here before I thank somebody for putting a dishwasher tablet in my buck's fizz.
It's 4:30AM and you can count the amount of open places on one hand. People shovel kebabs into their mouths, stumbling men push each other into the street and mini-cabs abruptly pull up so passengers can empty their guts. It's no great surprise that London looks so ugly at this time of night: it's a city that has to condense all of its partying into a two-hour time slot, and this is the product of that. But there's one place left; one final frontier that could satisfy the depth of my needs. And it is but a night tube away.
CLUB AQUARIUM, OLD STREET – #925* of the 1,278-strong Nightlife in London list (via TripAdvisor)
"The water in the pool was cold and the beers etc exspenssive"
"The swimming pool was right at the end of the club, by the 'gents' toilets - It felt like a private room where a bunch of 'very' wasted individuals in their boxers/thongs were trying to get it on with each other!"
"Worst experience of clubbing."
Club Aquarium, a club with a swimming pool. By this point in the night it's an oasis on an otherwise bleak horizon; a place I can get a drink at 5AM without having to gamble or routinely put a pound coin in a pint glass. Walking up its stairs I pass dancers and muscular, bare-chested men. I've been told by a friend that if you dip a toe in Aquarium's waters you're destined to tip-toe away with a skin condition. I must be careful.
People peer in and angle their heads from the porthole in the men's toilet as I approach the edge of the pool.
The water is absolutely fucking freezing, which explains why the only other swimmers are two men stood in wet boxers, jaws flapping about, having a heart-to-heart. Then, on the other side of the room, a girl on her own in the hot tub. Weird, weird vibes inside.
I hear the distant thump of a Roland TR-808, think of the rising sun and feel the chlorine burn my eyes: this is exactly what I was looking for – a place that seems to actively revel in its shitness. So it's a shame, when the lights come up at 5:30AM, that I'm forced to leave.
As I'm walking out a guy wraps his arm around me. "It's turned my birthday, bruv!" he screams. He's a ball of uncontainable excitement: "I'm DJ Sharp. Let's grab some drinks! We still got an hour or two before they kick us out, bro. Let's go, let's go, let's go!"
We launch into a final flurry; a seppuku you're offered at the end of a dreadful night out. The part where you see reality ahead and you turn around, leaping off a cliff to avoid it. As 7AM approaches, I ask DJ Sharp why he decided to come here for his 30th Birthday; what would possess him to choose this as his birthday destination?
"I didn't choose this place, bro – this place is long," he says. "But what am I gonna do, sit in my mum's living room or a strip club? Nah, fuck that shit. This place is it at this time; I'm telling you – there was no other choice."
And he's right. Central London's club culture has been strangled, neutered and held down by the powers of the city, to the point where there is nowhere decent left open putting pressure on these places to be better. It's like British politics: the Tories have no credible opposition, so they're free to continue being as bastardly as they like. And with the way things are going, it's only going to get worse.
But you can't let this get you down; what we need to do is embrace what London still has to offer. Put nights on at Aquarium with your mates; enjoy Infernos for its awfulness; suck it up and pay more than you ever should for a drink from Tiger Tiger.
Let's go all in for the shitness – we're really, really good at it.
*All TripAdvisor rankings are accurate at the time of publishing.
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