why is london's nightlife trailing behind berlin's?
What good is a Night Tube if everywhere is closed, closed down, or closing down?
The last time I went to Berlin I walked the streets of Kreuzberg wide-eyed, marvelling at how the place came to life after 2am. I anticipated that moment at the bar when someone would flick on a blinding white light, kill the music, and kick everyone out; you know, like they do in London. But that moment never came. Which shouldn't have amazed me, because all you hear about Berlin's nightlife is that it's better than London's; that, on the global stage, London is like Berlin's straight-laced friend who's always the first one to say, "I think it's time to go home now, guys, I have to be up early for that thing".
But it's true. London's nightlife is trailing behind Berlin's. Not only do our bars and clubs close stupidly early - if it's before sunrise it's too early - but they close down with alarming regularity too. The evidence: Plastic People, Vibe Bar, Madame Jojo's, The Joiner's Arms, Fabric, and so many others. Which means that, when PM turns to AM, we have way less options than anyone living in the German capital. The dearth of nightclubs in London also points to a wider crisis in the city's after-hours culture. It begs the question, what good is a Night Tube if everywhere is closed, closed down, or closing down?
Then there's that other, bigger question: why is London's nightlife trailing behind the likes of Berlin? Can we pin it all on gentrification? Joyless authorities and licensing laws? Or is it a broader cultural thing? To get a better idea, I called up a friend who's been living in Berlin for the past three years, partly because he struggled financially living in London. For him, the attraction of Berlin's nightlife vs. London's was a big factor. "In Berlin, bars generally shut when the last person goes home; there's no real 'last orders', plus drinks are way cheaper. And you always have the option, seven days a week, to sit in a bar somewhere until the early hours without having the London problem of having to decide whether to go home or go somewhere that's crazy expensive and bound to close soon after you enter."
In London, boozing is effectively on a timer, so it's pretty normal to see people downing drinks like it was a 100-metre sprint. Not so in Berlin.
The laidback culture surrounding Berlin's nightlife is something we lack too. In London, boozing is effectively on a timer, so it's pretty normal to see people downing drinks like it was a 100-metre sprint. Not so in Berlin. "Binge drinking is not really a big thing here," my friend explains. "Because drinks are cheaper, there's less 'pre-drinking', and because there's no real last orders, there's less pressure to cram everything into a short space of time." In other words, Berliners live without that crushing fear of someone yelling Time, Gentlemen Please when they're five beers-deep in a conversation about how Berghain is the greatest club on Earth. In the German capital, no one's in a rush and everyone's easygoing.
What it really comes down to, though, is options. Berliners have them, we don't. Over there, more late-night bars means more choice. If you can't stand the thought of rubbing shoulders with sweaty dudes at a rammed club that plays shitty techno, then there's always that bar around the corner where you're guaranteed to hear good music and get a seat. Those bars can afford to stay open, no matter how empty they are, because of cheap(er) rent. That's something we just don't have in London, where the worrying trend of clubs being replaced with shiny offices continues to accelerate.
Then of course there's the option of drinking anywhere you want. You can drink on the S-Bahn (that stays open 24/7) or you can drink under the Brandenburg Gate. No one is going to tap you on the shoulder and say, "Right, sunshine, that can of Red Stripe just cost you £80" or "You can't drink here because this is a public square!" and other nonsensical statements. Just as Berlin shirks strict 'last orders' policies, it frowns on vibe-killing rules and regulations. Nightlife isn't under constant surveillance, monitored, policed, ruined, if anything it's encouraged.
I'd like to think that with the Night Tube there's still hope for London's after-hours culture, that, five years from now, the thought of a night hitting a brick wall before it's even begun would be ludicrous.
I'd like to think that with the Night Tube there's still hope for London's after-hours culture, that, five years from now, the thought of a night hitting a brick wall before it's even begun would be ludicrous. Imagine: it's past midnight and you're searching for the heart of Saturday night, that mysterious moment in the city when it feels like anything can and will happen, when all the weirdos - beautiful and not so beautiful - come out, when life-changing encounters seem like they're at your fingertips, when people open up, reveal their secrets; that experience you can't get nor recreate within the four walls of your flat with your mates who you already know.
Right now, it's a lot easier to picture that scene in Berlin. In all the times I've been there I've only ever gone home feeling like everyone around me was just getting started, like every night was New Year's Eve. Living in London, on the other hand, I've lost count of how many times a night has been cut short just as it seemed like it was about to kick in. When your window of fun is limited like that - the sense of endless possibilities taken out of the equation - it's kind of a mood-killer.
Londoners are envious of Berliners for good reason. Their nightlife is better than ours, pure and simple. No matter what the reasons are - gentrification, licensing laws, etc. - we should probably all be shouting about this louder than we already are. Because it's kind of embarrassing, especially post-Brexit, to think what Berliners must think when they come over here and head out into the night only to have LAST ORDERS screamed in their faces at every bar they enter. Was für eine Scheiße Nacht!
Text Oliver Lunn
Photography Martin Fisch