Friday, August 12, 2005

London Nightlife and Other Oxymorons

London is blessed with many things: lush green parks, quaint Victorian and Georgian-style architecture, an endless variety of interesting pubs, loads of cultural activities and a geographic location that makes it a perfect launchpad for European travel.

Despite all this, there are times when I feel like I've been secretly spirited away back to my home state of Kansas, a place where 'cow tipping' is considered an exciting form of nightlife. Like Kansas, London is not the best place to live if you're looking to walk on the wild side by staying out past 11:00. If you're a self-respecting New Yorker who considers 9:00 PM a good start time for a weekend evening out on the town, you are in for a rude awakening the first time you hear a pub gong resounding in your ear at 10:45, signaling an abrupt and premature end to your festivities.

Perversely, it is the pressure of this draconian closing time (dating from WWI when they needed the workers sober for their shifts at the munitions factories) that doubtless explains why Brits feel the need to get so staggeringly drunk. One is forced to race to the pub as early as possible in the evening and cram in as much fun as possible before 11:00, the time at which Cinderella's coach promptly turns into a pumpkin. After that, entertainment prospects are bleak and even if you're lucky enough to find some late-night libations, good luck getting home afterwards. The Tube shuts down around midnight and taxicabs disappear magically as if being sucked into a mysterious vortex of Temperance.

My own Cinderella moment came on Saturday night when my friend Annette was visiting and we mistakenly tried to show her some London 'nightlife'. After our 9:30 dinner reservations, we went in search of a nightcap. One hour and four thwarted attempts to find an open cocktail bar later, we were finally forced to give up the ghost. It seems that the few lounges that exist as renegade destinations after the pubs close down are open only until 1:00. Since it was the scandalous hour of 12:30, we weren't allowed access. (The British like to close up shop at least 1/2 an hour before official 'closing time' so as to ensure they don't end up working 'overtime'.)

Accepting defeat and heading homewards, we spotted a cluster of people standing outside a seedy looking, bordello-esque set of red doors and went over to investigate. After some inquiries, it appeared that we had indeed stumbled upon some actual London nightlife. Paying our 10 pound entry fee, dodging the barely-vertical British drunkard stumbling into our path, and making our way down a narrow flight of stairs, we found ourselves in a dimly lit, dungeon-like room with blood-red cement walls.

It was completely devoid of any charm, atmosphere or more importantly, a means of quick escape should the whole place go up in flames--a distinct possibility due to the large number of drunken smokers haphazerdly brandishing their cigarettes amidst the sea of flammable discowear in the room's cramped confines. The whole establishment had a definite unsavory flavor (and a reconnaissance mission later this week in fact revealed a 'cease and desist' notice taped to its door) but at least I wasn't cow tipping back in Kansas.

I was heartened to hear, after complaining to everyone within earshot about the sad state of British nightlife, that changes are afoot with pub licensing laws and the hours are going to be extended as of this November! Apparently this is very contentious due to a huge national debate over whether this will help or hinder the nation's drinking problem. Only time will tell, but at least it will alleviate the need for the rest of us to spend our evenings out on the town in condemned basement hovels, hunkered down over our cocktails in illicit, Prohibition-era fashion.