Britain is a great country. It’s full of great places to hang out for a beer, a coffee or a cup of tea (most pubs will do you all three). Why do things turn less than great, the longer the day waxes?
If like me you’re done with work around six, and you want to get a cup of tea before you head home, good luck. In much of Britain, tearooms especially close their doors around 4pm. Cafes, if you’re lucky, hold out till 6pm. Meanwhile even the otherwise stolid boozer generally closes around eleven. What gives?
We’re constantly being told how Britain is a modern, diverse, dynamic country that has dispensed with deference and a whole lot of other allegedly outdated concepts. As with so much in the British progressive dream, we seem to shed our most rich and colourful traditions whilst hanging on to our dullest and most stultifying habits. Sunday trading laws are relaxed, so that you can wander soulless shopping centres on the sabbath, but the fusty British bedtime remains king.
Some of my best nights involved caffeine and good company
Especially in the context of our capital city and an international destination like London, I find myself baffled that economic life stops as soon as the shadows lengthen. Tubes stop; busses start to dry up; only the most miserable of businesses keep plying their trade.
Vibrant, bustling streets turn into the weird demi-monde that is British nightlife and the night economy. A suspicious man fetches you a can of coca cola at 1 AM, passing it reluctantly to you through a narrow aperture. Sticky-floored nightclubs pound out the worst dregs of the charts, only to vent their spray-tanned inhabitants out at a pathetic 2 am, to scavenge for buses, cabs and late night takeaways as best they can.
What a weird subterranean feast awaits the bleary-eyed reveller who consults their Deliveroo menu or wanders their local high street. Turks make pizzas, Indians hand you kebabs and Asians serve you chips. That’s the best case scenario. Pity the poor soul who is served by a white Londoner past the hour of midnight, with strange reconstituted substances swimming in grease that arrive in sweaty Styrofoam to be washed down with lukewarm soft drinks.
British nightlife is so harrowingly awful that we’ve come to take it for granted. In typical British fashion nobody questions why they’re being served prison food, or wonders why they’re being asked to leave the pub at 11pm, or pauses to consider whether it’s really necessary to play “Mr Brightside” for the forty-second time at a volume scientifically proven to cause hearing damage.
Part of the problem is, of course, alcohol. The general assumption in the UK is that if you’re out past 10pm, you’re heavily drunk. The food and décor reflect the tastes and preferences of the average pissed-up builder on the pull of a Friday night.
But why should this be? I like a drink as much as the next guy, but some of my best nights have involved caffeine and good company (and quite a few cigarettes). Booze is nice too, but a couple of drinks, a nice walk, a late night snack, sitting with your friends and having wild conversations after hours — why aren’t any of these options in Britain?
Well, priggish Brits will invariably pipe up, that’s all very well for (you can almost see them sneering) Spaniards and Italians who are taking siestas from the heat mid afternoon and leisurely walking through their towns when the air cools, but it hardly suits cold, rainy, hard-working Britain, does it now?
Except that a few moments’ thought renders the notion ridiculous. First of all, Brits are up late, generally drunk out of their minds and wandering the streets in shorts and crop tops, even in midwinter. Secondly, the British summer evening is longer than that of the Mediterranean. In case you missed it, the weather hit 38 degrees Celsius recently — God knows I would have liked to eat a bite at 10pm and stay out till two on that day.
Nor has it always been this way. Inns and pubs once hosted revels that spilled into the morning. 18th century coffee houses were evening establishments as much as day time ones. Caffeine, a stimulant, is a natural choice for late-night socialising. It is a far less antisocial drug than alcohol, which turns Brits into noisy nuisances and bores when their neighbours are trying to sleep.
Why shouldn’t the tables come out in the summer?
New York, which has to deal with far harsher winters than the UK, is famously a 24 hour city. What’s the difference in culture or climate that explains away its successful and vibrant nightlife?
Britain’s lack of a decent night life is not just a personal aggravation, or a “wouldn’t it be nice if?” It’s a strategic error with serious negative consequences for our culture and economy. New York’s 24 hour culture fuels creativity and innovation; it facilitates the social lives of busy workers. Ideas happen when people gather at late hours, the boundaries of the daytime fall away and dreams are shared in common.
Apart from stunting creativity, it directly facilitates our binge drinking culture, in which the standard is set by out-of-control and disgraceful drunkards who would face shame and social sanction during the daytime. Women, older people and children all feel less safe on the streets.
What the Mediterranean has, and we lack, is an intergenerational social life, in which civic space is shared at all hours by children, grandparents and adults. British social life can’t and shouldn’t be identical to that of a different culture and geography, but we can certainly do our own versions with a bit of imagination. Sure, we aren’t going to be sitting outside in the average British November, but why shouldn’t the tables come out in the summer?
Part of this has nothing to do with climate, culture or opening hours, but rather where and how people live in the UK. What Manhattan and Mediterranean cities have in common is density. A good night life requires people to live closer together, so they don’t have to travel far to get back to bed, or venture out again after returning from work. Of course central London goes dead around midnight — nobody lives there.
Reclaiming the British evening and night for all ages would be a gift to the economy. It would be a matter of social justice, too — women and other vulnerable people suffer disproportionately from a seedy and unsafe nocturnal environment. It would help reforge intergenerational bonds, and make having children a more joyous and communal venture, if people of all ages had a place to go at all hours.
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