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It’s not paranoia that makes me walk down Paddington Street looking up to the sky

Nicholas Lezard’s Down and Out column. 

I think it was Arbuthnot who complained to Jonathan Swift that Curll’s biographies added a new terror to death; I have discovered a new terror to life. I call it “walking down Paddington Street, W1”. My friend the Moose once startled me memorably by asking, in all seriousness, why I was not in continual mortal terror of a man leaping out of a doorway in the street and bashing my head in with an axe. I replied that hitherto the thought had not occurred to me, and thanks for that: I’m now going to think of men leaping out of doorways with axes for the rest of my life.

As fears go, it is barely reasonable. And so, I would have thought until a few weeks ago, was the fear of walking under a crane on a construction site. When, after all, have I ever seen one of those fall over? To which I can say: not yet; but I now know that it’s only a matter of time: like seeing your first death. You might not have witnessed one, and yet they still happen.

I found this out when having a drink at the —— with P—, who has had many jobs but is, usually, a crane operator. I refuse to identify the pub, and P—, whose name does not even begin with a P, for reasons that will become clear. P— told me there had been an accident with one of the cranes on a site he’d been working on; and went on to tell me all the reasons how and why a crane might fall over. The how is generally a combination of imbalance and local wind speed; the why a combination of human bravado and cost-cutting. This in turn is the fault of the construction companies; and it is thanks in turn to the combination of their immense wealth, and the funds that are siphoned off to certain political parties, that most of us don’t hear of these accidents at all.

I could listen all day to this kind of thing, especially when P— gets down to the technical details of jibs and weights and cabs and what not. But he affirms that there is a sinister side to all this, and that things get Hushed Up By Dark Powers Of Which We Know Little.

So now Paddington Street – along which I regularly walk on the way to the supermarket, or to pick up my copy of this magazine, or to get my shoes resoled, or wave to John-Paul, the extremely great manager of that jewel among Italian restaurants, the Casa Becci, or top up my Oyster card, or fail once again to square up to the Scary Fish Man at the farmer’s market on Sundays – has, on opposite sides of the road, facing each other, two enormous tower cranes, one of them erecting yet more unaffordable flats and the other one busy removing bits from the ugly office block that naff-film buffs will recognise instantly as the building in Sliding Doors that Gwyneth Paltrow enters to deliver sandwiches to her boyfriend’s evil, scheming girlfriend, played by the splendidly named Jeanne Tripplehorn.

(This film, abject though it is and scoring a relatively meagre 6.8 on IMDB, is nevertheless one that I find hard to pass up on its tellingly frequent appearances on the BBC iPlayer. Why is this? It is itself a dishonest, crassly manipulative film, whose male lead is even more weak and feckless than men are in real life and whose female villain, the aforementioned Tripplehorn, is considerably sexier and more amusing than the ghastly Paltrow. I suppose it is a strange weakness on my part for the chick-flick weepie, a sign of my diminishing reserves of testosterone and of a warped identification with at least one of the characters which it’s best not to dwell on. But anyway, revenons à nos moutons.)

So I now walk, when I walk up or indeed down Paddington Street, no longer on the pavement, but in the middle of the road, my eyes raised skywards, for that is what my brain, deranged with fear about enormous concrete weights falling from their cradles and flattening me to a pûrée, has decided is the safest route. Don’t say I’m worrying about nothing: there’s a distressingly informative website called craneaccidents.com, and there are YouTube videos full of nothing but crane-accident porn; the “crane fail compilation” from February 2014 alone runs for eight minutes and has had nearly half a million hits.

And it is what these cranes are telling me about London that is most worrying. My colleague Mr Self may wax lyrical about the erections these machines betoken: but all I can see are ruined vistas, the collapse of community, and death from above. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?