Most places I’ve lived have been in the process of remaking themselves, whether reconfiguring local shops to better reflect a newly gentrified demographic, or tearing down post-war terraces to make room for plate glass and swipe-card gates, and as a result part of my landscape has always been cranes: sturdy red English towers with a tiny St George fluttering bravely on the jib strut, or bold European yellow with contoured cabs and tidy concrete counterweights, all standing sentinel over the crawling anthills below. Sometimes I’ve imagined these cranes as part of the city’s immune system, removing debris from the wounds beneath them, or helping to grow the new concrete bones that the city needs to live. At sunset in high places you can see herds of them striding slowly among the arterial roads, looking for cholesterol and unlicensed tipping.
I always imagined that being a crane operator would be different to any other job on a building site: entering the site with the rest, checking your safety hat, perhaps eating a thin bacon sandwich from the van, but always leaving them early to grip the first rung and start the long climb away, to the glass box where the ground looks unreal and mistakes are so consequential. Up there the radio link to your colleagues below would be slow and clumsy compared to the signals and nods that pass between you and the other crane operators across the rooftops. On sunny days the shadows cast by the latticed jib on the cab would turn your brothers into strange amputated shadows – a booted foot, a firm hand and the rest uncertain behind the cab glass, turned to sky and clouds on the vertical edge of the city. In pubs you would recognise each other by the tanned wrinkles beside your eyes, and the way your colleagues treated you with respect but no affection, not trusting your love of the high places.
Last night I met a man who called himself a stevedore. He wasn’t sure whether we knew the term: I described him as an expert on lifting anything and he said “close enough”. He preferred the word to “docker”, which he thought made people think of tattoos and bad behaviour, and I agree that it’s a fine thing to have an excuse to use a word like “stevedore” and mean it. Most of his work is in ports around the Severn, although he modestly suggested that his expertise sometimes calls him to London, and he spends his time in gantry and tower cranes, lifting crates of things that come from far over the horizon. I was thrilled, though I hope I kept my cool. Finally, to meet someone who could share with me something of the brotherhood. I tried to remember that he would be surprised by my insight. Could he see other crane operators? He could? And did they nod to one another, closer to their brothers than the earthbound below? He said, no, not really, they tended to use the radio to talk to their crew.
On the way home I heard fireworks nearby. Looking for the light, I saw they were coming from the bridge I had to walk across in a couple of minutes. Should I walk on and cross further down? But that would be cowardice and as good as saying I don’t live here: I carried on to the bridge. Halfway across I saw them: a middle-aged man, hands in pockets, looking embarassed, and a woman near him, leatherette blouson and gold hoop earrings, with a carrier bag of fireworks and a grin on her face a mile wide, firing them one by one across the New Cut.
The Solitary Life of Cranes – Richard Sandford