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. 


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