THE PAST, they say, is another country. For me it was Albania, with a cheap Chinese and a curfew. At closing time on Saturday night, warring yob factions and stray psychopaths converged on the Chinese restaurant. Nothing e1se was open. What would be the point? There were more urgent things to do than eat, like getting into a fight before the last bus came.

Such was my provincial teenage milieu; it was called Tilbury, in Essex, then. Back in 1974 all signs of life, and television, vanished at midnight - except up in Soho, which was sleazy, nocturnal and even dangerous. At midnight in Wardour Street, outside the entrance shared by the Pink Flamingo club in the basement and the Whisky-A-Go-Go above, a black man in a large fedora with a white band stood on the pavement hissing at passers-by. That he sold drugs in so obvious a manner spoke volumes about police intelligence at the time. Perhaps he paid them off. Maybe they were all in bed. Most people were.

The Whisky was one of the few clubs in Britain playing black dance music at that time, so I had no choice but to take a late train to Fenchurch Street and then travel up west on the Tube, a journey that deterred less intrepid friends. The Whisky had lost its alcohol licence and you had to ask for 'a can from under the counter' if you wanted tepid beer. After a sweaty night dancing in near-total darkness to Manu Dibango, Fatback Band and James Brown, the club closed at 2.30am.

Then there were two options: wander empty streets or find a place to crash. I soon discovered the all-night parcels office at King's Cross railway station, a deserted counter of Kafka-esque proportions which provided shelter for a dozen proto-ravers on a first-come, first-served basis.

Now, of course, the range of diversions available at that time on a Saturday night/Sunday morning is limitless - in fact so much information about the latest clubs is laid before 17-year-olds that they have become tourists in their own dark cities. One option is just to stay where you are, for the Whisky is now The Wag and you can dance there until 6am. Another is to head for Trade, on the edge of the City of London, which opens at 3am.

'The management couldn't understand why I wanted to run a club on Sunday morning. They thought it would be full of people who wanted to sleep until the trains started,' said Lawrence Malice, who launched Trade 18 months ago. There is usually a queue of about 150 people waiting outside on Clerkenwell Road for its doors to open. The club closes at noon, the 500-strong crowd is turfed out and Malice goes home exhausted. The once-sceptical owners of the club premises (a bar called Turnmills) would like an extension until 4pm, but Malice is not interested. His whole week is geared around that six-hour stint, and his devotion to duty is such that he spends his Saturday night in bed.

'It's very anti-social, because I'm often invited to really nice parties on Saturday nights, but I never go because I always sleep until 2am and go straight to the club. I've got to be wide awake and firing on all cylinders. First to make sure the sound, the lights, the security and the bars are all working properly, and then to make sure everyone's having a good time.'

Trade was inspired by Spanish resorts like Ibiza, Sitges and Barcelona, where 'there's such a wonderful, carefree attitude to nightlife', said Malice. The club's original clientele was 'mainly Spaniards, Italians and French people, because they're used to going out at two in the morning, and they're not bothered about Sunday as 'a day of rest'. British people are very conservative. They don't think they are, but they are.'

Nowadays, though, the majority are Londoners: a sign, says Malice, that the British are slowly adopting the nocturnal lifestyles of their European cousins. 'Most of our regulars are professionals, who work hard all week and want to squeeze something more out of their weekend. Why is it wrong to go partying at three o'clock on a Sunday morning? It's not. It's just a matter of social conditioning.'

For the committed, Trade is just a way station between Saturday and Sunday nights. So when the crowd begins to drift away, it is not necessarily towards a home. Some are heading for Overdose, on Oxford Street, where DJs play 'hardcore jungalistic house music' between 11am and 4pm, and will then make their last stop at FUBAR, a club whose initials stand - appropriately enough at this stage - for 'fucked-up beyond all recognition'.

Some people cannot squeeze enough out of their weekend, particularly when the pavement outside Trade is alive with talk of an all-dayer in Holloway. The sight of two erotically-clad women emerging into the daylight and trying to get their bearings before deciding what to do next is the prelude to a scene that could almost be Albania at midnight. How would they get to Holloway?

A crowd of mini-cab drivers descends on the pale, squinting figures. 'Holloway? Six quid,' shouts one. 'A fiver,' croaks another. As the competition for their business begins to turn ugly, the couple accept a bid and make their escape in a rusty Datsun.