How to Have a Night Out in London Without Spending a Penny
Haunted by my bank balance and tired of haemorrhaging a week's food budget every night, I went in search of all the free booze and parties the city could throw at me.
One of the biggest sources of anxiety I have in life is that feeling I get hidden in bed and hungover after a night out in London, haunted by the idea of my bank balance. I just can't cope. And with the incessant redevelopment, club closures and noise control sanitising the city, it's not like going out in the capital is even any good - crammed in a pub cubicle talking to Dave from IT about why you guys don't do this more often. Yes, at this point, London is shite to go out in, and it's impossible to do it without haemorrhaging your entire week's food budget. But does it have to be that way?
With the city's endless stream of tech launches, PR nights and gallery openings, there is a constant of open bars, but who for? Certainly not me. This is for people entitled beyond money or bank balances: Tory hybrids, industry types and the like. Yet I've always wondered whether we could – if we all suited up and walked around with that same air of entitlement – make the city work for us in the same way? To get blasted without dipping into our pockets? As a matter of public interest, I was going to find out. I emptied my wallet, slipped into some Tory garb and jumped on a bus to Oxford Circus with the mission to paint the town red – no, green.
Sure, this was a big night out. But I wasn't going where Regular Oobah – who woke up this morning to the sound of squirrels gnawing his window frame – would go. I'm heading straight into London's entitlement heartlands: Mayfair, for a visit to Fortnum and Mason. It's where the Queen shops, and Tory Oobah fucking loves the Queen. Another person he fucking loves is his mother. And, brainwave, he's just remembered it's her birthday! The problem is: she loves flashy things, things that are very expensive that one must – of course – sample before use. But one does not simply slip on a blazer, jump on the 176 bus, stroll up the road and have the red carpet rolled out in front of them, surely?
Walking through the store's lush, patterned corridors, I'm enticed by a sweet bouquet of jasmine, orange and ashen fragrances. Before I know it, my nose is buried in a small pot of dried leaves.
"Excuse me, can I help you at all?" A lady peeks over my shoulder and I'm shaking my head, ready to bolt. "Would you like to try a cup of that?
"Please, yeah. That would be incredible." She pours the first from an ornate lamp. I guzzle it and, before it slides down my throat, there's another. I catch the price on the minute pot of tea: £20. I'd just sipped through a fiver's worth of tea gold, and nobody gave a shit! This place has a deli, a wine bar, a barber... the possibilities are endless. But I couldn't take the piss.
"My price range is £100-ish and above, really." I breathe heavily over the whisky counter. "Something really high quality for my mother. It's her birthday today."
"Fantastic," Laura scuttles toward an amber-lit bar, gesturing me over. She places whisky bottles on the counter, burying her nose into the bottle and inhaling dotingly. "Are you into whisky?" "Oh yeah, I love whisky," I shoot back, without hesitation. She pours out three shots, naming the prices of the bottle. £65 for this bottle, £115 for this, £135 for this – fuck. And the next three were out in front of me: £54, £135, £150. This is insane: I'm drinking singles worth even more than a London pint.
A couple more come and go, and I ask Laura about whether she likes the Elgar that's playing in-store. She prefers shoegaze. Then it takes me 15 minutes of discussing Lotus Plaza's Spooky Action At A Distance to realise that I'm feeling it; it's pretty much sub-human to be caning whisky like this at 5pm. I need a new scene.
NET: +£45. EXPENDITURE: £0.
Offices are spilling out into the pubs and, with them, opportunity. I've lost count of the amount of times I've been caught up in that Friday finishing work hew, buying rounds for wankers I've never seen before because they're putting their hand in the air. And I've always thought: why can't I be one of those beautiful wankers? So I follow the swarms of loosened shirts and clicking heels to the Red Lion. If I just perch on the edge bar, I can catch their eye. And here's the perfect target: glazed look, teethy smile, he's counting out numbers and – yes, you got it – I'm up for it!
Sure, the fella simply scrunches his face at my request but it's nothing to be too disheartened about.
I lean in as the lady is reaching the punchline in a joke about her ex's cooking. As she gets there I heartily chortle, slamming the bar with my fist.
"That's great, Melissa!" I shout.
"I'll get one if there's one going."
She looks me up and down, "You look about 12, love!" Spinning off, hands full, toward her table. This wasn't working: the people of London weren't having anything. Ready to leave, I overhear two guys discussing where they were when Brexit happened.
"You know guys," I interject. "I can top it. I can top it – I was at Glastonbury, still up at 6am, sat at the Stone Circle. My mate had just been puking into his hat and, I was on a different planet at the time, loving life. Then he lifts his head up and says 'We've voted to leave the European Union.' I've never been dragged back down to earth so hard." They start laughing. We giggle together and, after introducing themselves, offer a pint. Gus, Mike: you're the good guys. Me: a successful bar wanker. Dreams come true.
NET: +£49. EXPENDITURE: £0.
It's a good start, but I can feel my head swelling in size and cheeks flaming. It's this empty stomach, making me need food. Everybody knows somebody who brags about the time a Pret guy gave them a free croissant, coffee or some other wanker treat, but I've never been lucky. Clearly they can see straight through my wafer-thin, dead-eyed smile. But tonight was different: I'd have to try harder - relentlessly flirting until something is thrown at me. And having lathered myself in Fortnum and Mason's finest aftershave, I was on form. Coming through the door, I meet the eyes of a man over the counter: Saul.
"My word, your eyes are startling, sir."
"Thank you! What would you like?"
"I would like to know where you're from," I gaze at his nametag, "Saul."
