Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Pigeon Pilgrimage: Part Four: Greenhill Rents EC1

My name is Sam Redlark. I am a carrier of the LonB gene which enables me to perceive parts of London that exist outside of the normal human sensory range. This blog is an account of the Capital as I experience it. I hope that my writing here will encourage those who find themselves in London, whether it is as a visitor, or as a resident, to seek a deeper appreciation of their surroundings. You don’t need to be a LonB carrier to experience the best of the city. All you need to do is open your senses to what is around you.

Greenhill Rents EC1
 “The trouble with this time of year is the day’s over before it’s begun,” says Laura.
She reaches over a windowsill strewn with dust bunnies and the broken corpses of last autumn’s Daddy Longlegs, taking hold of a stained drawstring in one corner, and adjusting the filthy cream blinds defensively, so that they banish the early-morning dazzle from the screen of her computer monitor.    
On top of a nearby filing cabinet, the husk of a spider plant trembles to the faint vibrations of passing traffic, the powdery dry soil encasing its roots in a slow retreat from the sides of its plastic, faux-terracotta pot.
Outside, an opaque winter sky the colour of opal has compressed the sun into a shapeless glare on the horizon that blinds the drivers on the inbound carriageway of Aston Lane. The only brief respite from squinting behind a pulled-down sun visor comes with the arc of the big roundabout at Nersha Break where fence panels line the verges, deflecting the fierce crosswinds that buffet the cars. Here and there a few vehicles peel away from the procession towards the city and head down a short service road that leads to a Holiday Inn, a call centre for The Royal Bank of Scotland and a sprawling supermarket.
The snow that froze to the steep, tiled roof of the Tesco during the night is sliding off in thin brittle sheets, exposing jagged sections of the patterned red and black slate underneath. As Alan Avis exits the store, a pair of employees dressed in fluorescent waistcoats are cordoning-off the pavement under the eaves with yellow tape.  
He trails through the car park. The partially-dissolved, rust-coloured grit, laid down to melt the snow, spatters his gleaming, black leather shoes and the flimsy material of his trouser legs. A carrier bag weighted down by three multipacks of muffins thumps rhythmically against his thigh. Two slender bunches of cellophane-wrapped daffodils poke their heads incongruously between the handles, like periscopes sizing up January for signs of warmer weather.
The edge of the car park has been gritted more frugally than the area immediately surrounding the store’s entrance. Alan passes a Peugeot 106 that has come to rest at an angle, the smudged arc of its tire tread in the melting snow suggesting that it skidded to a gentle halt. A motoring atlas, spread wide-open on the passenger seat, shows the city of London in it’s entirety, the arterial roads and railway lines converging on the heart of the capital but never quite meeting in the centre, mimicking the artless, loosely-woven thatch of pigeon’s nest.
He climbs a short flight of concrete stairs to the pavement, his breath condensing into white clouds as he picks his way over a glassy honeycomb of slowly-melting ice superimposed over the red tarmac. The cellophane wrapping of the flowers crackles in the slipstream of passing vehicles as he pauses by an interminable set of road works that have blocked off one lane of the carriageway, fumbling the loops of the carrier bag around his wrist as he retrieves his phone. Behind him a solitary maintenance worker wearily shovels snow into a freshly drilled hole in the asphalt.
 “Deborah, It’s Alan. Did you remember to put the heating on? Can you call me back when you get this.”
He returns the mobile to his pocket. A minute later at the pedestrian crossing the phone rings. He stops to answer it.
“I’m on my way now. I had to stop off and get a few things... They’re here already?”
Behind him in the cement yard that brackets three sides of Heriot’s Memorials, Gwen (formerly George) Heriot contemplates the mute, closed ranks of ice-encrusted gravestones. Her lungs are like a pair of hourglasses, filtering the powdered epitaphs of the London dead. It’s hard for her to breathe in this weather. The wheeled oxygen cylinder cuts a parallel groove in the snow from the side door of the showroom. Her concentration is broken by a young man with short red hair standing at the pedestrian crossing swearing into his mobile phone. A red light holding back two columns of paused traffic.  
“Oh for fuck’s sake Deborah,” says Alan. “I said 9 o’clock... Well stall them... No, I don’t want you to let them in... Tell them that you don’t have the key... Show them the church.”
On the crossing display the green man blinks out. Moments later the lines of cars resume their slow crawl towards the centre of the capital. On the other end of the line Deborah is saying something sensible about slippery pavements and lawsuits.
“You know what a pain in the arse this has been. I just wanted to make it nice... Okay, let them in. I’ll be there in about 15 minutes.”
“Wankers,” he says as he disconnects the call.
The hallway smells faintly of furniture polish. As he enters he hears the suppressed whine of the toilet flush as it fades into the sound of the cistern refilling itself. At the far end of the corridor he catches a blurred glimpse of a single leg disappearing around the corner and into the kitchen. In the small downstairs cloakroom the mottled glass of the window makes a silver and white camouflage pattern on the net curtains. He pulls the door ajar as he passes.
