From my window I can see the Shard. Today there are helicopters, flying low. A man driving a van stops at the lights and sticks his whole torso out of the window, right to the navel, and twists to look up.
Six women are climbing the Shard, to protest against the expansion of drilling for oil in the Arctic. Their mission-statement is written in the vernacular of Hollywood disaster movies: ‘1 skyscraper. 6 women. No permission.’ The Shard juts up at the mid-point of Shell’s three offices; the tallest building in Europe, it is the closest thing to ice-climbing that London can provide.
I walk to the Shard. Everyone along Borough High Street is moving with their faces turned up, and the people who stop to watch have the faces that children wear at the circus. The sun is in everyone’s eyes. In the hour I am out, I see three pairs of people collide.
At the foot of the building, next to the London Bridge ticket machines and the billows of dust rising from the construction site, a pen has been constructed for the press; twenty people, half radio and half television. The press are more serious than the onlookers, perhaps because the climbers are dots and there is little to film except the crowd, and we are not photogenic, with our open mouths tilted backwards and our British teeth. A man says: ‘Still no BBC?’ And a woman: ‘I think they’re coming.’ The man says: ‘Christ.’ Another, holding a boom, says: ‘Apparently the Shard management don’t like it.’ And his companion: ‘Well, no; it won’t look good if they die, will it?’
There is something – a bag, or a pile of cables – hanging fifty feet up in the middle of one of the glass walls. Dozens of commuters take enthusiastic photographs of it before realising that the women are two hundred feet higher up, climbing the ladder-like structure running up the edge of the skyscraper.
Each woman is carrying a bag weighing 14 kilogrammes, about the same as a hefty three-year-old. They wear headcams, and at the top, they will unfurl something – a banner, the press think, or some art. Four of the climbers are tweeting; one in Dutch, three in English. They sound serene. ‘Oh good, the next part is overhanging.’
An entry appears on the British Mountaineering Council website, listing the Shard as a recognised climbing route, rock type ‘other’:
A photogenic and very public crag. Offers an adventurous and arresting challenge for climbers who can manage the delicate approach… Approach at night, wearing dark clothes and in an unmarked van.
Arresting is the right word. Everything about the climb is enticing and glamorous: the 4.30 a.m. arrival, in the dark, a line of shadows filing up a ladder in torchlight. The illegality, like in an old heist movie. The tough, witty women, too brave for their own good. And the daring of it, such a glorious and gritty madness.