Pigeons are the first ‘critter’ guides in Staying with the Trouble, Donna J. Haraway’s exploration of survival in the time of the chthulucene. [i]Pigeons are her ‘urban neighbours, iridescent sexual exhibitionists.’ They appear in her writing as creatures of the Empire, spy pigeons, carrier pigeons, pigeons that recognise themselves in the mirror, pigeons that can identify objects from a helicopter.
In Haraway’s story, racing pigeons and their trainers are put to work measuring air pollution in Los Angeles while in Australia artists build nesting towers to help bring pigeon manure to the rewilding of a piece of ancestral land. In Caudry, France, Matali Crasset, an industrial designer, is commissioned by the local authority to design a pigeonnier. Haraway asks how, ‘when the best biologies of the twenty first century cannot do their job’ we can develop ‘response-ability’, back and forth, like a game of cat’s cradle.
Tagging along after Donna, pigeons are to be my guide too. They are nearly my bedfellows after all, building nests yards from my window, importing bird fleas, bringing manure into my garden. I wake to the rattle flap of wings, the pinkish sigh of feathers whiffling the air, throats bubbling like the sound of a coffee pot.
Five, six, twelve, seventeen pigeons are roosting, preening, courting, billing and cooing, turning circles on the corner of the empty cinema next door. On the parapet where the mortar’s worn away, and the bricks look like teeth, they strut up and down, peck at each other. They perch like Batman on the rooftop, head and shoulders against the sky. Or they roost in the blocked up windows, like dollops of grey paint, that also come in cream, mauve, brown. The biggest male makes a train of his tail, jerks his green neck feathers back and forth along the back wall of the disused Savoy Cinema.
A shapeless hangar of a building, it’s not possible to tell how big it is from the outside. Its Art Deco canopy has been destroyed. The foyer is now home to Class barbers and a tattoo and piercing parlour. In the corner, now the Tava Ocakbasi restaurant, a Rasta couple sold reggae records and knitting wool. The basement, variously named the Snooker Lovers Club, the Magnolia Banqueting Suite, Epic Dalston, has been used for club nights, Hindu weddings, Afro-Caribbean wakes, bar mitzvahs, Turkish circumcision parties and a Sunday flea market. To the rear is a flat, home to some Bulgarian Turks, a recording studio, an electricity substation. The last film to be shown, in 1984, was Scarface.
One afternoon, a slight figure in orange duffle coat and striped scarf knocks on our door and introduces himself as Auro. ‘I’ve just got the lease for the old cinema,’ he croons persuasively. ‘We’re talking to all the neighbours.’ He gives me his number and says to text him day or night. ‘If you’re unhappy about anything ….. no trouble at all.’ The local paper reports a budget of several million; the restored venue is to be as big as the Roundhouse.
Auro invites us to an open weekend. A small group of enthusiasts, we climb up and up the emergency stairs, picking our way over drinks crates, spare bar stools, lost umbrellas, arriving at the very top of the balcony.
The smell of pigeons is so overpowering, it even has a colour, a chalk white grey. In the gloom that filters through holes in the plaster ceiling, the original proscenium arch stands oddly truncated, as if flooded by the floor below.
The one empty space left, the largest, is the space for film projection itself. The void left by the projection of heroes, heroines and villains onto the screen has always been unusable, it turns out. The lonely individualist, the hunter gatherer hero, remains trapped in his pyramid of light. The real reason the building has never been demolished and remains semi derelict, I learn from my partner, is that the owners are a Turkish family trust. Should the building be sold, the funds would be divided into unfeasibly small amounts of cash.
There are thumps in the street, van doors banging. Auro knows how to do things. He books parking spaces. Articulated lorries deliver thick cables, scaffolding tubes, sound equipment. Security men guard the vans. Sound checks begin at three. He boasts to the local press that he has cleared out six hundred pigeons and a sea container load of manure.
Several months on and the six hundred pigeons are living on the outside, at the mercy of cats, crows, passing seagulls, nesting kestrels. There have been sightings of a peregrine falcon. Wing claps like a carpet beating, a call to order. The flock takes off, circles the nearby blocks, swoops back up again, onto the parapet, onto the roof.
Except for the bookings that were already booked before he cleared out the pigeons, nothing much has happened in the disused but by no means empty Savoy cinema. Online Auro laments: gentrification means no more spaces for creatives like him to be creative in. He calls out the ‘municipalities’.
Faced with the nightmarish Doomsday narrative, beloved of climate change activists, where technology can’t help us and God won’t save us, I look for other narratives. In my reading I hunt for signs of hope. Donna looks for what she calls SF, string figures, ‘scientific fabulations’ to sustain and guide us into not ‘posthuman’ but ‘compost’. Instead of a doomsday narrative, we will become part of the ‘oddkin’. Stories of the chthulucene invoke the multi species ‘becoming-with’, creating stuff, breaking bread together, necessary for survival.