John & Katherine Aldern are in conversation with Deborah. They are in their early 30s, unmarried and childless. They both work for a Conservative party think tank called Eximo. 
He enters the confined kitchen area and introduces himself.
“We can’t find the kettle,” announces Deborah.
“There should be one in the cupboard over the sink...”
Deborah’s stocking-clad calves brush against his legs as the quartet reshuffles itself between the opposing rows of cupboards and appliances.
“I bought flowers,” he says apologetically, laying the supermarket carrier bag on the counter where it remains untouched.
 “Would anyone like a cup of tea?”
“I think we’re okay,” replies John Aldern.
“Actually we are a little pushed for time,” says his wife.
“Why don’t I give you the tour then. Your standing in a traditional Puritan narrow house. The property’s spread over four floors. When you consider the location and the asking price its an excellent deal. A lot of couples are using tenancies like this as places to base themselves in London during the working week...”
“Actually Deborah’s already shown us around. Before we go I would like to discuss the flexibility of the arrangement with the church down the road. We’d also like to see the garden.”
 “Ok. Um, what specifically did you want to discuss?”
“Well I understand that one of the conditions of the lease is that we would be obliged to take turns, along with our neighbours, in cleaning the church at the bottom of the road. As neither Katherine or myself is particularly religious we would be keen to opt out of that part of the agreement.”
“The upkeep of the Greenhill Estate has been a condition of the tenancy for over a century. It’s not really about forcing religion down anybody’s throat. It’s more about the maintenance of a communal building. You wouldn’t be expected to turn up for Sunday service or anything like that.”  
“But if the building in question is a church then there are inescapable religious overtones. One of the requirements involves making sure that there are flowers on the altar. If I was a Muslim would you expect me to participate in the upkeep of a place of worship from a different faith to my own?”
Katherine Aldern: “Would we be able to employ someone to do the cleaning on our behalf?”  
“Katherine and I work very long hours. Neither of us want to run the risk of breaching the conditions of a five year lease because of our work commitments. I don’t think it’s reasonable or legal for the owners of the property to discriminate against us on that basis.” 
“But you are entering this contract with open eyes,” says Deborah. “The relative cheapness of the rent acknowledges the contribution that tenants make towards the general upkeep of the Greenhill Estate. You would be expected to consider whether you have the time to honour this part of the agreement before you sign the lease.”  
An uneasy pause signifies a stalemate in the negotiations.
“Why don’t we look at the garden,” says Alan.
It takes two bites of the lock before the key finally draws back the tumbler. As he opens the back door, a cold, stiff breeze enters the kitchen.
The garden plot is as long and as narrow as the house that it’s attached to, blanketed in an almost pristine covering of frozen snow, chipped here and there by the tracks of tiny bird feet and the exaggerated paw prints of an urban fox on a meandering course. At the far end, a red brick trench, roughly four foot across and six feet deep divides the garden from the property opposite.
“This is the priest’s alley, I take it...” says John Aldern, peering down into the trench which is filled with snow to a depth of about half a foot. A discarded Twix wrapper lodged between ice crystals flaps limply in the wind.
 “...When all that snow melts it’s going to be like a storm drain.”
“The priest alleys were conceived as the roots of the church, radiating outwards into the community. Most of our residents find it charming to have something of such historical importance on their back doorstep,” says Deborah.
“Only I understand that now some of them are being used a burial plots.”
“Since 1987 the church has been compensating for the overflow of public cemeteries by converting some of the alleyways into burial plots.”
“So with the church just down the road would it be reasonable to assume that at some point there will be graves along this stretch as well?”
“There’s nothing scheduled at the moment. Every year the church governing body holds a  meeting where they discuss which of the brown field sites in their portfolio will be used for burials. This is done in consultation with the council and with local residents.”
“But if they did change their minds then all this would all be filled in and anyone using it as footpath would be at eye-level with our the house. Presumably people do have a right of access to it. I’ve seen these alleyways mentioned in London tour guides. Apart from the issue of privacy I’m  wondering what the situation would be regarding home insurance when there is such easy public access onto private property.”
John Aldern breaks off from his monologue to address his wife:
“What do you think?”
“I’m not happy about it.”
Ostracised from their decision Alan feels the morning slipping away from him. He turns one heel repeatedly back and forth grinding the snow down into grass and the grass down into the mud. In next door’s garden a pigeon launches itself from a collapsed rotary washing line. A green glow trails in the wake of the bird as it rises and then alights on the guttering overhanging the kitchen door, a pair of small twigs clasped in its beak.  

