Not many guests​ arrive at Shangri-La, the cloud-shrouded lamasery/hotel that occupies the paying mid-section (levels 35-52) of the London Bridge intervention known as the Shard, by way of a 149 bus out of Haggerston. This on the day of a seasonal Underground strike that has to be explained to bemused knots of grounded tourists as they squeeze through a complexity of automated barriers, encumbered by caravans of luggage. The dingy railway terminus, established long before any blue-sky copywriter thought of calling it a ‘hub’, has been struggling for months, with services discontinued and major elements hidden behind fences, while corporate mouthpieces attempt to justify the station’s fortunate position as a satellite of London’s tallest building. Shardenfreude. London Bridge station is now an embarrassed and aggressively apologetic commuter isthmus accessed by Shard-branded retail tunnels as dark and soul-sucking as a labyrinth with no centre. The era of station hotels has passed, those convenient stopovers at Charing Cross or Victoria before some Continental adventure or connection with a transatlantic ocean liner. London Bridge station, like its neighbour, Guy’s Hospital, is a tolerated veteran tasked with living up to the occult geometry of this brash invader: Renzo Piano’s spectacular glass sail, the Qatar-funded investment silo of the Shard. To the paying metronauts (£25.95 per ascent) in the public viewing gallery (levels 68-72) the humans below, seething in a convulsive mob while they wait to be processed on inadequate platforms, are so many ants. Upgrade to a £33.95 ticket and you get a glass of champagne to add fizz to your separation from the black-dot insects.

I came here to swim in the highest pool in Europe, 52 floors above the station. The surface of this infinity pond, shivering with reflections like a Fun House mirror, memory-ripples of exercisers now taking their ease on Roman couches, sampling complimentary goblets of fruit-flavoured iced water, was a quotation labouring to attain a modicum of reality. Not so much a dry David Hockney splash as Richard Wilson’s site-specific installation 20:50: his tank of sump oil, miraculously transubstantiated into this brilliant new substance, a liquid thicker than jelly but lighter than air. A seductive mosaic carpet across which you cannot walk without sinking. A slick platform leading into the cloudscape just beyond floor-to-ceiling triple-glazed windows across which planes and helicopters are creeping. The silent choppers are not so much a threat as a specialised form of surveillance: protection against base jumpers, eco abseilers and urban exploration collectives. They cruise like outriders at a royal funeral. When you are swimming at the same altitude as a helicopter, the sight offers reassurance that overrides the recollection of those rare collisions with construction cranes hidden in fog. The circling police helicopters, making their rounds of Hackney’s last vestiges of public housing, are another thing. They are low and loud, blades set to maximum volume. An assertion of power. A jolt of paranoia. They have cruised down the Lea Valley from Lippitt’s Hill Camp at High Beach, a base right beside John Clare’s Epping Forest asylum, and they’ll be back again tomorrow. Sukhdev Sandhu, who flew with the sky cops for his book Night Haunts, called the experience ‘the panoptic sublime’. The machines cost half a million pounds each, a sum that pays for a lot of clatter. Sandhu revealed that ‘high-power lenses and thermal imagers allow them to … look through the windows of Canary Wharf and spot canoodling office workers from eight miles away.’

Lotus-eaters of the Shard, drifting in the slow motion that seems to take effect forty or fifty floors above the agitated shuffle of London Bridge, are always on show. And they know it. As they stare out, trying to identify buildings or districts, state-sanctioned voyeurs are gazing right back. The downforce of the helicopter blades doesn’t ripple the blue water. As we float in our infinity tank, we do not notice the acoustic footprints of the city, the sighs and grunts of the trains, or the bone-shuddering din of the guardians in the sky. ‘They do use sound as a weapon,’ Sandhu says. But what do the helicopter jockeys see that is available only to an avian elite? ‘You can see everyone’s swimming pools.’

