The night cleaners of London don't think of themselves as cleaners. They're sure, or at least they fervently hope, that stooping for a living while the rest of the city sleeps is just a temporary phase. The majority are from Africa. Memories of butchered relatives and hazardous exoduses are lodged raw in their minds. But they also harbour lofty ambitions of becoming retail champs and shipping magnates. In their few off-hours they watch CNN and pore over the international finance pages of the broadsheets hoping to glean information that they can use when they return to Africa to set up small import-export businesses. Few succeed.
The London that they see is a negative universe of public assaults and of swaggering, feral kids. An ungodly realm of out-of-towners on the lash, out-of-control girls spewing obscenities and undercooked kebabs. A mental asylum where the pursuit of idiot pleasures has become, unknown to most of the people who live there, a fatal addiction. They dream of another place, an over-the-rainbow utopia which, more often than not, turns out to be...
"Dubai. It is so lovely in Dubai. I have never myself been. But a friend of mine tells me they have 300-acre ski resorts there. Yes, imagine! And beautiful man-made lights. And the grass is good too. Very green. A military place, you say? Certainly. Perhaps they should have martial law in England. The laws are too soft here."
Each cleaner is an underpaid, under-liveried King Canute trying to push back the tide of over-consumption to which the city is prey. They talk with disbelief at the six tonnes of waste that the West End hotels produce each day of the week. They can rattle down a largely deserted street in their refuse trucks and know, according to which micro-section of the London borough they're in, how overflowing the pavements will be by 1am or 3am.
Pleasure, far from being spontaneous and unpredictable, is easily calibrated. The end of each month is the worst time: Londoners are pay-check flush, waving wads of £20 notes or flashing their credit cards, celebrating their temporary liquidity by pissing and upchucking everywhere. The cleaners, present at a party from which they feel estranged, shake their heads at such ritualised abandon. The city's night-life seems to them to be a collective insanity. They see party goers as nocturnal creatures, reckless beasts who slip into the city under cover of darkness to cause mayhem.
Cleaners strive to make early-commute Londoners think that there has been an overnight snowstorm. Every day should be a new day, a tabula rasa rather than a palimpsest. They try to abolish all traces of the previous day. If the city is a text, then cleaners do their best to erase the jottings and doodles that have been inscribed on it.
They operate in the aftermath. After the gold rush. They are instant archaeologists, rapid-response stoopers for syringes, fag ends, gig stubs, demonstration placards. They're also alive to the present and future immiseration of the city, gazing impotently at an anti-spectacle of ragged trolls snouting through bins for half-smoked cigarettes and half-eaten burgers; homeless guys clambering into the bottle-recycling skips to sleep; crazies launching themselves head-first at brick walls. It's left to them to mop up after suicidees jump from high rises or deranged junkies hurl infant children from balconies. A hardened lot, not prone to sentiment, few can stop themselves holding back tears when they recall the first time they arrived on such a scene and were confronted with dispersed chunks of blood, bones and crushed cloth.
Refuse collectors are exterior designers. Over time they cultivate a keen sense of what is an appropriate beauty for the dishevelled streets they roam. Some weeds they'll let go on the grounds that they give a pleasantly verdant feel to pavements. Coke cans on junction boxes are intolerable though. "We see things in a way that other Londoners don't," one Clapham collector tells me. "We look at recesses, at the edges of things and under things too. When there's a busy junction and there are railings to stop people crossing the road very often you'll find immediately below the railings a build up of dust and detritus with a hard crust on it. It's because a sweeper hasn't attended to it; we have to run a shovel down the side. Sometimes, when I'm on holiday - like when I was in Florida with my wife - I said to her 'Look at the filth on the streets!'
"You need to be able to smile on a nightshift. So people know you wish them well and so that they wish you well. And of course you have a laugh sometimes; like when you see some guy go into pub and emerge four hours later, with a girl on his arm, or tripping and totally bladdered. Or when you see people who have lost their keys shinning up to get into their flats. But for the most part we become the street, the blank architecture. We're there in the same way as a lamp post is there. We're just part of the furniture."
Aborigines. That's what Papa, one of the cleaners at Tottenham Court Road station, calls the tens of thousands of commuters who skelter past him as he sweeps the Underground floors. He suspects they may belong to another civilisation. Racing, frowning, dashing - always in flight to some profoundly important destination. Even the girls with scanty dresses or the mascara-clad boys out to pout at Nag Nag Nag seem to be in a rush. Their speed makes them, in his eyes, insubstantial. Hollowed men and women. "They are ghosts," he announces, "Dead spirits."
But Papa is no reverse snob. He knows and feels all too acutely the pain of his fellow workers: "We are The Unfortunates." They are students whose money has run out, family men with dodgy visas trying to support their wives and children back in Ghana, unskilled guys trying to make a go of things in the city. They're all too poor to travel to work by tube - the private company that employs them doesn't offer discount tickets - so they arrive on bus. During the winter, it's common for them not to see any daylight at all: they return home from their night shifts at 7.30am, fall asleep until 4pm, only to return to work in darkness.
The cleaners can't afford not to be disciplined. They apply method and rigour into getting through the night. The thought of it stretching on endlessly is painful, so in their minds they lay it on a chopping board and slice it into sensible portions, navigable spin cycles of thirty or sixty or ninety minutes. They regard litter not as a sign of the city's opulence or as an assertion of its teeming liveliness, but as evidence of Londoners' lack of focus and proportion. They watch with bemusement and sometimes disgust as young men and, most horrifically in their eyes, young women totter the platforms in a hollering, pissed-up blur. Who, they wonder, are really the lowly ones: us diligents trying to save up for a two-bedroom semi in Southwark, or these cackling short-skirts who cannot even keep their breasts hidden?
