PsychoGeography #86: How mean was my alley

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The Independent Online

To call it an alley is perhaps to dignify it - a passageway might be more accurate.

To call it an alley is perhaps to dignify it - a passageway might be more accurate. For the distance of seven paving stones it is a mere arm's width between, on the right, a three-storey block of late-Sixties maisonettes and, on the left, an electricity substation. After that the passageway opens out and for 20 paces continues on the right past the maisonette block, and on the left past an utterly undistinguished, head-height brick wall. After that there's another block of flats, in the ground-floor flat of one of which lives a most raucous Alsatian - a dog, not a human - who lays staggeringly large turds in the scrap of back garden set behind an aggressive fence.

I think of the alley as a uterine canal - because all day, every day, things are born out of it. Mid-morning and the man I call "the Assyrian" comes swaggering down the alley carrying his usual ration: two large demijohns of still mineral water. What is he up to? With his hawkish profile, swarthy skin, tight curls and neat beard, the Assyrian would look good in bas-relief driving a chariot; instead, here he is, carrying mineral water. Does he have a job? Does he have hopes and thoughts and feelings? A vivid inner life? I only ask, because I encounter the Assyrian round and about, and have given him grunts of recognition - but he stonily ignores them.

Late morning and the crack dealer who lives on the estate beyond the alley comes tripping down it on toxic, stilt legs. A guy rears up from a car parked in front of it and cops a couple of rocks off her. I see them fall into his palm. He hands over the money and fades. She darts her reptilian head - emaciated, dun hair scraped back in a ferocious ponytail - up and down the street and then dissolves back up the alley. Quite a few dealers use the alley for their business. It's a logical spot - allowing easy escape for them, while the punters can drive up and drive off. In my more paranoid, Rear Window moments, I've considered photographing the drug dealers - but what would be the point?

I mean, I'd have as much joy photographing the pissers in the alley - and God knows there are enough of them. It sometimes seem as if no male can walk past the alley's entrance without feeling the urge to nip behind the electricity substation. After a few minutes they come out, shaking their trouser legs, only to be followed moments later by a spreading puddle. On one occasion I was passing when a couple of pissers emerged, I said to them, "Where do you live?" And when they asked in turn, "Why?" I replied, "So I can come round and piss outside your house."

Late afternoon and the kids from the truly scary comp up on the main road come caroming down the alley. They bounce off its walls, they climb up on the electricity substation. Often they are pushing a stolen scooter. On one occasion they set fire to a stolen bike next to the wheelie bins on the other side of the substation. I called the fire brigade and then watched, as awed as any delinquent child, while they hosed down the flames. I've seen police pile up the alley, and ambulancemen carry stretchers down it. I've even, shamefully, seen the teenage daughter of my next-door neighbours getting robbed in the alley; but it was done so slickly - her hoodie-sporting nemesis uttering vicious threats until she handed her mobile over as if willingly - that I carried on typing throughout.

Years now of alley observation have led me, in my more authoritarian moments, to believe that all the antisocial activity in the immediate area - of which there is a great deal - could be annihilated if the municipality would only brick the bloody thing up. Then all these wastrels would be forced to walk the long way round, under the exposing glare of sodium street lamps. Now I'm scared that by writing about the alley I am dragging it dangerously into my room, radically foreshortening perspective until it seems to extend from my actual desktop. That guy with the dreadlocks who's currently peeing behind the electricity substation might zip up, stroll past the coffee jar full of my pens, then engage me in conversation like some malevolent imp.

I've been told that Nicholas Evans wrote The Horse Whisperer in an attic room on this road. All I can say is that he can't have had a view of the alley from his window; and if he did, what could he have seen coming down it, a glossy black stallion like some bizarre renegade galloping away from a Lloyds TSB advert? I only ask.

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