True stories Are you lonesome tonight?

Tales of the unexpected from Lately's late-night bar
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The Independent Culture
Drinking at Lately's late-night bar in West Hampstead, north London, is like entering a washing machine filled with alcohol. Pushed in with every other human odd sock, from the local councillor to the raddled old ex-circus woman in the leopard-print dress, you are tumbled upstairs and down, gobbling to strangers, tripping on the bar heater, afraid to touch the walls, which look covered in stippled Marmite, and then unable not to. The frenzy ends when the room starts to spin on slow cycle, your eyes feel pickled in beer, and you find yourself stumped at the bar asking those dangerous 3am questions, "What am I doing here?" and, "What have you done for me, Lately's?"

At this point I always notice the people here alone, the dismembered but stockinged leg hung behind the bar fills me with sadness, and I may leave, battered and dirty, to walk through suburban streets housing sleeping couples on marriage beds, islands ina sea of desire.

But don't go yet. Stay a little longer. Some of the regulars have been coming back for 14 years, from the days when there were columns of caged, live doves on the dance floor. Back then it was called the Melting Pot, a term you could now equally apply toWest Hampstead, where new age candle shops jostle good- naturedly with ancient greasy spoons.

In the middle sits Lately's, advertised solely by word of mouth. To get in we must first knock on the big red door, then be goggled by the huge eye of Gordon, the manager, as he swings back the speakeasy hatch. Gordon knows everyone by name, and has the kind of theatrical friendliness that makes you wonder if perhaps he is wearing a little make-up.

I don't know who he refuses entry to, as the first thing you notice when you are ushered inside is that Lately's exaggerates the diversity of its location. There are trade people who work in the pubs, perched by the sewing machine; business men in suits admiring the "exotic" photos; lots of women in red lipstick, sometimes by themselves; Russians playing Space Invaders; a pensioner they call Jumping John, who spends all night on the dance floor; and three young students who say they've been coming for years: "Gordon's like a father to us."

A few drinks later, I start to imagine aliens bolting the door of the club and preserving it as a museum of the human race. The exhibition would also be crammed with iconic objects of our time: wheels, feather boas, bird cages and a huge corrective boot hanging from the ceiling, donated by a regular called Dave the Boot. "There was another Dave," says Charlie, the barman. "We called him Dave the Grave because he was so miserable. But then he died."

There's never any trouble here. How could there be? A girl once complained to Gor-don about two lesbians in the toilet.

"Keep your voice down," he said. "There are five black men, two Irish and someone with half a leg out here."

It's a Saturday, so they've opened up the tiny dance floor downstairs. If you stray on to this, and, frankly, it's hard not to once down the rickety stairs, you realise you are in the presence of an aggressively hor-monal Mr Tickle. I repeatedly felt rogue hands sliding over me in the darkness, only to whip round and be confronted by an identity parade of Italians, all looking the other way.

It's easy to feel that everybody has stayed sober and only their appearance has got drunk. A lot of men are sporting big hair and ice-skaters' trousers, and there is an out-of-control crimped afro circulating, drunk in charge of a woman.

It is never pretty being easy, but here nobody cares. I ask Charlie what he thinks. "It's a place where hairdressers come to die."

Yet it's happening again. The 3am slow cycle and the severed leg. Gordon follows my gaze: "People always find something in here that reminds them of a place where they were happy."

"Happy?" I snort bitterly. "What are all these people doing here in the middle of the night?"

"Follow me," says Gordon.

He leads me over to a huge fibre-glass rock. "It's called the Love Boulder. Close your eyes and it will feel like someone you want." All I can feel is the Love Boulder vibrating sympathetically to I Will Survive playing downstairs.

But I think I see Gordon's point. Lately's is so strange it defies anyone to feel like an outsider. And while it may remind you of some other place and some other person, here even the lonesome can pity those now asleep on clean and self-righteous sheets. I'll stay a little longer.

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