Before I became a father, I could regularly be found scurrying through Soho in the small hours, rushing between comedy gigs. Nowadays my evenings all have the same goal: to be in bed by 10pm. So it is with a mix of nostalgia and trepidation that I make my way to Veolia Environmental Services on Newport Place, to begin my night shift as a street cleaner. Nostalgia because it's my old stomping ground, trepidation because it's a good half-hour after my bedtime.
The depot turns out to be a tarmac yard tucked between Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road. Carts and streetsweepers are parked up, as well as Madvacs, the powered sweepers that wheel along pavements between cursing pedestrians. Men in luminous overalls smoke and exchange genial insults. I'm approached by the only person in a suit: the night-shift manager, Lawrence. He leads me through a door in a wall to a windowless, white-tiled office reminiscent of an Eastern-bloc interrogation centre.
While I change into overalls, Lawrence enthuses about his career in night-time refuse. Though only in his late 20s, he already has a company car and, since people will always need their rubbish collecting, a job for life. By contrast, most of his graduate friends are unemployed and debt-ridden. The rest of the men checking in for their shifts seem just as happy to be here. Some, like the foreman Vince, have been working nights for more than 30 years; there's a palpable camaraderie between him and his cohort. "Dave on tonight?" "Which Dave?" "Dave who needs Botox."
Lawrence walks me through the drizzly streets to rendezvous with a dustbin lorry. As he makes a few chirpy introductions, he's called away—to a traffic accident. His 60-strong team is on standby for clean-ups allotted to them by roaming Westminster Council officials. Sometimes it's split bin-bags. Sometimes it's the grisly residue of a hit-and-run, a suicide, or even a murder; some of his cleaners had the haunting task of hosing down a temporary morgue following the July 2005 bombings. Street-cleaning has, I see, a grim potential.
But the only death raised during my shift is that of the economy. Martin, another 30-year veteran, maintains that even before the lamentable downpours of the summer, his patch has been quieter than in boomier times. For him, the more people around, the more interesting the job. Decades of anecdotes spill out: a violent paparazzo getting a kicking from an actor's entourage; Lisle Street being closed while police searched for a hand cut off during a disputed game of Chinese dominoes; the alley from which horror-struck men regularly run after finding that the prostitute who led them there offers the "full English". And they're not talking about breakfast.
The work is hard. Some bags seem full of feathers, others of rubble; some I can toss from a distance, others require me to squat like a weightlifter. By three in the morning I've stopped noticing the rotting stench that wafts from the back of the lorry, but my arms are like spaghetti. Luckily I'm due at Leicester Square for a stint on the Madvac; no more hoisting, just pushing.
As Donovan, a Madvac regular, talks me through the controls, he warns me of the biggest hazard: drunks asking to "have a drive". One approaches and is given short shrift. Fifteen years on this beat means he's on friendly terms with all the bouncers at the pubs and clubs that ring the square, and has no worries about his personal safety. All the cleaners I meet are streetwise in every sense. They can spot a mugger or pickpocket from their face or manner, and take great pleasure in warning unsuspecting victims. In my mind they take on the romantic aura of a Dickensian backstreet gang: a league of undercover heroes.
I'm weary, but it's a good time for cleaning, the clubs have closed and the only obstacle is the odd straggler slumped against a wall. The Madvac is diesel-powered and needs only a squeeze on the bar under the handle. As I trundle around the square, pointing the rotating brushes at burger cartons and cigarette butts, the main challenge is not to fall asleep in charge of a moving vehicle. By 4am, I'm done. I treat myself to a cab home and collapse into bed; my arms are so tired I can barely lift the duvet.
At six, my two-year-old wakes me up. He's excited: he can hear the local binmen outside, starting their morning shift.