The Shangri-La pool, about the size of a shaved cricket strip, shared that uncanny Richard Wilson gift for turning the fixed world on its head; floor as ceiling, window as wall, liquid as solid. Wilson has spoken of creating ‘a Tardis-like space, where the internal volume is greater than its physical boundaries’. The idea for 20:50 came to him beside a swimming pool in the Algarve. He knew that he wanted to place the viewer ‘at the mid-point of a symmetrical visual plane’. His oil bath was promoted from a pioneer gallery, close to London Fields in Hackney, to Charles Saatchi’s oak-panelled chamber in the decommissioned County Hall, right alongside the Thames. The Wilson tank, like the one into which I was about to plunge, was a concept pool, around which visitors moved like catwalk models and talked in whispers. There was the unspoken threat of ritual baptism into some dark sect, for which the horizontal Shangri-La supplicants with their iced water communions, their bitter splashes of espresso persuaded from a reluctant machine, were as yet unprepared.

Was this brilliant blue lozenge really the highest pool in Europe? What about the 19 floors (53-72) of ‘exclusive residences’ rumoured to be on offer from somewhere between £30 million and £50 million a shot? One of the more outrageous selling points is a promised ‘clear day’ vision of the North Sea fishing fleet 44 miles downriver from this pyramid lighthouse. In promotional photographs some of the private baths on the upper decks look competition-sized. Wet rooms are like clearings in a tropical forest. There are marble foot basins in which you’d be tempted to take a few strokes. But the essence of the infinity pool as the lid and crown of the Shangri-La, the detail that is supposed to set it apart from that cocktail-bar tub on the modest heights of the private members’ club at Shoreditch House, or the obligatory oligarch basement excavations, is that it merges seamlessly with its surroundings. At Shangri-La ticket prices, the least the swimmer can expect is the illusion of breaststroking on a kindly thermal above the lesser towers and steeples of London, like St Nicholas of Bari in the quattrocento painting by Bicci di Lorenzo in the Ashmolean. But the fantasy doesn’t quite play. The integrity of the view is broken by squared columns and the metal frames of window panels, turning the spread of the city below into a series of moving pictures. Pictures from which the privileged swimmer, or the sybarite with orange-flavoured iced water, is detached. There is an interior environment of purchased unreality and an exterior made safe by the prophylactic of temporary credit (card swiped at the desk, in advance). Infinity, as a concept, is better appreciated 52 floors down, back on the street, waiting for the 149 bus. Here, the tapering height of the Shard, a grid of blue rectangles on a grey day, intimidates. It’s like looking down an endless railway track, or the lane of an Olympic pool stretching somewhere far beyond our strength. This vertical pond, its mirrored surface frozen by faith, defies gravity.

Renzo Piano talks about the Thames, shifting currents of air, his tower breathing like a sail. The architect manages to reduce all that weight, the construction traffic, the tedious budget meetings, the hoses spitting out concrete, the drills, the controlled explosions, to an elegant dagger of light, the reflected city playing across its skin. He sketches this flighty outline on a napkin in a fancy Berlin restaurant. His patron approves. Piano has the craggy, life-enhanced, skinny-bearded, dressed-down charm that can be read as a form of integrity, moral authority: the Jeremy Corbyn effect. When he presented the defaced napkin to the original Shard developer, Irvine Sellar, it was a Picasso moment, jobbing architect as fine artist. The doodle became a defining relic, framed and featured in promotional documentaries. The Italian, a remote viewer of London’s historic fabric, was not inhibited by modesty. He explained that ‘Wren’s St Paul’s was a radical intervention.’ The church expressed ‘the spirit of change and inventiveness that drives great cities’. It was, in its primitive way, a precursor to the Shard. ‘I believe that the new tower will not disturb its stateliness,’ Piano said. ‘They are breathing the same air, sharing the same atmosphere; they are nurtured at the same source.’ It is certainly true that, gazing up from the 149 bus stop on London Bridge Street, the outline of the backlit needle of the Shard invokes the slender steeple of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, rising above the Georgian roofs of Spitalfields. But Piano’s sky-spearing tower is amputated, non-denominational, a steeple without a church. The overweening prong advocates no doctrine beyond its own presence. ‘Symbols are dangerous,’ Piano stated. The Shard is wide open to promiscuous similes. It is ‘like a 16th-century pinnacle or the mast top of a very tall ship’. Its real business is to absorb the unfocused energies of the city, to become a new kind of city: secure, supplied with shops, offices, restaurants and residential spaces. The Shard is an Umbrian hill town hidden inside a cabinet of mirrors.

