“What men are they who haunt these fatal glooms,
And fill their living mouths with dust of death,
And make their habitations in the tombs,
And breathe eternal sighs with mortal breath,
And pierce life’s pleasant veil of various error
To reach that void of darkness and old terror
Wherein expire the lamps of hope and faith?”
Ten minutes after stepping into the fatal gloom of the underground club in [redacted]*, the fleece-clad gamey old barman and I were having an awkward talk down from sparkling water (not available), to diet coke (not available), to settling (settling!) for tonic with my double vodka. I gave him £2.50 avoiding the dead-eyed gaze of his gilet-wearing barmaid wife, and I slunk back into the welcome tomb of the dancefloor.
It was an extraordinary night. It reminded me of Gauche Chic at Ghetto, our bit of Monday “nightlife lunacy” circa 2005 (not long after I moved to London). The music was just challenging enough, the dancefloor just crowded enough, the venue just small enough, and most importantly, the people were just sour enough. And I’d forgotten how much I’d loved it. The years since Gauche Chic felt like an inevitable acceptance of aging; club nights migrated east, the crowds got bigger, more commercialised, the raves were raves in name only, the music got boring, the door searches more pointless and aggressive, the hangovers worse. So I started to pass on generic “we’re going to a club” invites. If you are lucky, club boredom only leads to the old terror of reckless intoxication. If you are not, you lose your paracetamol and chewing gum and PII to the doorman and an unsecured database whilst you let them verbal abuse you so that the £75 you paid for the ticket doesn’t entirely go to waste, and then spend an hour and forty minutes of the two hours you are there queuing alternatively for the toilet and bar. Fun.
Something about this night felt different. John, the friend of a friend who’d invited us, apologised when we arrived for the sparse turnout, “It used to be rammed in here, but we had to downsize because it got too popular. It’s just friends now.” Excellent sourness. Later we were yelled at on the dancefloor for being “white, middle class”. By a man who was also white and middle class. According to his friend, “he doesn’t mean it, he’s fucked”, but I think he really, really did. Super sour. Later, the bouncer heard my friend and I giggling together in the toilets and broke the door down because he was convinced we were hoofing coke off the piss-soaked, graffiti scarred toilet. I later saw the same bouncer being wheeled (against his will) around the dancefloor by the angry white middle class man, who was presumably trying to maintain contact with at least something working class. Also, there was no cloakroom. Just a rail and some hangers. Do it yourself. Sour.
Sourness is a curiosity, a cult. Sourness is a night defined by people who had found a dark niche in a corner of south London to fill their “living [noses] with dust of death”, to be sour outsiders, and protect their fatal glooms. And I found it comforting; I don’t want to feel the love with strangers, my life is not a mobile phone advert. It’s also a nostalgia for privacy and the meaning of the present. There are no IDs scanned, no social media photos to be tagged in, no followers or likes to gain, and no need to hold back when all you care about is dressing up, dancing or dicking about.
The verse above is from a poem written by James Thompson, “The City of Dreadful Night” (1834). It was written in the image of Victorian London (all gothic bleakness and atheist hand-wringing), but it’s an ode to darkness that defines what London is, and what London does to you. Our interpretation of that hasn’t changed. Maybe it will, but for now I hope our legacy is small club nights filled with outsiders, snarling in their void of darkness.
*I’ve redacted the identity of the club and the night. Currently there’s almost zero information about it on search, and in the spirit of being sour, that sounds perfect to me.
Image: Peter Macdiarmid
Originally published at the last meal before madness.