NEXT...Bluebird Way SE28 (Wise judges and fighting dogs!)

Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Pigeon Pilgrimage: Part Three: Lemonwell Drive SE19

My name is Sam Redlark. I am a carrier of the LonB gene which enables me to perceive parts of London that exist outside of the normal human sensory range. This blog is an account of the Capital as I experience it. I hope that my writing here will encourage those who find themselves in London, whether it is as a visitor, or as a resident, to seek a deeper appreciation of their surroundings. You don’t need to be a LonB carrier to experience the best of the city. All you need to do is open your senses to what is around you.


Lemonwell Drive SE9

The Tyton Elevator Company built its headquarters on London silkstone, at the bottom of a natural dell on the fringes of Greenwich, three and a half miles away from the river Thames. At the time the bowl-like depression was traversed by a muddy lane known as Drowner’s Mile on account of it being significantly below sea level, and so prone to flooding that it was once considered as a site for an inland dock or an open reservoir.  

In 1923, Tyton’s original plans to build their 14-storey head office in Clerkenwell, had fallen foul of planning application laws and concerns that the tower would interfere with the skyline, drawing eyes away from Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The low-lying Greenwich site was proposed as a compromise, allowing the architects to keep to their original design, while the uppermost floors of the tower would reside at the same altitude as houses only a few streets away. The company founder - George Wormersley - claimed in retrospect that the location had been chosen deliberately to reflect Tyton’s intention to bring the common man to eye-level with the heavens.

In its day Tyton installed elevators in buildings across London with it’s penthouse omnibus propelling the well-heeled classes into the rarefied upper atmosphere of the Capital. The company  became renowned for its ambitious bespoke projects, such as the corkscrew lift in the Templemen Hotel. Its most famous installations were to be found in the earliest London skyscrapers - The famous High Seven of Marylebone, which were constructed simultaneously in the 1930s, with the tallest standing 123 metres. Only two remain today - The Hatpin (home to Haftler Nylons) and The Sailorboard. Neither building retains its original  elevator system.  

In the 1950s, Tyton became locked in the equivalent of a space race with its chief rival - The Garde-robe de Vol elevator company from Paris. The Ascent of  Everest competition drew both companies into an undignified battle, as each competed to amass enough cumulative metres of functioning elevator to surpass the height of the world’s tallest mountain. Ultimately it was a race that neither company won, although it was Garde-robe de Vol that came closest, reaching to within a couple of 100 metres of the 8848 metre target, before being declared bankrupt in 1957. A year later Tyton followed them into receivership.

The quality of Tyton’s work meant even their elevator systems were often removed from buildings prior to demolition and re-installed elsewhere. Many were transported abroad where they were often fitted into established properties with varying levels of success.

