London’s heart of darkness

In the 1980s, working as a freelance sub-editor in Fleet Street, I did shifts everywhere from the sports desk at The Sun to the business desk at The Guardian. For a while, I worked a couple of nights a week from midnight till six in the morning on the weekend pages of The Daily Express. One morning there, just before we finished, the night production editor asked me where  I was heading afterwards. “Victoria,” I said. “Me too,” he answered. “I’ll give you a lift.”

I meant the railway station; he meant The Victoria — the all-night pub opposite Smithfield Market, a hostelry out of Hogarth. The pub, in common with several others in the area, had a sign saying that “anyone lawfully engaged on business in the market may drink here from the hours of 5 to 8 o’clock in the morning”. Market porters in blood-spattered overalls and bus conductors with bleary eyes sat down with a pint of beer in one hand and a heart attack on a plate — a fried full English breakfast — in the other. We sat among them for a few pints, and then I walked down Farringdon Road towards the tube station, homeward-bound, breathing beer, at a time when normal, sober folk were hurrying to work.

The Victoria’s gone, flattened as part of the Crossrail development, but I was reminded of it by a special “Night issue” of the review section in The Observer yesterday, commissioned to mark the start this week of a 24-hour tube service in London. Among articles in it was one from Matthew Beaumont, author of Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. The oil lamps of the 17th century may have given way to floodlit streets, he writes, but “Our cities, like ourselves, can seem alien and unfamiliar at night. And if you listen to them attentively, as though through an echo sounder, you can hear the encompassing darkness transmit from its depths the noises and pulses of the capital’s pre-modern past.”

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