After dark, London is a different city. When the traffic slows down and the furious pace of commerce is muted, the streets are once again the preserve of foxes, the homeless and the troubled, sleepless wanderer — “all the city’s internal exiles”.
A few years ago the historian Matthew Beaumont wrote a brilliant portrait of this other capital city, a place where different rules apply. Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London charts the changing mood and characters of this shadowy lesser-known metropolis. He captures the shifting psycho-geography of this same but different town, with all its associations of villany and sexual sin.
Up until 1827, officially at least, there was a curfew. The first street gas lights were introduced in Pall Mall in 1807 and increasingly thereafter, the night became a place of entertainment as well a crime. But the overtones of wrongdoing are hard to shake off. Milton spoke of the “evil thing that lurks at night”. Euripides said “The day is for honest men, the night for thieves”.
Out into this threatening gloom now strides that intrepid explorer and would-be mayor, Rory Stewart. Sleeping bag under his arm, Stewart has taken campaigning to new levels of public engagement. Kipping down on the floors of his would-be voters, Stewart is presenting himself as different kind of politician, one more in touch with ordinary, domestic concerns.
More than 2,000 Londoners have now signed up to have Rory on their sofa. “The way that mayors get to know their cities is by literally walking through every one of the 31 boroughs, being in other people’s shoes, seeing things through their eyes, staying in their houses,” he explained.
It’s a compelling idea. Last week chez Fraser, my two youngest children were up all night coughing, spluttering and bed-hopping. Were Rory to subject himself to these spirit-sapping night-time shenanigans, I can see how he may well deserve my vote. And yes, he would have an up-close insight into my deepest concerns. In nocte veritas.
But as it happens, old Etonians like Rory were never restricted by the night-time rules that were aimed at the suppression of vagabonds and lower class mischief makers. As Beaumont explains, the night was a liminal space in which those at the upper reaches of the social ladder could stride out to mingle with the lower classes, often out of curiosity, sometimes as some sort of naughty thrill. Rory has added a new layer to this complex engagement: the night as an opportunity for political campaigning.
As far as I know, this is a new phenomenon. And perhaps a regrettable one. For the one place where I’d like to remain free from the ever present jabber of political campaigning is at home, in my own bed. I admire your commitment Rory, your willingness to listen. I really do. But for most of us, the night is for sleeping. So please, give us a rest.