you're never too old to party

METROPOLITAN LIFE You had a roaring twenties - night-clubs, substance (ab)use, hangovers swiftly dealt with by lunchtime pints. But now you find techno a turn off and drugs a drag. Where now for Generation What Next?
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my friend Tim was amazed. "A party? With dancing? Drugs available! God I wished I'd bumped into you last night. All I did was cry at the big zero on my answering machine and go down the snooker club," he said with barely mocking self-pity.

We had met by chance at a pub on a balmy (but aren't they all in England) Sunday night, and I had been recounting my Saturday night fever a la Clapham, a big thrash in a big house overlooking the Common, though Tim made it sound as if I'd just jetted in from Helena Christensen's birthday party held on the set of the new Tarantino in Zanzibar.

Tim (not his real name) may have problems with socialising unknown to me, but his lament did pull into focus a local difficulty commonly faced by many late-twentysomethings and early-thirtysomethings: what the hell to do on a Saturday night. Generation What Next has had a roaring twenties - nightclubs, house parties, substance (ab)use, hangovers swiftly dealt with by lunchtime pints, one-night stands, two-night stands, even going out on Sunday nights, heaven forbid. But now, what sad creatures.

Nightclubs insist on playing techno or hard house to boys and girls besotted by Ecstasy, who were in shorts or trying on their first bras - which they still appear to wear for an evening out, perhaps with fake fur added - when older folk first hit the clubs in the mid- to late 1980s. House parties are few and far between, because it's hard enough selling a flat with negative equity without having your friends trash it. Drugs have lost their novelty and hangovers fester like gangrene. The only late nights are weddings (but rarely past 1am), and the biggest rebellion available is refusing to take a personal pension.

An obvious answer to all this is to stay in, watch Match of the Day and have babies. But what with various post-modern crises, things ain't that simple any more. People who are 31 still want to have fun. And they want to stay up past closing-time.

In fact, the easiest answer would be civilised licensing laws. Imagine being able to stroll or hop on a bus to a bar with good music, friendly punters and somewhere to sit that was open until one or two in the morning. Keep on imagining and you'll realise you're in Paris or Barcelona. Slowly, slowly, things are changing here, at least in the big cities. (Scotland's, of course, are blessed by late licences.) Manchester has several late bars with no entrance fee, while a late-night guide in the London listings magazine Time Out had 25, only nine of them outside the West End, many charging admission after 11pm. Doubling that would perhaps provide an accurate figure, with Islington and Camden in north London particularly well endowed.

But despite the arrival of all-day Sunday opening, there is scant chance of across-the-board late extensions. The refuge of the lock-in, if you can find one, remains in its smoky, beery tradition. There is a thriving comedy circuit, which is fine if you don't mind being shouted at by a man telling jokes about his penis. Private members' clubs (the operative word being "members") are burgeoning; which is fine if you don't mind an over-priced, elitist, aspirational, nose-powdering, celeb-spotting sort of scene.

It could be argued the challenge and exclusiveness of going out in London contributes greatly to the strength of its sub-cultures - the supremacy of supply over demand means folk stick loyally by places they favour - but for people who don't belong to a particular tribe or don't want to go out more than once a week, it can be a nightmare, requiring a management course in forward planning, some experience of orienteering, and putting your name down at birth for a taxi.

Then there is the matter of getting in. A friend of mine queued for an hour with his girlfriend and another couple at the West End top spot the Hanover Grand recently, only to be told by the bouncer: "Sorry mate, look's like it's not happening for you tonight." This sort of thing can lead to paranoid, hermit tendencies.

Dave Swindells, nightclub editor of Time Out, has heard all this before. "People always ring and say, 'Where can we go?' and the critieria seem to be their age, rather than the music, and wanting a little bit of comfort and a place to talk. They might find the 18-year-olds vaguely amusing, but need an area to escape to. Older people still want to dance, but don't want to head straight for the podium and dance till six in the morning.

"A friend recently wanted to go out with a big crowd, all in their mid- thirties, on a Saturday night, and I said, 'There is nowhere to go that would want you.' But if you get there early and you look up for it, then you should get in - plenty of younger people are turned away too. The problem comes when you aren't trendy any more and you want to get into trendy clubs - you're on a loser."

Fear not if you happen to find yourself in something approximating to this situation. Alternatives have emerged and are growing, albeit slowly. At the growing number of Eighties retro, soul, funk and Latin clubs, door policies are less discriminating, and the range of people more catholic if less fashionable, which may be no bad thing. In London, Edinburgh and not least Middlesbrough, the unforeseeable rise of easy listening and cabaret clubs, with playlists featuring AndyWilliams and Burt Bacharach, and clothes out of Casino Royale, is partly in response to the bug-eyed sweatiness of the house scene. With a great flourish of English eccentricity, Perry Como has become a hip underground sound and rave music a mainstay of the mainstream.

Felchley B Hawkes, who runs Indigo at Madame Jo-Jo's on Tuesdays, explains: "I don't dance and I don't like loud music, and it occurred to me that there must be others like me, people who want to go to a club where they can socialise in a relaxed environment." His partner in cream, Count Indigo, says: "I started the club because I was interested in different ways of communicating, apart from dancing and getting off your face."

Fred Leicester (pseudonyms abound in the cocktail nation) organises Cheese events in London and Going Places in Edinburgh, held in an MGM cinema, where such films as Barbarella or Singin' in the Rain precede the music, karaoke and secondhand clothes sale. "It is a return to dressing up and having fun and listening to a variety of tempos and sounds," he says. "And we are not doing it for a joke - I think it's great music. We get a very big mixture of people, from 18 to 40; it's breaking down stupid boundaries."

The majority of his audience, however, is undoubtedly in the 25-35 range, and the sight of 700 people clapping their hands and stamping their feet in all the right places to Is This the Way to Amarillo? - at a recent Cheese party - has to be seen to be believed. Grand fromage indeed. During other numbers, the variety of dancing is striking - a hippie-ish girl in a floppy dress swirls around, a couple have a crack at the tango, a girl with a white feather boa who looks as if she's just slunk off Jason King's sofa glides around the floor; self-expression is the order of the night. Rather than stomping like drug-driven automatons for hours, people dance for a few songs, decide they don't like the next and have a break by the bar, where you can even hear yourself talk.

The Youth Club, a weekly event in London, is just that, except virtually everyone is over 25. There is table football, table tennis, pool, a tuckshop and an original Space Invaders machine. If the music (Blondie, Boomtown Rats, Stranglers) is too narrowly retro for some, the club is distinguished by a sense of humour. "People like to talk and have a laugh," says Steve Furst, co-host. "There is no sense of humour these days at house clubs - it's not funny music, and DJs have become gods, as if they were creating music, which is bollocks, they are just very good at mixing."

With his partner Mike, Furst also runs the Double Six Club, where hundreds flock, even in the heatwave, for a game of Buckeroo and Twister, and the Regency Rooms, a supper club with weird and wonderful cabaret. "I like original ideas and to create a night people remember," says Furst.

A problem with many such nights, apart from their rarity, is that they take place midweek, and hard-working urban folk need their beauty sleep. This is partly because alternative promoters find it hard to obtain venues for Saturdays, when clubs would rather open up to the hordes of pert young things who may not spend a lot at the bar, but are guaranteed to return. Older folk, on the other hand, may drink far more but only venture out late once a month.

Fred Leicester's explanation of this could be spot on: "By that stage people have got tagged off, they have got a regular partner. The main reason to go clubbing has always been to get shagged, or try to." I forgot to mention that my friend Tim is single.