Today the Tyton Building is a residential property. In common with the surviving Thames-side warehouses, its exterior retains the lettering and architectural features that advertise its former purpose. The interior of the building is also listed, protecting it against superfluous renovation. Instead of being given numbers, the individual apartments are named after the offices of former staff members at the long-defunct company.

David Pasterfield rents a spacious flat on the 13th floor called ‘The Boardroom’. A white sofa and a large flatscreen television occupy part of the living area where there once stood a table bearing a relief map of the capital, with brass pins representing the locations and relative heights of the elevators installed by the company. David has seen a black and white photograph of it in a book on London history and has ordered a print which he plans to frame and hang on the wall.  

The stairs of the Tyton building were made from Portmans marble. Decades of feet coming and going have worn away the bottom flights. The steps are slippery underfoot, bowed slightly at the centre and slope downwards at their edges. Their condition draws regular complaints from the tenants and the provisional cost of repair is a source of friction with the building’s owners.

David takes the well-maintained elevator down to the ground floor. The control panel is an etched brass plaque in the shape of the Tyton logo - A barn owl - with two columns of small, well-oiled levers protruding from slots in its body. The car glides so smoothly, it barely feels like it is moving at all.

Outside on the stoop an amorous male pigeon is making puffed-up advances on a female, moving with the bobbing forward momentum of a mechanical Victorian toy. It’s quarry hurries away taking small rapid steps, as if on the verge of breaking into a run. Both of the birds infuse the surrounding air with a brilliant yellow glow that intensifies the closer they are to each other.

The unrelenting cooing of the male pigeon annoys David. He idly kicks in its direction until both birds take flight and resume their courtship a few feet away on the pavement. He pauses on the steps to read a text message from his girlfriend. Above his head the sun illuminates a thin layer of dirt on the glass face of a round clock, fastened to the wall of the building by an ornate metal bracket, its big hand counting down the final few minutes of his life.

As David climbs the steep hill of Lemonwell Drive, he thinks about Nuria. The first thing that comes to mind is the pair of them standing in line at the Forbidden Planet comic book store, his girlfriend making catty comments about a life-sized cardboard standee of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, comparing the actress Sarah Michelle Geller to a rat.

His mind wanders to a different comic shop that they visited later on the same day. Holding hands in front of a shelving unit crammed full of graphic novels, he said: “I’m making you a goddess in my comic. Do you want to be a good goddess or an evil goddess?”

Where Lemonwell Drive starts to flatten out there is a unremarkable red brick arcade composed of eight small retail units: At the far end a restaurant offers “Steak and Fish, Chicken and Ribs”. Next to it, a place he’s never been to, advertises Korean-style barbecue. The sheltered area in front of the property has been sectioned-off with a white plastic picket fence, the space in-between carpeted in bristly, bright-green Astroturf. Inside there’s a photocopier and some scattered plastic garden furniture; no indication that food is prepared or served on the premises. A pair of glowing male pigeons strut along the border of the artificial grass, vying for the affections of a reluctant female.

As David reaches the junction at the end of the road, he feels his phone vibrate in his pocket. It’s Nuria again, texting to say that she is leaving the house now and will see him soon. 

Gazing down at her message he steps off the curb and into Bexley Road...


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Pigeon Pilgrimage: Part Two: Orange Place SE16

My name is Sam Redlark. I am a carrier of the LonB gene which enables me to perceive parts of London that exist outside of the normal human sensory range. This blog is an account of the Capital as I experience it. I hope that my writing here will encourage those who find themselves in London, whether it is as a visitor, or as a resident, to seek a deeper appreciation of their surroundings. You don’t need to be a LonB carrier to experience the best of the city. All you need to do is open your senses to what is around you.


Orange Place SE16

At 8:00am, on the 12th November, 1944, the Church of Saint Alexis was hit by a German V2 rocket. After the war they rebuilt it incorporating chunks of masonry from the nearby Church of Saint James the Greater, which had been completely destroyed in a separate air raid, grafting the remains of the latter onto the surviving walls and foundations.

