It’s Saturday morning, and a group of elaborately dressed revellers are trying to walk in a straight line on Waterloo Bridge. Stumbling, cheering, slurring and singing, wearing tuxedos and ballgowns, the merry band of partygoers are drawing curious stares and giggles from passers-by and buses are slowing down to honk their horns and wave.
This is not your average morning-after-the-night before. This is Black Tie, White Lie, the brainchild of charismatic motivational speaker, entrepreneur, drummer and activist Tom Morley. By his own admission, he’s no stranger to parties that go on all night and well into the next day. However, the group of drunken revellers are in fact stone cold sober, and the wild street party is an elaborate and absurdly immersive piece of theatre – a mix of performance, workshop, flash mob and team-building and an expertly delivered lesson in how to pretend.
The attendees are a mixture of young and old, veterans and newbies, but everyone has turned out in wedding-worthy outfits – literally, in the case of one woman decked out in a spectacularly frothy wedding dress. There are feathers, fascinators and top hats. I get to borrow someone’s unicorn horn. Dawn Ellis, Tom’s lively, irrepressible wife – resplendent in a psychedelic military cap – is handing out champagne glasses and filling them with sparkling water. People are doing shots of water out of roses. I look at the props and realise I really want a glass of real champagne.
“It’s about defying ageing, just having fun – there’s not really an age barrier here. It’s intergenerational.”
But Tom, his drums slung around his neck, emphasises to us all in his introduction, we are not ‘on’ yet. He will clap his hands, and then we will be “in it”. It’s important that we commit fully, or the illusion is shattered. He even gives us a story to tell passers-by if they ask us.
There is real tension and excitement in the group – Tom is able to make each one of us (perhaps fifteen in all) feel vitally important to the performance – and when the cue is given everyone commits with admirable gumption to the illusion. Suddenly I find myself in the middle of a raucous, singing, dancing knot of revellers, joining in with Tom’s call-and-response style music and slurring hellos to bemused London pedestrians.
Although the party itself is frivolous, its underlying principles (and there are many) are anything but. For one thing, the 10am alcohol-free event allows everyone to experience the joy of the morning party – not just the young people with iron constitutions who are gifted with the ability to party for twelve plus hours without dropping dead. “When you get to about 45, 50, if you stay up all night you really feel it, especially if you’ve been drinking,” explains Tom, who is 63.
The ‘older generation’ are out in force this morning, making up a majority of the group. Joining BTWL for the first time this morning is Suzanne Noble, founder of Advantages of Age, a group that aims to challenge the media narrative around ageing. “There’s an obvious synergy here though,” she says. “It’s about defying ageing, just having fun – there’s not really an age barrier here. It’s intergenerational.”
According to Tom, this age-defying movement is, at its core, a movement that belongs to women – a cause that he passionately champions. “Older women especially become invisible over 40,” he tells me. “All their power disappears when they stop being sexually attractive to a certain type of man.” For his part, he’s thrilled to have made a link with Advantages of Age – “They’re like the new elders. We desperately need elders. Young people need mentors.”
As well as putting paid to ageing gracefully, Black Tie White Lie is also about demonstrating on Waterloo Bridge. “Since the recent terrorist attacks they’ve put up all those barriers on the bridges,” says Tom. In fact, he says that the significance of this morning’s location is more than that – “Donald Trump wants to build walls, we want to build bridges. To actually celebrate on the bridge, it’s like reclaiming public space. Especially if we’re singing for peace, just a few yards from Parliament we’re singing ‘give peace a chance’”. This ‘singing for peace’ takes the form of a four-part harmony session, adapted from a piece written by Jane Hanson, the founder of One Day One Choir.
Choral aficionado and activist Jane has researched the impact of group singing over many years, and One Day One Choir has been running since 2014 – a global choral performance on World Peace Day (September 21st). “People go out in their communities and sing,” she explains. The sound of the group studiously learning their harmonies feels a little unreal, but as the song comes together it feels somehow transformative.
While the new choristers are rehearsing, I wander over and have a chat with the photographers – three in all. Two of them are affiliated with the event, but it turns out that one of them, spontaneous street photographer David Gould, has absolutely no prior knowledge of the event. He heard the singing, and assumed the gathering was a protest, but was surprised to see the colourful, outlandish outfits and bright makeup – “It looks like a wedding,” he says, laughing. Tom’s vision of the event has obviously made its mark, and David, an outsider, grasps the concept immediately – “”This is kind of like I guess a type of activism and peace and about being on the bridges,” he says, “A sort of I guess stand up and be free, be happy, love one another and that kind of thing, which is the best, really.”
“You’ll go about your daily life, your head will be down, you’ll be wandering along and not really interacting with people…it’s nice to see the public, just as they wander past, can have a little look and a smile and just kind of get involved, which is a cool thing to do, right?” I really couldn’t have explained it better myself.
Meanwhile, the party is on the move. We straggle, stumble and weave down the bridge and onto the Southbank. The fountain outside the Southbank centre, the background of so many selfies, is in full flow and I thoroughly surprise myself by following Lorraine (the founder of Morning Gloryville and no stranger to sober revelry) and leaping into the spray to dance to the beat of Tom’s drums.
However, we have run into trouble. A security guard approaches and attempts to stop our photographer Jason Purple from taking pictures of Lorraine and I in the fountain. He is unfortunate enough to become The Man. “I got stopped by the security guards and dealt with rather aggressively,” Jason says later. “I did not bow to the man, I stood my ground, and I moved away.”
If anything, the altercation is fuel to Tom’s fire. He starts up the call and response again, but this time the refrain is an improvised tirade: “We pay our taxes, so we can sing here,” he roars, and the group responds in kind. “We love you, but we don’t love your rules! Where are the police?” Tom is drumming frantically and the group is chanting – a genuinely spontaneous demonstration against the aforementioned Man. “We care about you,” Tom assures the security guard earnestly. “We don’t care about your rules.”
“Those men, trying to stop us from dancing in the fountain…someone with a walkie-talkie saying ‘you can’t dance here’ – I mean, what chance did he have?” Tom tells me later. “We’re too strong. We’re too vibrant.”
On schedule, we all go for breakfast, still clinging on to the morning-after pretence. There is a genuinely moving impromptu poetry reading – fully converted, I even stand up and read Be Drunk, by Charles Baudelaire – “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish,” – which seems to resonate with the group. Every poem receives hearty cheers. The group – many of whom began the day as strangers to each other – is so convivial and chatty that I am strongly reminded of those drunken best-friendships that happen at the best house parties and in the girls’ bathroom at any nightclub.
I ended the morning with wet feet and a warm heart. I have a chronic pain condition that often makes life a misery – I live from nap to nap and exist in a perpetual fog of fatigue. A fairly tame night out can knock me out for days. Committing to the performance of being out all night provided me with all the lowered inhibitions (and subsequent silliness) of the real thing, but without any of the physical drawbacks. And, of course, I can remember everything – which is just as well, as I made a lot of memories I’d quite like to keep.