In Japan a homeless person is called Johatsu – a wandering spirit, one who has lost his identity. This is a useful reminder of the extent to which position in society is dependent on our actual position, a location on the map to call our own.
It is not surprising that the homeless have long been attracted to railway stations: places in which they can take shelter and where they can achieve some kind of invisibility, where impermanence is the norm. Electronic barriers and police patrols have made it harder to find a place to rest, part of the creeping privatisation of public space that is such a feature of our new century; still, the great Victorian train-sheds at major termini offer a temporary respite from the streets.
I am buying a cup of tea at a kiosk in Paddington station when I become aware of someone at my elbow, an anxious looking, bearded figure in a slightly grubby anorak, zipped up to the neck. The man serving us obviously recognises him and shows no surprise when he asks for a cup of hot water, passing one over without comment. Together we go to the little table where we help ourselves to milk and sugar. Look, I say, on an impulse, do you want my teabag to put in your cup? It’s got plenty of strength left in it. At this moment it does seem ridiculously extravagant to throw it away as it hangs spinning on the end of its string, bleeding a dark-brown spiral in the tea’s milky surface. That’s a good idea, the man says, but no. I have tea here. He pats his pocket. And coffee.
Apart from us two it seems that everyone in the concourse is as firmly attached to strings as my teabag, although the ones from which human-beings dangle are less visible. Even the people seated in the area set aside for cafes and shops keep glancing at their watches or phones, turning to look over their shoulders at the departure boards, shifting restlessly as they wait. Like the man I have just met, I haunt railway stations for different reasons than those that motivate these travellers. For the Writer on the Train, the act of travelling itself is separated from its usual purpose; wandering the network, boarding trains at random, a ghost in the machine.
All open circulation systems admit elements that are not part of their essential purpose. If these reach a critical level the service will be compromised, just as arteries in the human body can grow too furred up to allow the passage of blood. This explains the groups of policemen who patrol the concourse, some of them carrying guns, on the look out not just for panhandlers but also more aggressive toxic agents. However vigilant these guardians are against human interlopers, they can do little about the pigeons who treat the station as a conveniently sheltered breeding colony, or the rats that inhabit the subterranean kingdom of the Underground.
To protect itself from such unwelcome visitors the railway deploys others in defence. I meet one of them upstairs beneath the roof of the station concourse where I am sitting at a café. His arrival is announced by a sudden commotion among the pigeons that have been contentedly hopping between the feet of customers sitting at the tables. His name is Ernie and he is about one and a half feet tall with staring yellow eyes the size of 10 pence coins and powerful talons almost entirely covered with feathers. He is a three-year-old Great Horned Owl – ‘Bubo Virginianus’ — and he is perched on the glove of his owner, Mark Dunn.
The pigeons are right to be frightened. Another name for these North American owls is Winged Tiger and they can swallow a small rabbit whole, although they prefer to pluck and dismember the birds they take before devouring them. In the wild, turkeys, swans, porcupines, snakes and small alligators are all on the Bubo menu: an urban pigeon would be a mere amuse-bouche to such a creature.
With so many passengers in the station Mark is not about to fly the owl; instead, he merely lifts him up like a Gorgon’s head, a primal symbol from the night-time of a pigeon’s imagination, a single flap of the wings so terrifying they scatter in all directions. Ernie is just part of a war fought with both physical and psychic weapons. It is easy to spot the vicious-looking spikes that project from most perching-surfaces. I also notice yellow disks that have been attached to the metal struts supporting the roof and ask Mark what they are. ‘Oh yes, those’, he says with a smile, one warrior admiring the equipment of another. ‘Pigeons see in UV (ultra-violet). Those things contain holograms – they look like they are on fire, to a pigeon’.
A few minutes after Mark descends the escalator to patrol elsewhere in the station a couple of the miscreant birds land on the floor at our feet. I can’t help admiring their resilience. At threat of impalement when they come in to roost, haunted by ever-flickering fires that never go out and terrorised by the sudden appearance of giant predators, they nevertheless make light of whatever disruption life throws at them, returning to their routine apparently unperturbed. In this, of course, they resemble the commuters with whom they share the station.
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