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Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night

Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night

by Sukhdev Sandhu

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“I would add Sandhu’s work to the likes of Lights Out for the Territory as offering some of the greatest insights we have into contemporary London.”—Michael Moorcock,
Daily Telegraph


“I would add Sandhu’s work to the likes of Lights Out for the Territory as offering some of the greatest insights we have into contemporary London.”—Michael Moorcock,
Daily Telegraph

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From the Publisher
“Some of the most ambitious and memorable work of the last decade.”—Time Out

“Artangel is truly on the side of the angels.”—Independent

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Verso Books
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5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.50(d)

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By Sukhdev Sandhu Artangel Copyright © 2006 Sukhdev Sandhu
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-84467-162-5


Out on the edges of metroland in Loughton, Essex, along the traditional escape route for East Enders bolting from tuberculoid tenements to roomier suburban homes, lies a strange and little-known place called Lippitt's Hill Camp. Black cab drivers get lost looking for it. When they do, it's hard for them to call for help: the thick foliage of nearby Epping Forest causes mobile phone signals to splutter and die.

The Camp is recessive by nature. It shrinks from publicity. But it has a history to snag the imagination of all those with a taste for the subterranean and covert. During World War Two, and right up until 1948, it was home to hundreds of Germans and Italian prisoners of war. A statue inside its iron gates marks their stay: "Cut out of concrete by Rudi Weber 540177 while POW at this camp October 1946". Later, the Royal Artillery Anti-Aircraft Operations was based here. Underground bunkers and gun pits are still visible.

These days, Lippitt's Hill is used as a base by the Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit. Its officers are conquistadors of the London night. Each evening two crack teams of men and women set off from here and fly by helicopter across the capital. They're edge chasers, hurtling towards those spaces where ground officers fear - or are taught to fear - to tread: rooftops, railway lines, river banks. Their 500k machines, brimming with state-of-the-art hardware, allow them to scan the sprawling city, navigate it at great pace and elevation, and tail anyone who tries to carry out crimes under cover of darkness.

These avian police see, not just a side, but the entire face of London. The rest of us, victims of gravity, stranded down on the ground, have to make do with squinting from the windows of EasyJet planes or going for an evening ride on the London Eye. They do a job many of us can only dream of doing. Many of them, when they started out as beat bobbies, dreamed of taking to the skies too. Sometimes, after they had just been gobbed at by junkie-pimps they were trying to arrest in Camden, or as they stood on Horse Guards Parade in full tunic and helmet with the midday sun turning the backs of their necks scarlet, they would hear the distant roar of overhead helicopters and think how nice it would be to be winched up.

The avian police see themselves as regular officers; before they begin their 7-7 shifts they sit around in the barracks watching European Championship football on Sky or reading authorised biographies of Ronnie Barker. But they are a select bunch: out of 30,000 PCs in the Met, only eighteen of them work in this Unit. As soon as the first call comes in, they leap into action, transformed by circumstances and technology into helmet and harness-sporting redeemers of the night's blackness.

They become Supermen. Their helicopters give them exceptional powers. They can zoom all the way across the congested city in less than ten minutes. High-power lenses and thermal imagers allow them to make out the crocodile logo on a clubber's T-shirt from 2000 feet in the air, read number plates in the dark, look through the windows of Canary Wharf and spot canoodling office workers from eight miles away.

They can fly within fifty feet of Big Ben and cause global repercussions by shutting down Heathrow Airport. They can light up the ground beneath them by shining 30-million-candlepower 'nitesun' torches, and help to rescue suicidal young women and befuddled old people who have got lost in Hampstead Heath. Amateur crooks who have caught the odd episode of The World's Greatest Police Chases and think they know the principles of heat-imaging hide under trees rather than, as used to happen, lying flat on fields: still they get detected.

"What's the most beautiful thing you've seen at night?"

"Oh, where do you begin? The mist lying in the valleys takes your breath away. The orange glow of the breaking dawn. Or sometimes when there's a full moon you can see its reflection in the Thames ..."

The streets of London are made of gold. But only at night time and only from the sky. They lie there, glimmering like a Hatton Garden window display. Jewelled necklaces winking at us. At Piccadilly Circus and along Oxford Street the refracted neon gives them a ruby-red and emerald-green lustre. "Cracking night, Sukhdev," pipes the pilot, but I am too awestruck by the city's beauty to reply. This is the panoptic sublime.

The helicopter flies in orbit. It waggles and tilts. At times it feels as if the pilot has lost control, an outdoor tightrope walker about to fall to earth. The stomach-nausea is accompanied by bursts of landmark glee: there, in the distance, is Wembley Stadium with cranes and machines perched over it like basketball players primed to slamdunk; there the Fabergé rugby ball of the Swiss Re Tower.

