Briefly Noted: Sukhdev Sandhu’s Night Haunts

Night Haunts front cover

Why write yet another book about London? Why buy one? Why read it once it’s been bought?

The most obviously unusual thing about Sukhdev Sandhu’s Night Haunts: A journey through the London night (2007) is that it’s very small — running to a mere 140 pages, not all of them covered in prose — that it weighs only a few ounces, and fits easily into a handbag or jacket pocket. Since there is something about the incomprehensible vastness of London that breeds fat and unwieldy volumes, by creating a work so markedly at variance with the industry standard, Sandhu has already achieved a neat feat of authorial positioning. Early on, by a similar token, Sandhu effectively distances himself from he calls ‘the self-obsessed maunderings of psychogeographic writing’. So to put it more bluntly than Sandhu ever does — the author’s good manners are by no means the least remarkable facet of this in many ways compelling little volume — the diminutive format telegraphs that, no matter how well their books may sell, we are not dealing here with an Ackroyd or a Sinclair, let alone the sort of desperately heart-felt novel in which the author refuses to waste a single London thought, experience or half-forgotten borrowing from someone else’s marginally better book.

And then there’s that subtitle, pacing out the boundaries of Sandhu’s chosen subject-matter. Night Haunts comprises a series of short, interconnected essays in which Sandhu encounters, through a succession of nocturnal journeys, the human face of present-day, dusk-to-dawn London: not ‘nightlife’, for which Sandhu expresses a very fully-formed contempt, but rather the mysterious hidden life that goes on, day in and day out, when most of the Metropolis is sleeping, or at least trying to sleep. Sandhu fears that the London night may be dying, that its ‘fissile, threatening energies are now spent’ — killed off by working practices and technologies mandating 24/7 living, the cold constant scrutiny of CCTV, omnipresent street-lighting and over-anxious urban planning — but wishes to test this theory. So he travels around London by night, and then goes on to write about the people he meets: the police who patrol the skies in helicopters, street cleaners, the Samaritans, an exorcist, the men who clear fat from London’s drains, mini-cab drivers, graffiti artists, Thames bargemen, a man who gets paid to cull urban foxes, a team of medical sleep technicians, and the nuns of the Tyburn Convent. ‘Noctambulation’ is Sandhu’s word for this enterprise. Interspersed with Sandhu’s own reflections, discoveries, questions, revelations and reveries are brief snatches of these other voices, as filtered through the author’s own organising consciousness. The voices he hears are the unsentimental, darkly funny, melancholy, sharp-witted, resigned, sometimes even hopeful ones, most of them capable of finding beauty even in the grimiest corners of the nighttime Metropolis.

Finally, there’s Sandhu himself. Before reading this book, I knew nothing about him, except that he reviews films for the Daily Telegraph. But Night Haunts is perhaps both a more personal and a more complex book than it initially appears. It turns out (my source for this is the highly autobiographical, elegant review of Midnight All Day by Hanif Kureishi that Sandhu wrote for the LRB) that Sandhu is the London-born son of a Punjabi Sikh factory worker who moved to Britain in 1965. Sandhu grew up in the deeply provincial Gloucester of multiple Kwik Saves, a very famous serial killer and a very small Asian community; intelligent, frustrated and more than ready to escape, he took a DPhil at Oxford and later decamped to an academic post at NYU. His published works include London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined A City (2003), but he’s also a fairly prolific reviewer and journalist. All of this matters, I think, to Night Haunts, which might be variously construed as an essay in literary criticism, or as features journalism of the most stratospherically upmarket sort, or indeed as a serious academic book about crossing the boundaries that separate our various intersecting worlds of ethnicity, social class and temperament — but which never forgets to celebrate the sense of liberating possibility which, however ungraciously, London usually offers.

In 2006, Sandhu accepted a commission from ArtAngel (the organisation which, among other things, comissioned Rachel Whiteread‘s subtly effective Ghost) to write about the London night. Before printed publication, much of the work appeared on its own website, with sound provided by Scanner. Whether one prefers to encounter Sandhu’s text by way of incredibly cheap newsprint while stuck in traffic on a No. 19 bus, getting absolutely lost in the texture of his sometimes self-indulgent yet more frequently poetically spot-on prose — or, in contrast, to read his text, white-on-black, by the glow of a laptop screen as part of an experience in which the distracting noises turn out to be art, rather than accident — is probably as much a matter of age, patience and energy levels as it is one of taste.

Either way, there is no getting away from Sandhu’s prose, the thick stuff out of which his London nights are extracted. Sandhu clearly loves language — his enthusiasm bubbles out from the joins between every phrase — with an ardour that extends not only to the literary or journalistic language in which London has historically and recently been described, but to the omnipresent cadences of popular music, fanzines, advertising, soap-opera script-writing and half-heard background conversations. At its best, then, Night Haunts seems to overhear not some generic ‘London’, the stuff of other people’s books, but rather the just-past world of London in 2006, with its catch-phrases, fads and momentary preoccupations. At its worst, on the other hand, the language can feel cluttered, precious, ill-considered — a triumph of verve and confidence and too much late-night reading over plain good sense.

