Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Fox in the Shard

The Shard. Image taken from the Flickr stream of Michali_ and used under a Creative Commons licence.

This post contains a minor spoiler related to the book Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem - not enough to ruin anyone's enjoyment of it, I think, but still - you have been warned.

There is something magnificent, and melancholy, in the rumour that Southwark Council is scrambling to catch a fox that is somewhere on the 75th floor of the Shard, the Renzo Piano skyscraper currently under construction in London. It is, in fact, easy to attribute romantic, even heroic attributes to the (putative) animal. There's the dangerous charm of the fugitive, of course, still a potent presence in the British psyche as the bizarre Raoul Moat case demonstrates. And there's something else. The rise of the Shard is a PR endeavour as much as it is a feat of construction. "Shard" is an official name, not a popular nickname; it's right there on the jumpform rig. An image is going up at the same time as the building.

The fox - even as a rumour - is an unchoreographed intrusion into this careful brand-building. A rogue presence has installed itself in the highest reaches of the tower and insolently eludes the authorities. Higher than highest - the tower will only have 72 habitable floors, so if the animal really is on the "75th" floor, it is at the summit, the unbuilt point of the spike. Underdog, meet overfox. This wasn't part of the PR strategy.

So, true or not, the rumour suggests the first inklings of popular mythmaking around the new tower - the city accepting the building into its collective imagination. Phantasmic Mr Fox can be seen as a sliver of public affection for Shard. In that, it brings to mind the escaped tiger in Jonathan Lethem's 2009 novel Chronic City. Lethem's tiger continually evades the authorities; capable of demolishing whole buildings, its effects are excessive even for a big cat. Rumours, lies and conspiracy theories swirl around it - it is a symbol in a book filled with symbols. Chronic City's New York is a strange, troubled place, unnerved by its own gentrification and regeneration, marooned in introspection. The people feel they have lost something, that something is amiss, and their attention transfers to mysterious absences: the tiger and the buildings it conveniently clears out of the way, ready for regeneration; astronauts trapped aboard a space station with no hope of rescue; gigantic chasms carved by a monumental land artist called Laird Noteless (note: less); "war-free" editions of the newspaper.

Foxes have thrived in London in recent years - they and the super-rich seem to be the only things in the city that have no trouble finding new places to live. Their eerie calls can be heard earlier and earlier in the evening, and they appear bolder, less afraid around people. Of course it's please to think of a fox brazenly in residence in the nosebleed section of the aspiring spire, barking that three-part cry, a vulpine muezzin in the city's best minaret. The Shard is a magnificent building, and it's hugely exciting to see it rise; the fox's presence seems to say, yes, this belongs to us too. What a view it must have, if it's there. And even if it isn't there, someone has seen fit to imagine it there, and that's almost as good.

UPDATED 16:45 24 February: It was real, it was on the 72nd floor, and they caught it! You can read the story here at the Standard. Says the article: "It is thought to be the highest distance ever recorded to have been made by a fox." Carve that one into the annals of pest-control-at-height. And I like its defiant expression. It's seen things, man, things you wouldn't believe. It can go back, but it won't be the same.

1 comment:

alex said...

Great piece Will

Note also the spectral cat "Morph" in Donald Fagen's "Morph the Cat" album, a record full of songs about people immobilised within the post-9/11 cityscape, or as the man himself puts it:

"A vast, ghostly cat-thing descends on New York City, bestowing on its citizens a kind of rapture."