All photos by Theo McInnes
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
London is the city that sleeps. While most capitals and major cities come alive at night, we're so uptight, broke, and frustrated that by the time 2 AM rolls around, you can pretty much hear a penny drop on the streets of Soho. And it's not like we have a choice. Over the past decade or so, each closure of an iconic club, tightening in licensing laws or mere rise in pint price has led to the general dismantling of central London's nightlife, forcing the population to stay in or stay local.
Things seemed hopeless, until recently. The unlikeliest lifeline for London's nightlife rolled in: a tube carriage. Could it be that the Underground—a place where people would rather pretend to read the same Belgravia Centre poster for 20 minutes than make eye contact—will carry new blood to the front lines of the capital? Do we seriously think that this space, goaded across the globe for having the atmosphere of an oncology surgery, can be the medicine to warm the callous capital? Possibly, but not without my help. So I packed a bag and got ready to spend the night riding its services and bringing community back to London. I was going to save nightlife, one party at a time.
It's 1 AM and I'm striding through the rain into Brixton Underground, drinking in the atmosphere. South Londoners literally have no idea what to do with this kind of freedom—one man can't contain his excitement, and just bellows "Night Tube!" repeatedly. There's a short silence until I yell back, then somebody else too and the carriage becomes a cacophony of wild calls followed by subsequent laughter.
Soon we're scaling the escalators of Oxford Circus. Onto the Central Line we go: it's time for some after-hours stuff. So I get the glow sticks out and start beatboxing a samba beat. With glow sticks in hand, I finally I understand what these red poles are for. Of course! Well played, Sadiq.
People on the carriage gather from each side, joining in. "Have you got any booze?" they ask.
"Who needs booze when you have limbo?" I reply. Every stop inspires people to jump on our carriage, exchange japes, and play-fight with one another. By the time the party has become the scene for an unlikely reunion between Phil and Jack, two childhood friends, I'm beaming. Perhaps these are the community spaces Londoners need to let go and reconnect?
But all great things come to an end. And though an offer to follow this party as the carriage empties at Bethnal Green is tempting, this is a war already won. I have my sights set on a different prize; a place that time (and I) forgot: Snaresbrook.
Stepping off the platform at Snaresbrook, it is barren. One man stands on the adjacent platform, so I skip over and work my magic. But he's having none of it, not even a glow stick. Perhaps the people of Snaresbrook are beyond my cheap honey traps? Touring the Tory tributaries of the Essex tube, I quickly realize exactly what's required to engage with denizens of this creed: a dinner party. And though there's no tarragon in my pockets or samphire in stock, I grew up watching Paul Merton's chin waggling through larks in Whose Line Is It Anyway? and know how to improvise. All it takes is a little attention to detail; a spot of love here and there.
By the time the chaps roll around, they love it! I knew they would. People gather around, tuck into Maoams and Hula Hoops to discuss the multicultural identity of London and how mice—who pour upon the tracks after the last service, traditionally—will be affected by Night Tube services.
Coming back into central, we toast over a can of Rio and head our separate ways. The night is lingering and sleeping bodies are increasing. "Liquid spillage" repeats over the tannoy at Oxford Circus, as transport officers brush past me, and eventually I pass a cordoned-off pile of piss. It's the time of night when you go soul-searching. Warming to the hum of the Victoria Line, I start fingering through my bag. It's then that an excited pair of eyes dart from behind a book. "Is that chess?" A man asks.
"It is," I reply. "Do you fancy a game?"
"Sure. I have plenty of stops left. Let's go."
It's much later and you'd think that Janos—a dealer at the Victoria Casino who's just finished work—would be done with gambling, yet he's about to take the biggest one of his life. It's a tight game and we're giggling, pressing the button on a fake clock as if to hurry one another. He's giving up pieces left, right, and center, and I almost pity the man.
Before I know it, Janos has managed to gobble three of my pieces and I'm staring straight at checkmate. I have to give it to Janos—he's an absolute pro when it comes to the mind, but what about matter? I unsheathe two table tennis rackets, toss him one and scream 'En garde!' We go at it, through Stratford station and beyond.
I'm swept up in a whirlwind, and only at the departure boards do we notice the time: Janos' girlfriend needs the apartment keys, so he must leave. A man who can match my intensity and surpass my energy, I've never known loss as severe as waving Janos Banko farewell.
All of a sudden, the barriers feel like a prison. Blue light blankets the horizon while commuters fill the shadows left by the ghosts of the night. With heavy eyes, I take a pillow and slip into something more comfortable. For the first time tonight, I remember I'm on the London Underground. A few hours earlier this probably would've inspired some sort of impromptu sleepover, but the folks heading into central would sooner evolve into owls than turn their heads toward me.
My journey comes to an end. With a showing of new friends and a trail of citywide stations, social faux pas and paper plates behind me, in just one night I'd taught London to love again. And that's how powerful a tool the night tube can be for the city: an engaging, inclusive environment that is the yin to our current culture's yang. You needn't do more than compare the atmosphere of a tube at 1:30 PM to 1:30 AM to see that. Maybe each carriage can provide the city with a fluid community space in a city in which they're on the brink of extinction. Either way, it is far less ugly away from the cold light of day.