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 The sleeping city: London by night has changed little since this 1920s study — or even since Dickens roamed the streets in 1860

Stand on the pavement of St James's Street in London after dark and look across the road to Brooks's Club. There, on the walls of the first-floor drawing room, hang two British masterpieces rarely loaned to galleries. In the morning, the sun coming up over the East End and the City glares off the club's sash windows. In the afternoon, as the sun sets over London's western suburbs, the drawing room is gloomy, the lights not yet lit. But in the evening, illuminated by chandeliers and candles, Joshua Reynolds's two great group portraits of The Society of Dilettanti — the 18th-century pleasure-seekers who came back from their Grand Tours with Greek marbles, Etruscan vases and Roman busts — seem to glow. 

At night, London gives up its secrets. Once the tourists have gone back to their B&Bs and the last Tubes to the suburbs, you see what is hidden or overlooked in the daylight. Although I had walked below those windows a hundred times by day, it was only when I started walking through London at night that I first saw the two Reynolds. 

I came to night walking through that great chronicler of the city, Charles Dickens. Last year, the bicentenary of his birth, I set myself the challenge of reading all 16 of his novels, and as much of his journalism as I could manage in between. One essay in particular struck a chord. "Night Walks", written in 1860, explains how Dickens came to walk the city obsessively in the cold, unfriendly small hours. After witnessing an event which left a "distressing impression", he found himself unable to sleep. "The disorder might have taken a long time to conquer," he wrote, "if it had been experimented on in bed; but, it was soon defeated by the brisk treatment of getting up directly after lying down, and going out, and coming home tired at sunrise."

He describes the city's changing states of sleeplessness. First, there is the "tumbling and tossing" as it settles to sleep: the public houses turn their lamps out and the potmen thrust brawling drunkards into the street. After that, the last stray walkers, carters and cabmen expire in fits and starts and the late pieman and hot-potato man pack up their braziers. Anyone awake after the last pieman has gone home begins to yearn for company, a lighted place, the comfort of finding that anyone else is still up. 

The homeless men and ragged spectral youths left out after this hour suffer a condition Dickens calls Dry Rot: "a certain slovenliness and deterioration, which is not poverty, not dirt, nor intoxication, nor ill-health, but simply Dry Rot . . . a trembling of the limbs, somnolency, misery, and crumbling to pieces." It is a relief when Covent Garden begins to stir. Hot early coffee can be got  and toast. At the railway stations, the morning mails come in and the gas lamps grow pale. "And so by faster and faster degrees, until the last degrees were very fast, the day came, and I was tired and could sleep." 

Although Dickens does not tell the reader of "Night Walks" what distressing impression had prompted this period of sleeplessness, an earlier essay gives the cause. In "Lying Awake" he recalls being haunted by a "dismal spectacle". Trying, and failing, to fall asleep, he thinks of the hanging of a husband and wife at Horsemonger Lane jail. The memory of their loose, limp bodies can only be suppressed by getting up and going out for a night walk. According to his friend and biographer John Forster, it was not unusual for Dickens to walk seven or eight miles, sometimes as many as 12, before dawn.

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