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Sunday, June 11, 2006


Pigeons are gathering; or rather not - not the way they did before.

Granny's present little flat backs up -in the way of London houses - to another line of houses. Down below, in between, is a line of yards/gardens, some prettied up, some not.

This is a part of London which has like most changed radically over the past ten, twenty, thirty years. Brook Green, south of Shepherd's Bush has been taken over by the middle classes for many years now. But the changes have crept ever nearer. Granny's own street, too near the Bush to count as Brook Green is a mixture of old protected tenancies and new ones on long leases, subject to the market. All round what used to be streets of run down late Victorian houses, multiply-occupied, have been taken over by developers, re-converted into smart big and little flats, or sometimes back to single occupancy houses. Iranian cafes have appeared, gastro pubs; any business you can name seems to be staffed by young Poles. The streets are a glorious mix of Carribean, Somalian, Bosnian, Iranian, anything you like

But traces of the old London lurk still. One such trace inhabits half the house that backs onto Granny, more or less. This house has not been done up. The window sills crumble. The rooms inside are hidden by dirty net curtains. Behind them lurk the pigeon feeder - an old woman with wild grey hair who peers out from time to time to hang her washing on a line that dangles across the roof of the extension in front of her, or to access whatever she keeps in a decrepit dustbin there. But most often she appears - or did appear- to feed the pigeons that cluster on the sloping roof above her and the flat roof below. Granny used to wonder why the pigeons were always there, not anywhere else. Until one day she saw the hand come out, once in the morning, again in the afternoon to scatter food. In the winter there was only the hand, usually, like the hand of the skeleton in one of those haunted-house-penny-in-the-slot machines they used to have on seaside piers before electronic games took over. Occasionally came a glimpse of a lock or two of the wild hair above the curtain, but that was all.

The pigeons knew; they lurked with a purpose, a multitude of them, always there.

But two weeks ago scaffolding went up. Granny thought they would be pointing the brickwork, painting the old woman's crumbling windows, stuff like that. But no. There the scaffolding sat, unused, uninhabited by builders, painters. The old woman was to be seen scraping at her window-sills from time to time, scraping off pigeon shit it looked like, but nothing else. And last week the scaffolders returned, it all came down again. Nothing has changed except - or so it looks to Granny - that the old woman has stopped feeding the pigeons. Have her neighbours complained? Has she been told she is breaking the terms of her protected tenancy and will be thrown out? Some pigeons still lurk hopefully, but not the flock of a few weeks back. Granny is sad. She rather enjoyed the feeding frenzies. But she also wonders about that old London, the one lurking underneath the rainbow of nations,beneath the world of the smart young things who occupy the flats immediately around her, setting off for work every morning, both genders wearing suits. The London that the old woman belongs to, still clings to, is human archaeology, barely a strata below the surface of the city before last. Maybe she - the old woman - was even born in that house. It still happens, even now. Not so long ago Granny lived in a mostly done-up street opposite a woman who had been born in hers, a real Hammersmith native. All over London, such natives - much older even than Granny - still lurk, where the developers haven't succeeded in throwing them out, hard as they try - and oh how the developers try. (Granny still gets letters about the tenant in a house she occupied with husband number two, who for some reason still lingers, if not in the basement of her once-house, on the town hall register of protected tenancies. Would she like help, ask the letters, delicately, in 'encouraging' him to move? The bastards. The tenant, a long-surviving, shell-shocked, war casualty, forty years on, died in fact two or three years back. For him at last peace has broken out, and noone can offer to shift him any more. Good. Let it be a reminder though, that amid the shiny new toy boys and girls of the present, sad, battered, - often abused - ones of the past remain. As they always will.)

Granny wonders about a world in which people were born, lived and died in the same houses. Such a world never existed for her; she has moved countless times for one reason or other. But sometimes she feels a kind of envy. She hopes the old lady opposite will hang on in there for the rest of her life. She hopes, come winter, when people will be less likely to notice the pigeon shit landing on them, she will return to feeding those other old inhabitants, those other survivors, the pigeons. Granny won't be there to see though. She should have moved on by then. Again.

She after all those years in London though - spanning quite a few strata herself - is also living human archaology, come to think of it. If she wants to think of it. Sometimes she does not.

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