So, once again, slightly tiresomely, the issue of taste confronts us. Well, then, let me cast my vote for passion over coolness, for vision over caution, for the sort of artistic humility-cum-arrogance that throws itself in at the beginning of a sentence not quite knowing where it’s going but trusting that somehow, through some happy collision of effort and inspiration, it will all come right in the end. There’s a level at which the language itself exudes a the warmth, vitality and optimism that’s central to this book, just as more circumspection and caution would have exuded something else entirely.

Prose apart, the most striking thing about Night Haunts — and the quality that distinguishes it most clearly from other accounts of London — must surely be its tone. Night Haunts is, despite all the sadness and bleakness that Sandhu repeatedly evokes, persistently optimistic. Chapters, even individual paragraphs, swing round at the last possible moment in order to emphasise the positive, to seek out the possibilty of goodness, maybe even redemption. The office cleaners who were doctors or engineers in the countries of their birth, who left behind wives and lovers and children to come to London, who work hard beyond belief but are treated like thieves or objects (if they are even noticed) by the people whose offices they clean: as morning comes and their long night of labour ends, they look out the windows of Docklands corporate behemoths and ‘are struck by the hard, lunar beauty of it all’, just as the police in their helicopters, after a night of tracking every form of disorder and random violence, find that ‘Everything’s lovely from the air – even the worst bits look good’.

Comparing Sandhu’s London with, say, the grotesque unending unregenerate viciousness of Ackroyd’s, or the believable whispered conspiracy theories of Sinclair’s, is not only instructive, but also oddly inspiring. It’s not, I should hasten to add, that Sandhu is glib, because actually much of Night Visions is quite poignant, or that Sandhu is insensitive to injustice or violence, because there’s a lot of both in the book. The difference is that Sandhu always places evil within the context of precisely those qualities that have the potential to act as solvents upon it. His politics, while often much in evidence, are admirably individual and difficult to place. His treatment of our ‘multicultural’ London is both clear-eyed and magnificently nuanced. And he’s respectful of religious faith, and conscious of its ongoing vitality, in a way that probably has everything to do with his ability to look outside the usual ambit of white, middle-class, middle-brow liberal Britain.

Having said all that, Night Haunts might have benefited from closer editorial scrutiny. Mistakes like ‘Lincoln Inn Fields’ [sic] and one too many repetition of the same striking phrase within half a dozen pages of each other are not only the sort of distraction Sandhu’s prose doesn’t need, but the sort of casualness a writer of Sandhu’s freedom and fluency ought not to have to tolerate. (I should add that this isn’t a criticism of Sandhu himself — but professional editing is one of the few advantages that ‘real’ books can boast over e.g. quick-and-dirty blog posts, and the world of paper print abandons these hallowed conventions at its peril.)

There are also, it must be said, some manifest oddities in this book. For one thing, the voices of Sandhu’s London night are overwhelmingly male ones, while those that are not — the Tyburn nuns — are explicitly disengendered and desexualised by the fact of their vocation. Superficially, this might seem to suggest something about the London night itself — that its dangers and ambiguities are somehow more suitable for men than women — until one stops to remember all those bored and clock-watching clip-joint girls, the dancers in clubs, the midwives, the nurses in neo-natal units humming hymns in the half-light of beeping monitors, the addict whores with their bad skin, the undercover WPCs monitoring empty-looking houses, the teenage runaway outside a railway station trying desperately to stay awake because she’s afraid of what will happen if she doesn’t, or the young mother clutching her colicky baby and wondering whether she’ll ever go to sleep again. So odd is this one-sidedness — at least to the ears of a woman who lives in London — that one wonders, when a caller rings the Samaritans but hangs up when he hears a woman’s voice, whether the words we hear come from the caller himself, or from the author’s own subconscious.

But to criticise a certain partiality of vision here would be to miss the point about what’s best in Night Haunts, which is precisely the individuality of Sandhu’s writing. It’s precisely why his London comes across as actual, rather than generic, and why some of his descriptions gain such traction. Long after I’ve grown vague on the specifics of his subject-matter, and the rhythms of those long descriptive lists and pungent quotations, I suspect that I’ll remember something of his exhilaration at seeing London at night from a helicopter, or his fascination when confronted with the changing shoreline of the Thames. I’ll remember his amazing evocation, near the end of the book, of insomnia and its predations — the mounting force of those cumulative paragraphs so powerfully conjuring that distinctive rhythm life acquires after days or weeks without normal sleep, the damage to memory and sense of self, the flat grey wall of desperation one finally encounters — and fears one will only ever continue to encounter, again and again, every night, perhaps forever. This rings true, as do his passing references to unstaunchable late-night sadness.

Best of all, though, perhaps, are Sandhu’s insights into the worlds of mini-cab drivers and cleaners. It’s not a nice thing to admit, I suppose, but walking down Shaftesbury Avenue the other day, soon after finishing Night Haunts, I found myself staring at strangers — at the sort of unremarkable, apparently ordinary people I suppose I must pass every day, but who (unless, of course, London being what it is, they are either friends, potential lovers or killers) too many of us somehow avoid seeing — and wondering about their lives, their hopes, their private losses and griefs. In a culture in which callousness, flippancy and cynicism may sometimes read as cardinal virtues, Sandhu’s compassion — an unfashionable word, but we’ll let it stand, if only because there’s no more accurate one — is both outstanding and wholly believable. At that level, I suppose Night Haunts has changed my own London. And for that, aside from anything else, it has earned its place on my shelves.

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