I swam​ in the evening at the golden hour. There were soft barriers and checkpoints at every stage of my ascent. You come off the street, with its viral democracy, fumes from stalled buses, and into the otherness of uniformed challenge that is, at once, courteous and judgmental. You are bowed through to the metal cabinet where inadequate baggage is checked for explosives. At the reception desk, 34 floors up, you must present your passport. The right credit status, the digital information that moves you to the next level, is never accessible on the screen. The process acts like a Zen filter, fine-tuning anxiety and inoculating the unwary before the next stage of enlightenment in this set designer’s attempt at a Tibetan lamasery out of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. A copy of Hilton’s 1933 romance, newly printed in Singapore, cased in a leather binder, is left beside every kingsize bed. Tombstone picture books furnish the ledges of the reception area: Theme Hotels, Beijing, Impressionism. Many of the clients waiting patiently for admittance to the restaurant, like glazed motorway supplicants at a Happy Eater, are Chinese. News of the coming market blip on the Shanghai Composite Index had not yet reached them.

Those who pass through their electronic interrogation enter a faux-marbled, low-lit and flatteringly mirrored lift. Like the quilted anteroom for an audience with the pope. Notice the way no fellow traveller will meet your eye. The usual laundry removers and cleaners are invisible. There is none of the brittle bonhomie of a Premier Inn, the shared achievement of actually making it down to the ground in some shuddering tin box. If you have the right colour of card to swipe, you are one of us. In transit to the pool in the sky.

At the end of a muffled corridor, beyond the viewpoint bar where many are gathered to bask and gaze, and the almost deserted gym with a single female cyclist, is another checkpoint to be negotiated before the heavy door guarding the pool swings open. Areas at either end are dressed with sofas, small round tables and modest sculptural accidents that will never be noticed. Polished inorganic blobs on low plinths. The sculptures signal the news that, as a smiling attendant informs me, the pool closes for swimmers at 8 p.m., when a disguised panel, like the door in a condemned cell, will slide back to give access to overspill extras from Gŏng, the ‘cinnabar inspired’, dragon-red cocktail bar and champagne lounge. The white-T-shirt man with the broom, preparing the gleaming floor for twilight drinkers, is happy to exchange pleasantries about the pool, the view, and his exposure, day after working day, to these things. But he is not permitted, at any time, early or after hours, to enter the privileged water. He’s polite about my inquiry, but it makes no sense. Discretion and reflex affirmation define his occupation. He hands me a fluffy towel. And commends the temperature of the water, chill taken off, but nothing too soupy or soporific; perfectly calculated for out-of-body bliss.

Can I carry off the decadence of it? With all those memories of rusty post-industrial rivulets, municipal chlorine tanks, filled-in lidos of a lifetime stretching back through the polio-defying 1950s to coal-dusted Bristol Channel beaches still being cleared of barbed wire and mines. There is no resistance in the Shangri-La water. A few easy strokes carry me, buoyant with borrowed status, to the turn. Floating is the natural response. I paddle to the window, where dappled cloud reflections extend the surface of the pool out across the Legoland roofs of the fiction called London. The infinity illusion, the dissolving of the membrane between interior and exterior, is interrupted by the rounded lip of the pool, on which you can hook an elbow while you fail to come to terms with the view. The old gutters that framed public swimming pools were known as ‘scum troughs’. The architect Alfred W.S. Cross, in Public Baths and Wash-Houses: A Treatise on Their Planning, Design, Arrangement and Fitting, published in 1906, described how a glazed stoneware scum trough could double as a grab-rail at the end of a length and a device for collecting all the ‘floating impurities’ from the agitated surface. The trough at the deep end should be a few inches lower than at the sides and the shallow end. I remembered those impurities, sodden cigarette stubs and corn plasters seesawing gently in a tired yellow wash.