Politicians and demographers often assert that London is overloaded, crammed to the hilt, but from the sky it appears far from congested. The concrete jungle is nowhere to be seen. Even the most built-up areas are punctuated by large expanses of dark forest, empty parts of the city's night-canvas. The capital is an endless origami unfolding, stretching out horizontally rather than vertically. Its residential buildings are so crabbed and timid that any sticking out appear both heroic and lonely.

The sky is constantly lit up as private planes carrying Russian billionaires to vital soccer fixtures start their descent, and a whole queue of commercial airliners begin stacking to come into Heathrow; the effect is that of a corporate quasar game as lights continually strafe the darkness. Things invisible at ground level suddenly rear into view: industrial parks - there seem to be hundreds of them. And while, even from the Primrose Hill or Greenwich Park, the city melds into one largely unindividuated flatscape, at night time it becomes more composite in character, a loose and disconnected set of Lego pieces. One pilot describes Croydon as "an oasis of high-rise buildings, sitting there like downtown Dallas."

"Do I like night time?"

"Of course. When I was a bobby I used to go to the top of this tower block that had Big Ben in one direction and Tower Bridge in the other. At 3.30 am, 22 floors up, you could hear it strike: for that few minutes London was quiet and you could hear the birds singing:

The avian police, like black cab drivers, rely on The Knowledge. Spatial awareness is crucial. They can't afford to be disorientated even though they may have had to spin around a trouble spot half a dozen times and at different speeds and altitudes. New moving map systems allow the back-seat navigator to type in any address or postcode into a machine and, at the press of a button on the camera controller, have the camera pointing not just in the approximate vicinity of their destination, but at the precise house number or floor level.

It helps them to be as precise as homing pigeons. Yet, with single Global Positioning System screens able to accommodate only a quarter of an A-Z page, and the threat of computer malfunction an ongoing possibility, few officers have thrown away their guide books. They carry customised cartographies, special versions of the Collins Atlas in which traditional features have been overlaid with police boundaries and London letter-codes for all the police stations. They each supplement this information with biro'd squiggles of their own, creolizing the official geographies with private mnemonics for particular parts of the city. The lights near Wormwood Scrubs resemble a dog bone.

Before the moving maps were introduced, pilots learned to navigate London by its dark areas. Well-known landmarks were often obscured by fog, so they were forced to become airborne sensualists, feeling out and alert to the shapes and contours of forests and verdant areas. Victoria Park, it was generally agreed, looked like a boot.

"What's it like in winter?"

"It can be like being inside one of those snow balls. The snow comes at you from every angle. White dots spitting at you. If you watch Star Trek, it's like going into warp drive with all the stars coming at you. You don't experience snow like that normally - travelling at that speed and horizontally."

It's overcast tonight. The clouds we skim and fly through are disorientating. They make it seem as if smoke is rising, as if the city is ablaze. We hover briefly above a mist-obscured St Paul's Cathedral and for a moment I feel I have been transported back to World War Two and the scene of that iconic photograph of Blitz London in which Christopher Wren's dome is surrounded by acres of bloodied devastation.

The helicopter's thermal-imaging cameras irradiate the city. It looks skeletal, postmortemed. On the screen, its nocturnal hues and tints are reduced to black-and-white heat traces. Bleached and decoloured, it has become furtive, like a Customs' X-ray of immigrants smuggling into the country in the back of a lorry. The cameras induce suspicion: why has that snake of light suddenly concealed itself? - actually, it's just a train that's entered a tunnel. Every moving vehicle, at least initially, appears to be a portable terror-container, a nuisance bundle to be monitored and tracked.

The attack on the World Trade Center and now the suicide bombings in London have led to the avian police being placed on constant alert. Heli-routes that fly near key financial and political institutions are almost out of bounds. Each day the pilots are supplied with security updates which assess the threat from terrorists to 'prominent and representational interests' belonging to the USA and Israel. One pilot describes his colleagues below as "ground troops". The thermal imagers themselves, though they're designed to help the police protect the city, produce images that resemble Baghdad, Vietnam-bombing zones for Allied troops. For a moment, London's nocturnal beauty vanishes: the forests seem ash-charred, lit-up areas ghostly apparitions.

"What's the most beautiful thing I've seen? After a storm - when the city looks so washed and lovely. When it's a misty night, you can just make out the tops of high buildings like Canary Wharf: they look like islands in the mist ..."

The avian police have to listen to six radio channels at once, a non-stop, mid-air, crosstown traffic of police sirens, command-centre requests, breaking news about pick-axe-wielding Turks on rooftops, random bursts of white noise. But they are also soundscape artists who bring noise to night London, calibrating it to create minimal or maximal impact. Too much roar gives suspects sound cover to break windows or climb fences. Too little, and would-be criminals think they can do as they please.

It would be an exaggeration to call the police sonic terrorists. But they do use sound as a weapon. On quiet nights without remand-centre breakouts or high-speed motorway chases, they fly out to patrol London's crime hotspots in poorer boroughs such as Brent, Tower Hamlets and Southwark. When they see clumps of youths hanging around, they make the equivalent of a handbrake turn in the air. The blades cut the air harder. There is a loud thumping and chopping sound and everyone looks up to see the word 'police' on the underside of their machines. "They've all watched Air Wolf and think we can see through walls" laughs one pilot, "We're not going to tell them otherwise."

