– Sorry what where? Is that even London?
– Yes, I think. Just about. There’s a shuttle bus from Abbey Wood.
– Abbey what?
– Abbey Wood. It’s on the… well no it’s not on the DLR but you can get a train there from a DLR station.
– Christ. Okay.
– Kind of near Woolwich.
– I’ve never been to Woolwich.
– Nor have I but it’s…I mean you’ve heard of Woolwich.
– Yeah, course. The Woolwich Arsenal.
– There you are. Don’t get there any later than 8.45. To Abbey Wood. That’s when the last coach will be.
– Okay, Abbey Wood before 8.45. Got it. Bloody hell. The things I do for art. This had better be good.
– Oh hi, are you hear for Fly by Night?
– I am, yeah.
– Great, here’s a programme. It explains about the history of the area and the first world war and there’s some stuff about pigeons. You can read it on the shuttle bus.
– Thanks. Can I…
– Not yet. Can you get in the queue? Here against the barrier. You’ll be on the next one.
– Okay. Thanks.
“This was truly a ‘secret city’, surrounded by walls and with its gates closely guarded. Alongside the factories, it had its own kitchens and dining rooms, fire and police services, sports teams, prison and power stations.”
– Is anyone sitting here?
– No, I’m on my own.
– What you’re looking at here is an enormous reservoir underneath all these…
– What’s that smell?
– Oh that? I worked here forty years. I became immune to it.
– Is it the sewer? Is that where that goes? Over there?
– Oh yes. You can find out about it in the museum just over there, if you want. The exhibition’s called The Big Stink.
– The Big Stink?
– Oh yes, the history of the London sewerage system. You can find out all about it in there. Plenty more of interest too. Toilet bowls, flush systems. Even tells you what people used to use before toilet paper was invented.
– Did someone invent toilet paper? Who?
– I don’t know. It’ll probably tell you in there. The smell’s less strong if you’re indoors too. What was I saying? Oh yes, this reservoir…people used to play cricket here…
The delicate last light of Midsummer. Over the speakers behind the seating blocks, the sounds of the coop’s interior. The coop is a miniature castle on a makeshift stage on this overgrown abandoned golf course. Behind it, the Thames, wider than I have seen it, than I ever remember seeing it; looking onto industrial parks, wind turbines, cranes and electricity wires. The light softens and the human figures emerge onto the roof of the bird castle, like shadow gods. The sound of the coop stops being amplified and we’re suspended in the moment until….they’re released
Two thousand birds. The tiny LED attached to each lights up the wings of their fellows as they form constellations. As the light fades, these lights slowly become all we see of them are they are both themselves, creatures of flight, creatures who will (inexplicably) always return and stars themselves. They each become their own tiny god for a moment, kits of stars, until they eventually soar back over our heads, the mundane everyday irritant. The source of highly acidic shit. But then again they’re off soaring so far up that we imagine they might be in danger of colliding with a plane flying from City Airport. Is this possible or does it just show how little we know of the sky, the canvas they paint on, the world they navigate and understand with an ease that would terrify us but now they’re closer again and look that ones got separated what’s he doing there? Alone, he seems more like us, lost he seems relatable. That’s what I’d be like, we say. I’d be that kind of pigeon. The fuck up, the one who forgets to soar, the human one. That would be me.
The shadow gods wave flags to remind the stars that their time isn’t up yet. Another tour of duty. This is your moment. You aren’t rats with wings. You were once loved, eaten yes, but also loved both before and after you were cooked into pies. You are the fashions that we’ve forgotten about, the dogs that were just for Christmas, the lovers who bored us, our fly by nights. We’ve moved on and here you still are, cooing away, shitting everywhere. But now this is your moment. Show us. Show us why we should still love you.
The shadow gods start to whistle. It’s time. The bird castle is gradually repopulated to applause that cannot possibly mean anything to its inhabitants. The humans saunter across the marsh to the coaches that take us back to the place we’d never heard of five hours ago and we make our way home.
– But that sword. You thought it was worth…I don’t know what but you were convinced that we had to rush to the nearest cashpoint and we took a rickshaw and you were, sprinting basically, weren’t you? He was.
– I thought it was worth a lot.
– He rushed back and we gave this woman. One hundred pounds was it, something like that. And he carried this sword around Vietnam for the rest of the trip.
– It was the sort of shop you wouldn’t expect to see something like that so I thought –
– And how heavy was this sword?
– Oh heavy. Very heavy, wasn’t it?
– It wasn’t that bad.
– I didn’t carry it but I remember it was heavy. He carried it. Wasn’t it heavy?
– It was…it was fine.
– So did you ever find out how much it was worth?
– I emailed this guy and it was I mean he said it was a ceremonial sword so worth I don’t know like in the range of –
– Less. Basically. Less than he paid for it.
– Round about the same.
– Bit less.
– So where is it now? This sword?
– At home. On the radiator. I don’t have much use for it but doesn’t seem any point in selling it.
Fly by Night was performed from 21 – 23 June 2018 at East Thamesmead. Click here for more details.