Thursday, October 21, 2004

Jonathan Livingstone Crow? 

Londoners know that The Thames is more than just a physical barrier cutting across the city; it’s also a cultural divide – you’d be forgiven for thinking that North Londoners and South Londoners are two different races, so little do the two mix.

My day too was divided yesterday, with a morning meeting north of the river and an afternoon meeting on the south side. With time and space to fill between morning and afternoon, north and south, I took a literal way of bridging the gap and followed a pedestrian route between them over the (infamous) Millennium Bridge.

The bridge doesn’t only span the physical space of the river; it seemed to me to span time too. My feet stood on 21st century aluminium decking, but looking out across the steel cables that support the structure, side-by-side with the massive concrete piles that anchor these cables are ancient timber bulwarks, revealed by the low tide. I imagine these are the remains of wharves that date back to the 19th century or earlier, but I haven’t been able to find any confirmation of that. Inhabiting the no-man’s-land between the concrete walls that define the edge of the land, and the deep water of the navigable channel, there is no reason for these timbers to be disturbed, and so they have probably stood for well over a hundred years and may well stand for another hundred. There’s not much else in London that can claim such a leisurely pace of change. It’s comforting somehow to see that remnant of an earlier age largely undisturbed.

With the noise and bustle of the city held at bay by the banks of the river - since this is a pedestrian-only bridge - it’s not too difficult to find a moment’s relative peace in a place that belongs neither to north nor south, and seems to touch both present and past. Standing suspended above the river on that ribbon of aluminium and steel, my eye was caught by another sight that, although fleeting, could just as easily have been seen a thousand years ago. A solitary crow was doing his (or her) best single-handedly (or should that be single wingedly?) to mob a gang of seagulls. One crow against half a dozen gulls, who aren’t exactly noted as pacifists of the avian world, yet the odds didn’t seem to deter him in the least. But it wasn’t his bravado that caught my attention – it was his aerobatic tricks, played out flawlessly in strong, gusty winds. He’d come in from above and to the side, almost pass a particular gull, then somehow twist sharply in the air, fold his wings and plummet into the gull’s path, forcing it to turn away. Then he’d spread his wings again, magically transforming the downwards momentum into an upward swoop, up through the crowd of gulls to repeat the process over again. I’ll swear he was doing it for the sheer exuberant fun of it, just playing, teasing them, revelling in his mastery of the tricks of flight.

Before long, the gulls grew tired of his annoyance and dispersed. My crow – by this time I’d developed a kind of connection with him – circled a couple of times then let the wind carry him up over one of the older office blocks on the river bank, only a few storeys high, at the last minute swinging 180 degrees to face into the wind and make a perfect touch down on the slender rods of a TV aerial. The manoeuvre was executed so skilfully, at first attempt and with complete economy of wing-beats in spite of the gusts of wind, that I felt like applauding. It wouldn’t have looked any neater in a flat calm.

One last look around, a final check for marauding gulls perhaps? If so, he didn’t spot any, or chose not to notice; he just spread his wings and let the strength of the wind carry him up almost immediately 50 feet or so into the air. I watched him fly downriver, past the twin towers of Cannon Street station, off to defend his London against further maritime invasion, watching until he was out of sight, a speck lost above the hugeness of London.

I could do with more moments like that.


My gratitude to a dear friend who sent me a message on the wind, without which I might not have stopped and looked…

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