"What do we see that no one else sees? You can see everyone's swimming pools. There's some absolutely outstanding roof gardens down in the City. Certain areas like Chingford have a love of chequered patios. You've got a run on orange and cream tiles in Barking and East London at the moment: a B&Q lorry must have been turned over."

Flying over a city, especially at night time, allows a brief glimpse of freedom. It is to be liberated from the stress and murk of terrestrial life. Towards the end of their shifts, as darkness slides almost imperceptibly towards dawn, the avian police start to fly back to Lippitt's Hill Camp. Their heads ache and their backs are sore, but though they're at a low-ebb physically, for a few minutes they relax a little and let their minds wander. They think of their families and of past loves. They look at the line of pollution that hangs above the city, so thick they could walk on it, and wish it could be disappeared. They look at the city twitching into motion below them and are touched by its fragility. How beautiful Hampstead looks as it rises out of the mist.

A pilot, his operational lingo replaced by dreamy reverie, reflects on his working life in London:

"When I was working on the ground I certainly didn't like the city. Quite the opposite. But everywhere's lovely from the air. Even the worst bits look good. Like King's Cross: I never noticed the architecture of St Pancras before - all the stations and the buildings are fantastic. To be honest, I'd rather spend more time in the air than on the ground. Whatever you see on the horizon you can go to. You feel like a giant because the world is smaller."


The night cleaners of London don't think of themselves as cleaners. They're sure, or at least they fervently hope, that stooping for a living while the rest of the city sleeps is just a temporary phase. The majority are from Africa. Memories of butchered relatives and hazardous exoduses are lodged raw in their minds. But they also harbour lofty ambitions of becoming retail champs and shipping magnates. In their few off-hours they watch CNN and pore over the international finance pages of the broadsheets hoping to glean information that they can use when they return to Africa to set up small import-export businesses. Few will succeed.

The London that they see is a negative universe of public assaults and of swaggering, feral kids. An ungodly realm of out-of-towners on the lash, out-of-control girls spewing obscenities. A mental asylum where the pursuit of idiot pleasures has become, unknown to most of the people who live there, a fatal addiction. They dream of another place, an over-the-rainbow utopia which, more often than not, turns out to be ...

"Dubai. It is so lovely in Dubai. I have never myself been. But a friend of mine tells me they have 300-acre ski resorts there. Yes, imagine! And beautiful man-made lights. And the grass is good too. Very green. A military place, you say? Certainly. Perhaps they should have martial law in England. The laws are too soft here."

Each cleaner is an underpaid, under-liveried King Canute trying to push back the tide of over-consumption to which the city is prey. They talk with disbelief at the six tonnes of waste that the West End hotels produce each day of the week. They can rattle down a largely deserted street in their refuse trucks and know, according to which micro-section of the London borough they're in, how overflowing the pavements will be by 1 am or 3 am.

Pleasure, far from being spontaneous and unpredictable, is easily calibrated. The end of each month is the worst time: Londoners are pay-check flush, waving wads of u20 notes or flashing their credit cards, celebrating their temporary liquidity by pissing and upchucking everywhere. The cleaners, present at a party from which they feel estranged, shake their heads at such ritualised abandon. The city's night-life seems to them to be a collective insanity. They see party goers as nocturnal creatures, reckless beasts who slip into the city under cover of darkness to cause mayhem.

Cleaners strive to make early-commute Londoners think that there has been an overnight snowstorm. Every day should be a new day, a tabula rasa rather than a palimpsest. They try to abolish all traces of the previous day. If the city is a text, then cleaners do their best to erase the jottings and doodles that have been inscribed on it.

They operate in the aftermath. After the gold rush. They are instant archaeologists, rapid-response stoopers for syringes, fag ends, gig stubs, demonstration placards. They're also alive to the present and future immiseration of the city, gazing impotently at an anti-spectacle of ragged trolls snouting through bins for half-smoked cigarettes and half-eaten burgers; crazies launching themselves head-first at brick walls; homeless guys clambering into the bottle-recycling skips to sleep.

It's left to them to mop up after suicidees jump from high rises or deranged junkies hurl infant children from balconies. A hardened lot, not prone to sentiment, few can stop themselves holding back tears when they recall the first time they arrived on such a scene and were confronted with dispersed chunks of blood, bones and crushed cloth.


Excerpted from NIGHT HAUNTS by Sukhdev Sandhu Copyright © 2006 by Sukhdev Sandhu . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sukhdev Sandhu is the author of, among other books, London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City, I’ll Get My Coat, and Night Haunts. He lives in New york and London, and writes for the London Review of Books, Modern Painters and the TLS. He is the award-winning chief film critic of the Daily Telegraph and Associate Professor of English literature at New York University.

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