St John Street, Finsbury, 4.45AM. Not first light. Maybe third. The crack of dawn, plus some thigh and midriff. It's not unlike me to be awake at this time, but I'm generally walking in the opposite direction, if "walking" isn't too fancy a term for stumbling about after a heavy night in Fabric.
Like a lot of night owls, I generally require some persuasion to play the early bird, but getting up this morning was easy. I'm on my way to Smithfield, where I'm told I can do something I can't do anywhere else in London... a pub crawl before opening time. Yes, my plan is to sink my first drink at 6AM and order my last at 10:55AM, when I shall call it a... day.
At a little past six, dim lights come on at the Hope, in Cowcross Street, a bow-fronted Victorian rebuild of a boozer dating back to 1790. It sits side-on to the central arcade separating the two wings of the Grade II-listed meat market, which trades from 2AM to 8AM, Monday to Friday. The pubs round here owe their early licences to the market, historically at least, but only a handful use them now.
I am joined at a picnic bench outside the pub by Gary, who's been listening at the door for 10 minutes, unlocking it with his mind. Gesturing expansively, he welcomes me to his old stamping ground – he was a "shop boy" at the market when he was 17 – like it's his front room. He confides in a bad-news voice that he's been up all night and fancied "a change, some civilisation". We embrace Hope and enter there. It's dark. Shadows lie in jumble-sale heaps in the corners. It's womb-like, so long as you keep in mind that not all pregnancies go well. We settle in. It takes a pint of dishwater Kronenbourg to unglue Gary's lips, and for colour – a furtive green – to return to his eyes. And he's a hard man to read: he jokes when he wants sympathy; and labours too hard for laughs. I stop trying to read him. When he says with a comic whistle that he hasn't worked in 15 years, I congratulate him on his early retirement. He almost wets himself. "Cheers, Joe, this beats a four-pack in the park."
The Hope fills up at 6:30. A dozen Crossrail workers take up three tables and a couple of spots at the bar. One local boy, half a dozen northerners, a Glaswegian, a Swede, a Pole and a couple of Hungarians. Their specialty: reinforced concrete. From their intake it's hard to separate the ones coming off a shift from the ones due on. But they want the camera pointed elsewhere anyway. "You can take the back of my head if it helps," the Glaswegian offers. "Your best side? I'm honoured."
Crossrail trains are scheduled to start running in 2018. And Farringdon station, an underarm stone's throw from here, is the heart and soul of the project: a Crossrail/Thameslink/Underground "interchange" from which you'll be able to catch direct trains to three airports. The future is coming, and if it's anything like London's recent past, that might not be the best news for Smithfield's little eccentricities.
"Serious money's moving in already. And money does not want drunks singing in the streets while most people are trying to get to work, even if those drunks have already put in a day's work," says Colm, 29, an outreach worker for the homeless charity St Mungo's Broadway, who has dropped in for a whiskey ("that's one whiskey") having spent the past ten hours checking on known haunts of rough sleepers. "Homelessness is as bad as I've known it. It's going to get worse when the Tories lower the benefits cap by three grand [to £23,000 a year, a measure announced by the Queen in her speech to Parliament a fortnight ago]. Every day I see the result of people being forced out of where they used to live. But I see the result of this, too." He raises his tumbler with an exaggerated grimace.
Where some are being displaced, others are being invited. Last year, overriding objections from Islington and Camden councils, Boris Johnson gave his approval to the newly privatised Royal Mail's proposal for a 681-unit luxury development in the grounds of its Mount Pleasant sorting office a mile or so away. The words "surely there will come a time when nobody will want to move into flats that everything interesting in their postcode was bulldozed to make room for" have assumed mantra-like proportions for me.
The mood is bullishly optimistic and the gender split about equal at the Fox & Anchor, in Charterhouse Street, a Young's pub and boutique hotel, which opens at 7AM to Smithfield's white-collar punters. In the main bar, a Dickensian wet dream of etched glass and brass, a party from Goldman Sachs – commodities researchers and analysts – are unobtrusively celebrating an un-trumpeted success with Guinness and several plates of the Fox's signature breakfast, "the City boy"; while in the three panelled "snugs" at the rear Crossrail executives admire their manicures over white wine spritzers. I step outside with the pub's new manager to make the right noises about its art nouveau facade by the ceramic designer WJ Neatby. Lee, who's been in the job a week, is the glass that's overflowing to the Hope's half-empty. "Early opening will continue. We're helping change the perception of who works nights, and our customers are not trouble-makers. We get doctors from St Bart's, barristers and judges."
Four pints and a couple of shots down, I gather myself in Smiths of Smithfield, a four-storey cafe-cocktail bar-restaurant whose ground floor serves breakfasts from seven, and alcohol from eight. I need to eat. To drop anchor for a bit. To stop myself bobbing away in a sea of booze, like a bottle I've forgotten to put a message in. I stand at the long, pewter-topped bar, nursing a pint of Celia, a gluten-free Czech lager, in a way that would get me deregistered. I notice in a reflective surface – a tap, a window – that I'm alone, and I look a million dollars in IOUs, so I decide to sit down where the coffee is strong and polished-looking people are making points with their cutlery, excellent points about the merits of sobriety. I ask for a vat of Americano, an eggs benedict and a Tom Collins (for variety's sake). At the neighbouring table, a couple of meat market foremen in spotless white coats sniffily appraise my state. "When did you start? Yesterday? Don't know many of our lot that use the pubs now. Most of them have to drive. Looks like you've had their share for them, anyway."
I'm out of luck at St Bart's Brewery, in West Smithfield, which, in defiance of its website, started opening at 11AM last week. And I'm out of composure at the Bird of Smithfield, in Smithfield Street, whose vibe – which befits a place that promises "dining experiences" – is stultifyingly picky. So I head for the Sir John Oldcastle, a Wetherspoon in Farringdon Road named for the former friend of Henry V on whom Shakespeare part-modelled the fabulous soak Sir John Falstaff. Wetherspoon pubs have been serving alcohol from 9AM for the past 10 years.
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I buy a half, for holding purposes, and catch up with a group of croupiers I nodded at in the Hope three hours ago. They've come from the Grosvenor Casino in Russell Square. Talk turns to the myth of London as a 24-hour city. "It's insane that we have to go to Smithfield for a drink," says Becky, a 20-something Mancunian who reckons dealing poker has made her an expert in bullshit on and off the table. "Loads of people work at night, and our job is to make sure everyone else has a good time. But when we finish, that's it, there's nothing for us to do. Think of the poor cleaners, couriers, hotel staff, shop-fitters, doormen, those rickshaw drivers. The service industry gets rubbish service! I've never talked to a butcher in the Hope, but the ones in the market go on about how we should buy them a drink because they made it possible for us to buy ourselves one. That is bullshit."
Re-entering the outside world, I'm grateful for some wind and wet. The weather has been going through its box of tricks. A light rain from a thin cowl of cloud is giving the puddles dimples. Perfect pre-hangover conditions. It's clever stuff, weather.
I'm left with a book title. London: A Tale of Two Johnsons. There's Samuel, with his belief that a man who's tired of the city is tired of life; and there's Boris, whose city is a recipe for exhaustion. It's been a sobering drink in some respects, though I suspect it'll take a week to sleep it off.
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