From this Saturday, the Night Tube is back – or, at least back in parts. The 24-hour service, which runs on certain lines on Fridays and Saturdays, started in August of 2016 and closed as lockdowns began in March of 2020.
The Night Tube is key facilitating infrastructure for Sadiq Khan’s “vision for London as a 24 hour city”, a plan which seeks to improve London’s night time “offer”. Reading Khan’s “vision”, which was released in 2017, is not like reading a standard policy document. That is because night time is not like daytime. Night time, the Mayor says, is “the place where we meet, make friends, fall in love, dance and laugh”.
The language Khan uses to discuss his city under cover of darkness seems to spring from one of the under-Londons imagined by Neil Gaiman or China Miéville. Perhaps this is because in a political world singularly obsessed with where, time spent discussing when forces politicians into an unfamiliar mode of speech. There are lots of local plans out there; temporal plans are far rarer.
Alongside the “vision”, Khan announced the creation of a Night Time Commission and appointed the city’s first “Night Czar”, Amy Lamé. Khan even commissioned a poem about the night tube (and appeared in its accompanying video), which would seem to echo that other poem about night time train travel, W.H. Auden’s “Night Mail” (“This is the night train crossing the border…”).
A 24-hour city sounds great: it sounds like the future, like an advertising slogan, like something to attract people who spend a lot of time in airport lounges and have the right size of wheeled suitcase for each trip. It is worth asking who this romance is in service of – or, rather, at whose expense it comes.
The academic Jonathan Crary argues that the answer to that question is “everyone’s”. He has written compellingly on the dangers of 24/7 to our culture and way of life. It is, he thinks, capital’s assault on a final frontier: that of rest and sleep. In succumbing to the world of 24/7, we are abolishing the Sunday trading hours of the soul.
Khan’s vision enthuses that “more people are looking for working patterns that suit their lifestyle” because “technology has freed people to live and work in new and flexible ways”. Read with Crary’s ideas in mind, one wonders if this phrasing elides choice and obligation. Certainly, those who work at night rarely do so solely out of personal preference.
Paul Bogard, interviewing night workers in his 2013 book The End of Night, draws an interesting distinction between “voluntary night”- the kind of late hours that a person might keep and use for themselves – and the mandatory nights of a shift worker. Staying up late is all very well, one of Bogard’s interviewees says, “but to be bound to [the night] with chains, that is a different story”.
It is a story that some in London are seeking to tell. Researchers at UCL’s Governing the Urban Night project present an interesting response to – and an implicit criticism of – Sadiq’s vision. This is essentially that it is for people who picture high heels, night clubs and late night bars when they think of the night time economy, rather than for those who actually occupy the city at night.
Fifty per cent of people using night buses do so to commute. A third of London’s workers work at night. Health and social care, the single biggest sector for night time work in London, is not represented on Khan’s Night Time Commission. Working at night is worse for you than working in the day: the health impacts of prolonged periods of night work include fatigue, memory, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular issues, and an increased risk of some cancers- particularly those relating to the body’s hormones, such as breast and prostate cancer. You are also about 30 per cent more likely to have a workplace accident on the night shift than the day shift: many large industrial accidents (such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Bhopal) happen in the dead of night.
If the breathless language and spoken word poetry of the Mayor’s quest for the night ring a little hollow, it is perhaps because City Hall takes a view of night that seems in greatest part defined by consumption and not by access or labour. Throughout my time writing this piece, I thought often about Jonathan Coe’s novel Number 11, in which an academic studies the concept of “monetizing wonder” and suggests that things such as the discovery of a number of ancient human skeletons during works on the London Underground add to our sense of the city as an unfolding place, a place with a deep, dark history.
The implication of the novel is that monetisation kills wonder, and that places with deep and dark histories are resistant to being viewed through the lens of consumption. There is a small but worthwhile collection of writing about night and night time cities as a place outside of 24/7, where people might be able to expand their internal horizons and imagine things differently. In Nick Dunn’s Dark Matters: Manifesto for a Nocturnal City, the author – an academic who works on urban design – argues that it is in the night time city where we might find the space to conceive of better futures. In At Night, Dixe Wills suggests that night time is a foreign country, one that can be both transcendental and terrifying.
Ultimately, what has brought the Night Tube back is not people’s desire to go clubbing, or to go on night walks and ponder higher matters, or their need to get to work. In the wake of the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, a petition that cited women’s safety as a reason to re-open the Night Tube garnered more than 75,000 signatures.
I am a young woman in London and I find much of the rhetoric around this deeply troubling. Certainly, we have a problem with street harassment and we have a problem (we have many) with the Metropolitan Police. I am not sure framing more and more of our discourse about how we operate in the public realm in the context of crime and safety is a good thing.
While I am sure that Emma Best, the Conservative London Assembly Member who spoke about the need for the night tube’s return from a women’s safety perspective was doing so in good faith, the picture of our city as a place full of lurking perverts is both unhelpful and inaccurate.
Violence against women is a structural issue and overwhelmingly the perpetrators are not strangers to the victims. The American writer Emma Berquist (who was herself the victim of a random attack in public) has written compellingly about the way true crime media, and particularly true crime media aimed at women, has fed an unhealthy fixation with statistically unlikely acts of public violence. Concurrently, I think there are real negatives to framing the RMT and the night tube workers, who have threatened to strike in pursuit of better and safer working conditions on the soon to be re-opened lines, as acting in opposition to women’s safety.
We do very few things in this country, from a public policy perspective, because they make people’s lives better, nicer, easier, their commutes shorter. The night tube, of course, is more than just nice. But is it too much to hope that what might motivate us to open up our city again is not fear of things being worse, but desire for them to be better?
In the 1930s, when Herbert Morrison ran the London County Council, a programme of lido building was underway. It was initially proposed that London’s lidos would open late into the night, but Morrison vetoed this on the grounds that “people would fuck in them”.
I think of the late night sex lidos Herbert Morrison took from us often, and not only because it is entertaining to think of people in the 1930s using expletives. The concept of late night lidos, or late night libraries, or well serviced 24-hour parks, is profoundly appealing, and presents a vision of night time public space of the kind Nick Dunn imagines – where wonder can be accessible rather than monetised.
Morgan Jones is originally from Ireland and has lived in London since 2015. She works in politics. Follow Morgan on Twitter.
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