He smiles and looks to his friend. "Mexico."
"I love Mexico, Saul. You know I travelled around it a year or two ago? There's something very romantic about that place."
"Sure, sure. I miss it. So, sorry, what do you want?"
"I don't know whether it's the whisky talking, but you've got such presence, Saul. Has anybody ever told you that?" At this point, Saul begins serving the man behind me on the other till. We carry on playing this game of cat and mouse for the next 20 minutes: he's toying with me. So I start singing David Bowie's 'Soul Love', pointing at him every time 'Saul' is sang. Eventually he walks over: "I'm really sorry but listen, I can't give you anything. My duty manager is the only one he can give things out; I can't risk it."
Depleted, I halt mid-song and turn toward the door. I hear "Hey!" sound across the room.
A latte! I knew it: this would help straighten me out. We gazed lovingly into one another's eyes, smitten.
VALUE: £51.50. EXPENDITURE: £0.
Piccadilly: London's buskers sing aloud, trying to bridge tributaries of tourists, boozers and commuters. Each pub, crowded and spewing its guts onto the street, is a bouncer-fronted no-go. I start traversing the main roads, taking one of those Soho shortcuts that seem to bend the very fabric of the universe. Somehow, I end up on a cobbled street I've never seen in the night. And there is a bar I'm not familiar with. Perched on its steps are a mix of people dressed in sportswear and casual office wear, sucking back beers. There is no bouncer.
I head up to the bar, which a few people stand behind. I grab a girl's attention: "Two beers, please." She shoots back over the bar, "Why don't you get them yourself?" Startled, I stand frozen. She rolls her eyes, slams a few Heinekens in front of me and walks off to drink with her friends. Is this an open bar? Not exactly; this is an open advertising agency, with a bar. Good lord! Must play this cool.
Two Heinekens go down; I grab myself two more. Looking around the room, I wonder whether everybody here is on the same journey as me: chasing the complimentary dragon. What if some other fly-on-the-wall is penning some sort of postmodern experiment about privilege, with me as their example? At this point, I'm definitely drunk.
Things start to wind down, and I ask my new friend Marcus what the plan is now. The feeling I get is that the kind people of the ad agency are A) sick of me or B) legitimately want to go home. Either way, they provide me with the name of a club promoter who runs a place not far from here – a guy who may be able to 'sort me out'. God bless advertising.
VALUE: £71. EXPENDITURE: £0.
And they were right: a wink and handshake as I bellow his name works a treat. Fuck the £20 entry fee, I'm hot property. "Take care of him," the promoter says to the maitre d. I'm led to the VIP tables in the club, where large bottles of Grey Goose wait in large buckets of ice.
I've never been so VIP. It's like another reality. People look at you like: 'Why is this moonboy, with his bowl haircut and train ticket around his neck, getting special treatment?' But I don't give a shite. There's a dancing platform specifically set up for the people from the main club to jealously leer at us VIP-ers dancing. So I get a groove going.
This was indeed a classy affair. Soon the staff begin shooing us off the stage back to the tables. Clearly somebody more VIP-ier than us is destined for the stage and – eventually – they arrive. It's time to find somewhere else.
VALUE: £100. EXPENDITURE: £0.
Club after club turn me away and I begin pulling my hair out. They can tell by the look in my eyes and sweat on my forehead that I'm operating on another planet; I need to sober up. I've not eaten in hours, but there is no Pret light in sight. What do the hungry creatures of the night do in a city that shuts down at 2am?
The foxes and freegans may be onto something. There has to be something worth rifling. There has to be.
Nope, absolutely nothing. This is a low point. Possessed by my stomach, I start to understand the danger of desperation. When mugged at knifepoint in Highbury a month or two back, I was dumbfounded why it should be me, but I get it now: it could have been anybody. And when you're in a grave situation, you have to make grave decisions. I have to use all of my street smarts to survive this. I have to politely mug somebody.
"Hey, punk!" I tap his shoulder as he points out cigarettes. "Please, please buy this Mars bar for me. I mean it!"
"What the fuck, mate?"
"Listen, punk: I'm really hungry. I really, really want you to buy me this Mars bar, please." This could go either way: is he going to bolt, to call the fuzz?
"You're one of the weirdest fellas I've ever met. I mean, the cheek!" He scratches his chin, looking me up and down. "Alright, mate. And here's 50p too: spend that on whatever you like. Fill your boots. Weirdo."
I made out of there quicker than a jackrabbit! I'd done him before the sirens had even had chance to sound! I was post-money saver; a man up on funds. Swallowing chunks of Mars bar, I #Believe! I'm going to take this 50p and turn it into my fortune. I have the land of money in my sights. The strip that never sleeps: Leicester Square.
VALUE: £101.70. EXPENDITURE: £0.
Things have changed. People are looking at me differently. I've become somebody the city would listen to; somebody they'd respect.
I felt the weight of the world in my hands; capitalism screaming in apoplexy. They had won. I drop the heptagonal silver.
Onto the ground, and get out of there. Money is the route of all evil. It turned me to crime, all in the name of greed, but the truth is: I no longer need it. I'd evolved beyond it in a night. I'm beyond the rat race - I am the rat, surviving on scraps and thriving on the underground. So join me – go out into the city and live off the land. Let them pick up the cheque, for we are party-hopping, bin-rifling, round-gobbling free spirits. Viva La Londo-lucion!
Tonight, I'm going to sleep well, knowing that my bank balance has been untouched. Now, just the small matter of home time.
I fucking hate this city.