With technology man has conquered the night. Yet walk the streets alone at 3am, and still the magic and mystery seep through…

Meet the late-night radio DJs: ‘It’s like a confession and I’m the priest’

On some nights, in the insomniac intervals between rumbling goods trains, and beneath the sound of ambulance sirens, I can hear owls calling mournfully to one another from the trees that screen the railway tracks running past the back of the house in which I live in inner London. On most nights, alongside the shouts of people fighting or having sex, I hear cats and foxes screaming intermittently, as if they are being tortured. On some mornings, when a thin light first leaks through my blinds, I can hear a cockerel croaking from a garden in which chickens are kept a couple of streets away. Occasionally, when the mornings are resonantly still, the insistent tapping of a woodpecker chiselling at a tree trunk wakes me.

The city at night is far eerier, far more feral than it is in the day. It is far harder to anthropomorphise, far more difficult to domesticate. In fact, the city doesn’t necessarily sound and feel like a metropolis, a centre of advanced civilisation, when most of its population is fast asleep. It can sound and feel closer to nature than culture. As Virginia Woolf once pointed out with a noticeable sense of frisson, “we are no longer quite ourselves” after dark. She relished “the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow”. Our cities, like ourselves, can seem alien and unfamiliar at night. And if you listen to them attentively, as though through an echo sounder, you can hear the encompassing darkness transmit from its depths the noises and pulses of the capital’s pre-modern past.

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Source: Guardian Environment