This temporary pan-African community clings together for comfort. Its members - from Togo, Nigeria and Ghana - can be found in areas marked 'No Entry', in rooms little bigger than broom cupboards, knocking back one water-dispenser beaker after another to combat the sweltering conditions caused by faulty heating. They listen and add to underground information networks, many of them comprised of gossip masquerading as fact, about fresh passport scams, family-benefit concessions the government has introduced, new contractors who offer cleaning recruits an extra week's holiday each year. They heap good tidings on their colleagues who found a tenner or picked up a mobile phone near one of the tracks. Football, particularly their adoration for Arsenal's Thierry Henry ("He is like an emperor"), also unites them.
Mostly, though, it is a low-simmer sadness that they have in common. Some are getting old, beyond the age when they could imagine another more lustrous future ahead of them. They feel that those few Londoners who notice them presume they are illiterate and not worthy of respect. Night time, they know, is for lying down, not for bending down to pick up other peoples' trash. The past-midnight subway, often as noisy as the African market towns from which they hail, on account of the cross-roar of computer technicians, escalator repairers and track workers, can also fall silent suddenly. And it's then that they begin to hear noises; to spot, fleeing away from them into a distant tunnel, the ghosts of their former selves.
"I think London would collapse if the cleaners would go on strike for just one day. If they were radical the whole of London would be a mess. 'They' means not just the men that clean the Underground, but the streets and the toilets too. Without them you'd see one big mess."
London's cleaners don't exist. Those sleeping take their work for granted. Even those who do see them scuttling across roads in their overalls and starchy, non-flammable uniforms tend to look straight through them. Night time is all about glamour these days, its promise and its most heady realisation. But there's nothing glamorous about cleaners. They may as well be dead. They certainly appear to be only half-alive. In they creak, pushing distractedly at the revolving doors of the sleek corporate towers where they labour. They're sweat-glazed from rushing across town. Some have had to cut the last few minutes of their evening law classes in order to clock on promptly; others have come from launderette or corner-store jobs; others have been on the phone for hours desperately trying to get someone to look after their sick kids for them. They're exhausted by the time they arrive. By the time they finish, they're utterly spent.
London's cleaners don't exist. Some, employed by violently penny-pinching sub-sub-contractors, are illegal migrants whose names are not to be found on any official financial records. They have no recourse to the law if parts of the salaries are randomly docked, or if they get hurt because of shoddy safety equipment, or if they are sexually harassed. So they keep their heads down, their lips tightly shut. Always, even though they're doing jobs no one else wants, lifting up to 750 bins on each floor, they feel as if they are interlopers. Those filing into the HSBC building near Canary Wharf have their bags checked as they go in and as they leave. Their movements are tracked and monitored by banks of cameras which are operated by a control centre in the basement.
Late-working office staff do not look at them though. In shared lifts, they peer at their feet or suddenly feel an urge to start Blackberrying colleagues. Night time, even in AC'd corporate spaces, brings them into unexpected contact with the kinds of civilians their work insulates them from during daytime. They feel tarnished, a little afraid, awkward. Some, the cleaners are convinced, regard them as no better than the rubbish they pick up or hoover. They rarely smile, or say hello, or seem to have any inkling that the green-dungareed men and women beside them were once small businessmen themselves, aspiring politicians chased out of their home countries by blood-lusting guerrillas, junior schoolteachers who taught orphaned children to read books.
The cleaners themselves do look around, even more slyly than the cameras tailing them. The younger ones comb the open-plan offices for desks under which, much to the annoyance of their supervisors, they can squat and yellow-highlight passages from structural engineering textbooks. Others peer at the photographs that line the walls and show what the building looked like at different stages of the construction process. They wonder: do the CEOs here - those who earn £2680 rather than £5 an hour, those who are driven in by chauffeurs rather than slash-seated public transport, those who have vintage wines and DVDs in their offices and who will receive golden handshakes when they leave - do these captains of industry regard us as part of that process? Will anyone commemorate the work we do? We the pensionless ones. We who are not even entitled to sick pay.
And then, sometimes, as dawn is rising, the cleaners take a break from crumb-picking and mousetrap-shifting. Their night's work is almost over. The offices are as clean as the hills and golf courses of the foreign kingdoms to which they dream of migrating. They stand up tall, proud of the reformations they have wrought. Just for a minute or two, they allow themselves the luxury of imagining that they are the shirt-tucked, chauffeur-driven Masters of the Universe who lord it over the snooty pen-pushers and keyboard-dabbers whose garbage they have spent the last seven hours collecting. "Clear out your desks and leave!" they fantasise of declaring.
They wander over to the windows. Light is flooding in, and they feel their spirits rise. They crack a few jokes, whip out their flashy mobile phones ("Hey! Mr Nana from Ghana! Say cheese!"), and take snaps of each other. Then they'll look out over the strange multinational island outside: the helipads; the Millennium Dome; the River Thames speckled with private boats; the top of Canary Wharf. They know it's a republic in which they work, but do not live. They know they are but temporary guests.
Still, for a moment or two, they are struck by the hard, lunar beauty of it all. There, in the distance, is what's left of last night's full moon; it reminds them of nights long ago, thousands of miles away, nights when they kissed their lovers and made solemn promises to always be true, nights when they looked up at and vowed that life would one day be different. They focus their viewfinders and take a photo of a bridge on the horizon. Where does it go? It's a question that nags them all day.