Why the caged bird sings in Colindale

Leafletting the flats above the shops on the main drag in Colindale, along one of those unloved back alley roads that requires constant effort to stop it becoming a casual land fill site; unsurfaced, pitted with puddles, cars randomly parked amidst the mud under the shadow of what used to be a small local cinema, but is now graffitied across its redbrick hulk round the back and fitfully used as a snooker hall round the front.

A small rat darts between rubbish bins – a quick, furtive shadow of movement. The flats have to be approached across the back ends of the shops through swinging gates mostly worn right away like ghosts of themselves, along improvised systems of steps and that look temporary, but have nevertheless survived far longer than is fair on them. No one approaches these places by chance.

A youth, sitting at the top of the stairs having a cigarette thanks me for the leaflet and immediately starts canvassing on our behalf to whoever he is talking to on his hands free phone. He gives me a grin and a thumbs up when I pass him on the way down.

People have responded to the public neglect either by making extreme efforts to smarten up with little fragments of care or gentility – flower planters, blue pottery nameplates, engraved, patterned glass in front doors – or gave up on all that years ago – leaving piles of leaves choking the pathways, crumbling sheds – one with a sleepy tabby cat in full possession – jumbles of dead plant pots and rubbish that hasn’t quite been thrown away.

One patriotic soul – apparently immune to the ambiguity of the symbolism – has displayed his loyal pride by sticking an England flag on his wheely bin.

On the opposite side of the alley is a row of garages. As I pass one of them is open showing fat comfortable leather sofas in a clean spare space; a man startled by my glance, standing alone in front of a back wall full of caged birds; all singing wildly in their tiny wire prisons. There are no windows.

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