Film critic, professor, and writer Sukhdev Sandhu seeks to illuminate London's night - and the cast of characters who exist on its stage - in his art project Night Haunts, an engaging collection of sights, sounds, and stories from England's capital.
A sleep disorder and jet lag trouble writer Sukhdev Sandhu. They're difficult maladies for anyone but particularly pesky for a man charged with documenting London's night. For almost two years, Sandhu has set his alarm for the wee hours and entered the city's darkness to explore it from the sky, from underground, and from a host of nooks and crannies, all in service of Night Haunts, his art project. Tonight he intends to take me on a nocturnal walk through his neighborhood, the East End, a historical place of refuge for centuries of immigrants - Irish, European Jews, and, most recently, Bangladeshi, which has earned the area the nickname of Banglatown. But this evening Sandhu has misjudged the night, his subject of choice. As he nears me, he shakes his head, apologizes, and admits he forgot that night arrives later than 8:30 p.m. in the summer. He blames jet lag.
As an assistant professor of English literature at New York University and the chief film critic for London's Daily Telegraph, Sandhu, 35, spends a great deal of time ping-ponging between the city that doesn't sleep and the city that used to sleep but now merely naps. Wearing jeans, a green shirt, a navy pinstripe jacket, and a five o'clock shadow, Sandhu stands near a trinity of important landmarks, and each serves as a testament to the area's allure.
Across the street sits Spitalfields, one of London's oldest markets; it has transitioned into a hipster hot spot that attracts weekend crowds who are in search of fashionable creations by young designers. Opposite the market is Ten Bells, a pub famous for a patron who staggered out and into the hands of Jack the Ripper. Most nights, East End residents watch gaggles of tourists being led by theatrical tour guides who dispense history, theory, and lore. (Occasionally, residents treat the huddled visitors to their own reenactments of Ripper crimes; these are done in jest from second-story windows.) At the center resides Christ Church, a Nicholas Hawksmoor-designed building that was completed in 1729 and commissioned to serve as a formidable representative of the Church of England in an area once teeming with Protestant Huguenots who had fled Catholic France because of persecution. Tall and blockish, with an imposing porch and steeple, the church appears otherworldly and at odds with its surroundings.
"Lots of neomystics, visionaries, and psychogeographers - most famously Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair - have written about the Hawksmoor church," Sandhu says, as we begin our walk at the foot of the church's steps after the sun sets. "It looked beyond Christian, as if it had been winched to the East End from a far-off planet." Taking quick steps, Sandhu talks about the hoboes who used to camp on the church grounds and build roaring fires in the winter, and then he points to the sky and speaks about other landmarks that vie for skyline space and proffer a collection of competing imagery - Islamic minarets, brew-house chimneys, St. Paul's Cathedral, and the Erotic Gherkin, Londoners' nickname for the pickle-shaped building by architect Lord Norman Foster.
Part historian, part reporter, part sociologist, Sandhu speaks as quickly as he walks and dispenses a torrent of observations and information. We walk by the hospital that treated the Elephant Man; pass the work of a graffiti artist sought by Wired magazine and the New York Times; stroll through the courtyard of the Friends of Yiddish, the world's oldest reading group (way before Oprah's, says Sandhu), which once boasted 2,000 members and includes eight members today; and visit the former storefront of a Mr. Katz, who supposedly sold 298 different varieties of string until he died in the late 1990s. "No one ever bought anything, but he was there every day at 8:30 a.m.," Sandhu says.