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The wide-awake club

Once it was world famous as the city where all fun stopped at 11pm sharp. Now, the determined London reveller can eat, drink and shop for groceries until the sun comes up. James Sherwood joined the growing nocturnal throng

On what we British still laughingly call "The Continent", a night on the town which begins before 10pm is unheard of. We, however, leave our offices at 6pm, faster than a rat up a drainpipe, and we drink. We drink as if prohibition were being imposed at closing time. By 11pm, London's streets are swarming with the city's sons and daughters, behaving like extras from Tom Jones. Inebriated secretaries lurch arm-in-arm through Soho, caterwauling like fishwives. Suited city boys devour the rankest kebabs on street corners and the mutter of "hashish, Es, whizz, mini-cab" emanates from the dark. This, dear reader, is where we begin our tour of London by night.

11pm: Swathed in an overcoat, I cross the bustling Oxford Street. It could be high noon on London's main shopping artery. The cashpoints are ten deep and people are actually queuing for tables in McDonald's under the strip lighting that shows up every pore. Tempers are frayed as a woman in a beige mac practically garrottes the man behind for trying to push in. Outside, a business man retches his guts up in a side street; trying to keep them from landing on his Hugo Boss.

11.30pm: I make it to cafe-bar Kudos near Charing Cross station and hook up with my friend Anthony. My red wine had been waiting since 11pm. Within minutes, the barflies will be unceremoniously ejected from sundry watering holes. I notice that even the trendier hairdressers, tattoo parlours and clothes shops around Soho have closed their doors by now. So, no chance of late-night shopping unless I want a jumbo sausage from the stall in Trafalgar Square. Outside Kudos, three police vans screech to a halt. "Another bomb scare," says the security guard, wearily.

Midnight: Everyone knows the night-clubs are waiting to take your pounds 10 entrance fee in exchange for even more alcohol until the wee small hours. But that's not what a 24-hour city is all about. By now the hordes have either leapt into mini cabs or clubs. The streets are considerably clearer, so I can see exactly what London has to offer. I still hear the street carrier rap every 500 paces: "Hashish, Es, whizz. mini-cabs". Leicester Square's funfair is in full swing. I pay my pounds 1 and go back to childhood on the carrousel. (The experience is enhanced by a girl in front of me trying to ride side-saddle and flashing her knickers to all and sundry while eating Haagen-Dazs.) Crowded round the street-portrait artists, a woman nudges her friend, points to the sitter and says, "Her nose is more bulbous than that."

lam: London clearly does not want to go home yet. But what the hell do I do now? The Prince of Wales cinema is already an hour into its midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Show and I've forgotten my fishnets anyway. I veer up to Chinatown. Crispy duck is roasting on revolving spits in restaurant windows. Weary diners are chowing-down on prawn crackers and beer. The Chinese supermarkets are open along Gerrard Street and I try to buy beansprouts. The wizened Chinese woman eyes me suspiciously. Does she think I'm a plain-clothes policeman?

1.30am: I pass the once-fashionable Atlantic Bar beneath the eternally sleazy Regent's Palace Hotel. The same crowd of wannabes are being treated with disdain by a suit with a clipboard. The interior resembles one of the old Cunard Line cruise ships, with glossy magazine kiosks, coat checks and Issey Miyake perfume in the loos. The Atlantic still has a sense of occasion about it. You pay through the nose for a Stolly Bolly or a dry Martini, but they taste so much better in one of The Atlantic's plush banquettes. Make a mental note to avoid fashionable hang-outs until the social X-rays and silly It Girls have moved on.

2am: If anyone tells you Soho has cleaned up its act and turned into Disneyland for gays, don't believe them. The 7-Elevens do a mean trade in condoms and cigarettes, while the live sex shows and casinos still swing. A tired-looking hooker says, "Live show, gentlemen," as I walk up Rupert Street. You almost feel like shouting back, "Once more with feeling".

2.30am: Soho may look deserted, but behind closed doors are the "Knock three times and ask for Ada" illicit drinking dives. These places are the homes of humanity quite low on the evolutionary scale. If you didn't know to press pounds 5 into a doorman's hand, you'd miss the sheer delights of drinking neat vodka a floor below a knocking shop. The legitimate private members clubs are more Cabaret than Trainspotting. I went to one on Beak Street, open since 1917 and once the haunt of Burgess, Meredith and (allegedly) the Duke of Edinburgh. Our hostess was just ejecting one of her regulars with an, "I love ya, my darlin'. But I'm a lady. And don't you f***ing well forget it."

3am: I go for breakfast at Balans in Old Compton Street. This 24-hour restaurant would not be out of place in Madrid or Paris. The joint is humming with conversation and the waiters skip round like chorus boys in Hello Dolly! Clever regulars have ordered their hooch before last orders and still sip cocktails. A smattering of dinner jackets stand out against the disco tops, drag queens and party girls. Our waiter tells us about one of the infamous sights of London by night. At around 2am in Earl's Court, all the rent boys gather by the tube and sing "No Regrets". Sadly, I'd missed it.

4am: As I stand on Tottenham Court Road, a drunk harangues me for looking at him. I will, I learn, "be kicked down" if I don't avert my gaze. I realise, on reflection, all my friends have been mugged or assaulted at least once in London. I spot a black cabby who is going south of the river and hop in.

5am. You've seen the ads, you've wondered why bother, now experience Sainsbury's 24- hour opening in the flesh. My cabby thinks Sainsbury's are "a godsend" for thinking about London's legion night-shifters. I feel like Sigourney entering the alien pod as I approach the multi-coloured strobe lights of Clapham High Street's Sainsbury's. One till is open and Mary, a welcoming big momma, sits like a beacon of light waiting for her next customer. I bump into "Kaz" and her gang, who have just left Southside night-club. "Fabulous, innit darlin'?. I've got my shopping list. I go clubbing then we all come to Sainsbury's for a giggle." Kaz's friend Steve is making mischief by the frozen-food counter. "Have you met Felix?," he says. Felix is another valiant Sainsbury's night-shifter. Steve then proceeds to call "Felix" and mew like a kitten. "If you do that, he mews back," says a delighted Barry. Felix does. "And over there is our lovely security guard for the evening, Barry with buns of steel." I've got to tell you, Sainsbury's is a riot. As Kaz says goodbye, she adds, "If they had a bit of music I wouldn't even bother going to Southside."

6am: Post-mortem time over a fry-up at Tattler's in Battersea. It's been open for a century and they still have the original staff. I feel dirty and over-tired - and I don't even like fried bread.

Frankly, all-night London has nothing to offer which is really worth waiting up for. Sainsbury's may have been fabulous at 4.30am, but that says a lot about the rest of the city. Until the whole town adjusts its body clock to 24-hour living, there is no point losing sleep over it. Unless you want to club till dawn, everything else can wait.