Before I disturbed the surface, the Shangri-La pool was immaculate. The water was that profound ocean blue achieved at Hastings in Swan Lake, an inches-deep pool with plastic swan pedalos, by extreme chemical means. Here it was a question of small but powerful underwater spotlights and a shimmering mass of aquamarine tesserae separated by thin white threads, mimicking the effect of Caribbean sand. The water was so clean, so pure, that it wasn’t like water at all. It reminded me of the elixir in which they keep tropical fish in Charterhouse Aquatics, beneath the arches of the London Overground railway in Haggerston. These tiny creatures, a neurotic, Klee-coloured shimmer in tanks that look like plasma-screen televisions, are a piscine elite. They flicker through meditation flasks on offer at more than a thousand pounds a unit. ‘Surface impurities’ are mopped up and eliminated by motors disguised as sponges or clumps of weed. In the Shangri-La pool there are no floating impurities. Apart from myself. Shrugging off reflex twitches of disapproval, I relish every second I am allowed to spend in this high-definition water. I puff from end to end, under the low, wave-pattern ceiling, passing through dark bars, the shadows of supporting pillars, as the sun drops behind the windows of the espresso lounge. I climb out, replenished, but chastened by my failure to engage properly with the panoramic sweep of our grey-white boneyard city. Somebody has left a large, wet, lipstick kiss over Southwark. A red mouth chewing up the blocks that are not yet towers. Down there on Borough High Street, I can identify the outline of St George the Martyr, a church with its heritage role to play, as shelter for the excluded nocturnal wanderers of Little Dorrit.

A few​ days before my encounter with the mysteries of Shangri-La, I was invited to inspect another swimming pool, a little closer to home. In February 2000, a notice of temporary closure, for reasons of health and safety, was fixed to the padlocked doors of Haggerston Baths. I remember my annoyance, towel roll under arm, clutch of ice at the heart, after too many previous experiences of how elastic that ‘temporary’ qualification could be. Schoolchildren arriving for their weekly session were turned away. They would never return. The site of their school, Laburnum, would be translated into the hardnosed contemporary world as a launch platform for the Bridge Academy, which opened for business in 2007. The academy, like the Shard, is an alien bristling with intent. The Shard is about being taller than anything else in London, but slender as a surgical blade, where the Bridge is a bulbous plank-ribbed nest, an infolded mass crushed into a space barely capable of tolerating its overweening presumption. The central section is under permanent plastic wraps. It looks, from the far side of the Regent’s Canal, like a piece of kit from Ikea that nobody can figure out how to assemble. It is sponsored by UBS, the financial services operation based in Switzerland. As the world’s largest manager of private wealth assets, UBS suffered heavy losses during the subprime mortgage crisis. But the academy thrives.

In the meantime, health and safety issues kept Haggerston Baths in limbo for 15 years, adrift in a fairy-tale suspension of cobwebs, rust showers, slipper baths dressed with a tilth of fine grey dust. Through dim corridors, ghosts search for the prewar EXIT sign and a pointing finger stencilled on cold white tiles. When I came east in 1968 and moved into a terraced house on the other side of the canal, Haggerston Baths became a feature of my life. Our new home had an outside lavatory and a tin bath hanging on the wall. Neighbourhood loyalties evolved around certain pubs and convenient bathhouses. On weeks when there were no opportunities to visit the flat of a better-provided friend, we luxuriated in the deep tubs at Whiston Road. Soap and towel supplied. There were 91 individual slipper baths and a 60-stall washhouse. But there was no topping up the bathwater, no time to read a book. You hauled yourself out before the attendant rapped on your door. Suicides in Hackney tubs were not unknown. Haggerston Baths, with its soft red brick laid in English bonds, its Portland stone dressing, was a marker for the territory, from the 90-foot chimney stack for coal-fired boilers to the golden galleon that caught the wind as a weathervane. This craft was a symbol of locality by which those staggering home from a cluster of pubs could safely navigate. Ships on weathervanes and pub signs confirmed London’s self-confidence as a world port. But the tarnished galleon on Whiston Road was empty, its immigrants dispersed.

