It's not often I find myself in London, and even rarer after dark, but a few years ago I was a member of a cycle marshal team in a night-time charity walk around the city, along a route of 26 miles and with approximately 15,000 (mostly lady) walkers. My job was to encourage, help and watch over them, my writing hat parked on its hook for the night in favour of a crash-hat and a supply of water and emergency chocolates (well… nobody said we all had to suffer…).
I was therefore thinking of things other than storylines, plot points, deadlines, editing and how to get biscuit crumbs out of the keyboard – a sort of alternative writer’s retreat, if you will.
Part of my job was to keep a roving eye on traffic conditions, single walkers, limping walkers, walkers going off-piste, leery drunks, clubbers falling out of doorways and finding themselves face to face with a phalanx of ladies in decorated bras - more scary than you might think, even sober - and generally not doing a prat-fall off my bike in front of everyone.
In this fairly relaxed state of mind, I couldn’t help but notice some unusual, albeit unforgettable sights. There was the stern lady walking resolute but alone, whose face lit up when an elderly gentleman stepped out of a doorway as she approached and smilingly doffed his baseball cap; a pair of young tourists, luggage in hand, who stared in wonder as the walkers trooped along the Embankment and past the London Eye at two in the morning; two mallards in St James’ Park, standing quietly side-by-side as the human tide went by, totally fixated and therefore somehow part of the event; a policeman in Horse Guards Parade, gun held across his chest, alert yet nodding occasionally in approval; a young WPC on traffic duty, looking on wistfully as the column crossed the road under her direction; and a young man (very drunk) at three am, who asked me what the *@!* was going on. When I explained, he became suddenly sombre, before waving his friends away and staying to add cheerful encouragement to the walkers. (We didn’t understand all his words, but we certainly knew the tune).
I watched an urban fox near Vauxhall Bridge taking advantage of sandwiches left in bins, and some cheeky pigeons, ignoring the official mayoral line about not feeding the birds, picking up their share, too. The edifice of the MI6 building, sprouting cameras and spiked fences, loomed sinister and forbidding in the dark, yet improbably, within touching distance of every walker who passed by.
Buses filled with night travellers were the target of walkers, the passengers encouraged to wave back and show their support, and even emergency vehicle crews speeding by seemed aware of events while forcibly concentrating on other things.
There were many more such sights which came and went during the night, some poignant and human, others inanimate and fixed, all there to be looked at and stored in the mind or forgotten at will.
And suddenly I was in writer’s mode again, spotting scenes where others might not, noticing faces looming out of the dark, some smiling, others creased with effort, each no doubt with their own tale to tell, their own experience. hopes and fears.
Amid all these images and sounds was a welter of material, ideal colour for any genre, from human relationship dramas through to crime thrillers. All the elements were there for me as a writer to use, colourful and sharp; all I had to do was pick them up and let my imagination do the rest.
Oddly enough, what I recall most vividly alongside the above are flashes, mere glimpses of things seen and heard which have stayed with me ever since:
The dark, chilly recesses along the Thames; how my skin felt stretched and cold; the taste of tiredness in the mouth; the wind rustling discarded paper; ambulance lights bouncing shadows across shop fronts; the throb of an unseen helicopter high in the sky; a shop alarm in the distance; a figure in the bushes of Battersea Park; a pale face in the gloom by a darkened building; a siren from a riverboat, hauntingly atmospheric; and a mournful howl from an inmate of Battersea Dogs’ Home, no doubt sensing that while he was locked up inside, we lucky humans were outside having all the fun.
More than anything, however, especially right now, it's my reminder that there is true beauty in our cities, mostly unseen because we're in too much of a hurry, too anxious, too focused on where we're going, to take real notice. Hopefully, in time that beauty, whether in London, Manchester or any other place visited by the darker side of life, will rise up and help people recover.