Up until 1959 the plaza outside Saint Alexis was given over to market stalls selling paper lace to pauper brides. Now, in their place, there are cafes with their pavement clutter of cheap aluminium furniture, and chalkboards promoting the day’s specials. Passersby stop to stare at the big conga eel in the window of Monty’s Fish and Chip shop, its sinewy coils crammed into one of the rocky nooks in its aquarium; bulging, milky blue cataracts staring blindly from a mangled face like a boxer’s. The eel’s captivity plays upon the conscience of the restaurant’s owner John Strangleman. Sometimes after work as he wipes down the tables he talks to it: ‘If you grow much bigger I’m going to have to throw you back into the Track where I caught you...”

The Southwark Track is the local name for a nearby canal. Its waters permeate the porous bedrock that is a geological feature of this area of London, seeping into the foundations of the surrounding buildings, keeping the rents down on basement properties. In the spring algae creeps over the banks to flower on the towpath. The council sends workers to cut it back with strimmers. The prunings are heat-sealed in black plastic bags and then transported on barges down the Thames to Two Tree Island where they are burned.

The Track links Old Tea Crane Dock to the river. In 1981, a seaplane belonging to the cinematographer Jake Barby, landed there and is now trapped, penned-in by the high-rise apartment buildings that have risen up on the land surrounding the manmade harbour.

 * * *

It’s five o’clock in the evening, on a school night. Inside the church a pigeon beats itself against a segment of stained glass in Jesus’ robe. The air around the bird flares bright orange, like a halo or a sunset. 

Craig waits by the altar for his mother to come and pick him up from choir practice.

“Another bird,” sighs Father Harry passing through on his way to lock up the office. “I think sometimes we should rededicate this church to Saint Assisi for all the acts of kindness we perform on behalf of animals”.

He diverts from his intended course and walks to the rear of the east transcept, where an aged wooden step ladder, with a square of white muslin cloth draped over the top rung, has been propped up against a wall for so long it has left faint indentations on the stone floor.

“Have I told you about Father Mason? It’s possible that I have,” he says in a conversational tone, as he manhandles the ladder between the pillars and past the altar.

The pigeon has dropped to the floor and is strutting back and forth along the arc of the apse. As Father Harry approaches, it launches itself with a sudden snap of its wings, embarking on another ill-fated vertical ascent, its flight feathers struggling to gain purchase on the slippery glass.

“When I was about your age I sang in the choir just like you. At the time there was a priest who worked here called Mason. He was a very cruel man...”

It takes him three goes to wrestle the A-frame open. When he is done the ladder stands slightly lop-sided before the stain glass.

“...Pigeons used to come into the church then as they do now. Father Mason was very adept at using the angel poles to catch the birds and set them on fire.”

The six Angel Poles are lined upright in a pair of racks flanking the main doorway of the church. Each one is a brass tube, handmade in the Vatican city, roughly 20 feet in height and capped with a replica of an angel. A lever at the base of the pole opens and closes the angel’s wings allowing it to grip a candle and then position it in one of the brackets mounted high up on the walls. A second lever works on a similar principle to a cigarette lighter, sending a small tongue of flame darting from the angel’s mouth. A third lever delivers a concentrated puff of air from the same opening.

“He would hold them up in front of us until they were burned through. ‘Martyred Saints,’ he used to call them. We all kept on singing as we were terrified of the man. One day a bird managed to break free and by sheer good fortune fell into the font which doused the flames.”

“Did it die?”

“No, it didn’t die. It was hideously burned though and could never fly properly. From that day on it haunted Father Mason. He would shoo it away whenever he caught sight of it, but it would always find a way back inside. In his own way he was scared of it. He died of brain cancer ten years ago. The tumour made him blind but on his death bed he claimed that he could hear the pigeon moving about in his room... Come here and hold the ladder for me.”

Craig puts down the Tesco carrier bag that contains his chorister robes and grips the sides of the ladder. As Father Harry begins to climb he feels the frame flexing where the rusted rivets holding it together have eaten into the wood.

When the priest reaches the penultimate step he stands upright, holding the scrunched up muslin in the air above his head. This causes the ladder to wobble violently as if attempting to shake itself apart. For a moment the pigeon persists in its panicked flap against the glass, then all of a sudden it drops into the soft white cloth and is instantly still. Father Harry descends gingerly back the way he came. When his feet meet with the floor of the church he turns around and holds the placid bird out in front of him as presenting it to Craig. The air around his hands burns a bright orange.

