Recycling? Sculpture? Can do]: James Pidherney has built a tinpot empire to pay his debts. But, writes Sharon Maxwell Magnus, others want to flatten it

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN you receive an invitation to James Pidherney's north London flat, don't bring a bottle. Take a can, preferably empty and washed. For Mr Pidherney, there is gold in aluminium cans - or at least coppers.

Eighteen months ago, his small art gallery in St John's Wood went bust, leaving him with a pounds 74,000 mortgage. He looked likely to be repossessed and, as a bachelor, was a low priority on the council's waiting list. 'They told me not to come back until I was out on the street,' he says. 'Even then, they said there was no way I could keep Sweep, my great dane. I had to think of something to stop them.'

So the 65-year-old former illustrator hit on the novel idea of earning money by collecting cans for recycling. 'I was looking at a can in the kitchen and I remembered how I used to pick up Coke bottles with my grandfather during the war. We'd exchange them for cash and then have an ice-cream afterwards with the money. I thought, what is the modern equivalent of that? Collecting the can. I'm a Canadian and the word can is very positive.'

The only hitch is that each can is worth just 1p on the recycling market. Mr Pidherney estimates he needs to recycle 10 million aluminium cans to clear the debt. Undaunted, he has put up posters advertising his home as a can bank, and set up his own mini-banks around the borough. He drops off cans for recycling at least once a week and estimates that, in a good week, he can collect 2,000 ( pounds 20 worth).

So far, more than 160,000 have passed through his hands, bedroom and bathroom. Pyramids of them are stacked up high against the windows. Strings of them are draped over doors, jangling like cut-price wind chimes. There are bin-bags full in the bathroom, on the sofa, under chairs and in the back garden.

In the tiny front garden stands a 12ft tower of Coke cans, making the suburban street look as if it has just erupted from an Andy Warhol poster. The effect is deliberate. Not content with collecting the cans, Mr Pidherney has decided to turn them into sculpture. 'I'm an environmental artist,' he says. 'I am saying that when we stop wasting and learn to recycle, we can make a new start.'

Mr Pidherney is undoubtedly eccentric. When he gets on to the philosophy of can collecting - 'People can't see the life in cans. You, I and the can are all connected by the living earth' - he also sounds a few cans short of a six-pack. However, he is shrewd. He believes that media interest in his cans will set off demand for can sculptures. After all, if bricks can be hailed as great art in the Tate Gallery, why can't cans in Kingsbury be recognised as art?

He has been involved in the art world for a long time, working as an illustrator for magazines and once owning a coffee-shop-cum- gallery in Cornwall. He is determined to keep up the artistic impetus. He wears a brightly coloured smock of the sort that always signals 'artist' in children's books and he has just received his first commission for a can sculpture from Dr Ella De Gray-Jones, an 82-year-old local resident.

'I want to help get his work better known,' she says. 'It's not Rodin, but it helps the environment and it's interesting. He's building me a stairway of cans for the driveway. It'll bring some colour to my life and I'm looking forward to seeing the reaction of passers-by. If the council complains, I shall dig my heels in.'

Not everyone is enthralled at the prospect of having a can sculpture across the street. Indeed, to some of the residents, he is more of a Damien Hirst (whose pickled beasties arouse revulsion and critical acclaim in equal measure) - and they'd like him to can it. 'So he thinks of himself as an artist?', says Mrs Dooley, an incredulous neighbour. 'It's just rubbish and an eyesore.'

'It's a health hazard,' says another resident who declines to give her name for fear of reprisals (another metre on the tower perhaps). 'There's one old lady who lives near him who is crippled with arthritis, and she's had to look out on that. Hardly nice for someone who's housebound. She's even had to have a higher fence built. It lowers the whole tone of the neighbourhood and will affect house prices.' You can understand her fears. Honeypot Lane is one of those traffic-ridden roads clinging to gentility by its fingertips. The lace curtains are quick to twitch.

The local council, the London Borough of Harrow, is involved, too. When hundreds of cans spilled over on to the roadside, it served a court order on Mr Pidherney for obstructing the highway and providing a distraction to motorists. (Clearly it hasn't seen the Wonderbra ad yet). He is due to appear in court on 27 October. However, Mr Pidherney is undaunted by setbacks. 'It is the ink in my pen,' he says. 'Besides, the people who are complaining aren't going to pay off my mortgage, are they? I have to help myself. I know there are people who bring their cans to me because they hope I'll be completely swamped by them, but there are also a lot of people who are trying to help.'

In fact, the local insurance broker, pet shop and DIY store all have can-collecting points for him.

Meanwhile, Mr Pidherney is hopeful of spin-offs: he is planning a children's book with Can- Miranda as a central character.

'I'm very positive,' he says. 'Like cans, can do.'

(Photograph omitted)