“Do you see the glow?” he says.

Behind him in the window, the disciples cast their open nets upon the sea of Galilee, the gentle waves rendered in opals and greens. 


Monday, 21 February 2011

The Pigeon Pilgrimage: Part One: Red Place W1

My name is Sam Redlark. I am a carrier of the LonB gene which enables me to perceive parts of London that exist outside of the normal human sensory range. This blog is an account of the Capital as I experience it. I hope that my writing here will encourage those who find themselves in London, whether it is as a visitor, or as a resident, to seek a deeper appreciation of their surroundings. You don’t need to be a LonB carrier to experience the best of the city. All you need to do is open your senses to what is around you.


Red Place, W1

Emma’s new duffle coat is bright red; the same colour as her mother’s knitted beret and the small family car they arrived in, which is now parked up on the opposite curb, across a narrow street of flat cobbles. Even the scattered flocks of grounded pigeons have a faint reddish glow about them. If Emma’s father were here he would crouch down at eye-level with his daughter. They would look at the birds and talk about them. He would explain to her the reason for their red aura, but it would be a made-up explanation tailored to appeal to the imagination of a small child.

Emma’s mother can’t see the glow. To her the pigeons are ordinary, their smudged ripples of grey plumage suppressing a faint spectrum of colours like an overcast metropolitan sky blotting out a rainbow. Talking into her mobile phone, she stares intently through the gleaming plate glass window of an upmarket antiques shop at a room full of impeccably-restored mahogany furniture, while she grips her daughter’s hand, sub-consciously responding to the child’s attempts to wriggle free by tightening her grasp around the tiny palm.

Emma points at one of the pigeons as it briefly takes flight. The red glow around the bird intensifies during its momentary ascent, then fades rapidly as it drops to the flagstones and resumes its graceless strut among the meandering flock.

Her mother’s attention is fixated on a table in the window. A square of dark wood reflecting a scuffed patch of light from a lamp overhead. The panelled surface of the table is divided into neat quarters, clearly demarking the area given over to each diner. These panels are held in place by an ornate clasped screw that forms an ornamental centrepiece. When this is removed they fold out to expand the dining area. The tables legs swell into tear-drop shaped feet, known in the trade as weepers. Each foot has a small gold crown affixed crookedly to the wood, denoting former royal ownership.

“There’s no price on it... It looks like one of those places where if you have to go in and make them an offer.”  

“Can I talk to daddy?” says Emma.

“In a minute darling... No I don’t have any money with me... I have to use that for the shopping... Graham, I’m no good at haggling... I don’t want to get home and have you yelling at me because I paid too much for it... I don’t think it will fit in the car anyway... Can’t we drive down on Saturday?”

She relaxes her grip on her daughter’s hand, allowing it to drop. Emma's face takes on a concentrated sulky expression as she cradles her sore palm, staring down at it as she flexes it open and closed.

Red Place was constructed in one bold architectural flourish; two opposing rows of smart, red brick terraced housing rising to four storeys above ground; buildings with facades that extend beyond their pointed roofs, the sloped peaks of slate obscured behind shields of brick, built to resemble fireplaces. At the back the roofs flatten out and there are pigeon nurseries; weather-beaten coops managed by the council  and tended to by elderly volunteers. 

It is the birthplace of all true London pigeons. The newly fledged birds pour over the blocky crenulations that guard the rooftops, descending like angels from the low heavens of London, where they were born, to take their first faltering steps hemmed-in by a Venn diagram of sparrow hawk territories.

Emma’s mother finishes her phone call.

“Come on,” she says taking her daughter roughly by the hand.

In a doorway of the adjacent building someone has abandoned a parcel. Emma strains to look at it as she is dragged past. It is a large box wrapped in brown packing paper and then a layer of clear plastic that has been infiltrated by an earlier drizzle, beading the interior with condensation that obscures the print-out on a yellow delivery docket. A bright orange sticker attached to one side announces its delivery by The Pedal Crew Cycle Courier Service