Alfred Cross, who argued in his 1906 treatise for the employment of specialist architects rather than borough engineers, had earlier won the commission for Haggerston Baths. The foundation stone was laid on 18 March 1903. The official opening was on 25 June 1904. Ian Gordon and Simon Inglis’s book Great Lengths: The Historic Indoor Swimming Pools of Britain tells us that E.J. Wakeling, vice chairman of the Shoreditch Baths and Washhouses Committee, animated the occasion by plunging into the pool and swimming a 100-foot length underwater. Alderman Wakeling’s name, along with those of the builders and the architect, can still be read, in chipped and partly erased form, on a stone tablet. But Haggerston Baths, this prime specimen of Edwardian baroque, is suffering, windows sealed with black panels, points of potential access lurid with razor wire and surveillance cameras. Warnings have been placed in half a dozen languages. The furnace-bright orange of the brickwork, in its pomp like the confident colour of London Overground, is dirty, dulled by neglect. The swagger of heraldic carvings – lions and unicorns above the separate entrances for males and females – is diminished. Between a set of twinned Ionic columns there is still a recessed central loggia from which dignitaries can acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. But no crowds are coming. Purple fuses of buddleia burst through the protective fence on the mockingly named swimmers lane (private road). The schoolchildren who were turned away at the time of the temporary closure are now in their mid-twenties. They never swam another stroke in this building. The Bridge Academy has no pool.

At the time of the Haggerston Baths closure, the estimated cost of renovation was £300,000. Small change in the light of future projects, but Hackney didn’t have it. The council was in a hole and looking for deals with private developers. So they did what they have always done best: they obfuscated. They allowed pool campaigners to take the heat out of protest by putting their energies into proposals and alternative solutions. Promises were dangled and withdrawn. There was a lottery-heavy grand project on the horizon in Stoke Newington, the catastrophically mismanaged Clissold Leisure Centre. ‘The wrong building at the wrong time in the wrong place,’ Ken Worpole, of the Clissold Users Group, told the critic Jonathan Glancey. The architects were based in Manchester. It was a pattern repeated so many times, through Hackney education and social services: the appointment of high-salaried advisers from elsewhere, shadowy corporate multi-taskers on maxi salaries. There was a bias towards smothering the nuisance of locality in public meetings and consultations. The proposed Clissold Leisure Centre, a smart-looking CGI pitch in the generic airport style that fits hospital, swimming pool or new university, didn’t work. The building leaked: from fancy roof, from glass walls retaining fetid water, from cracks in the squash courts, from warped floors. The budget was haemophiliac. It bled out. Clissold Leisure Centre opened, closed for major repairs, opened again. While the millions stacked up. And Haggerston paid the price. By the time health and safety issues had been sufficiently resolved to allow Hackney to hand the former civic amenity over to an estate agent – who solicited expressions of interest from a range of developers ‘for uses including: leisure, hotel, office, educational, institutional, retail, restaurant (subject to planning)’ – the estimated cost of reopening was £30 million and counting.

A rare opportunity to investigate the long-sealed interior presented itself when a late-morning call offered me the chance – ‘right now, leave the house immediately’ – to join a party of dark suits and hardhats who were weighing up the commercial possibilities. Bill Parry-Davies, local solicitor, jazzman, fisherman, activist and keen swimmer, was labouring to restore the Haggerston pool to life. He put together a consortium. He contacted the richest people he knew, the ones with collections they might need space to exhibit, and the ones with dreams of adventurous bars and restaurants. Anyone with a streak of enlightened altruism prepared to dig deep to ‘burnish their reputation’. He told me they had calculated that it would take the redevelopment of the laundry area as a 36-storey tower block of offices and private residences to pay for the pool. It wasn’t about profit, vanity, tapping the zeitgeist: the plotters were determined to make the pool available to all. It wasn’t enough to swoon over architectural detail: glazed bricks, brass handrails, teak changing cubicles, boxed-in steel arches separated by curved plaster panels. The revived pool would have to pay its way in the real world. The customer base would come, beyond surviving sentimentalists, from colonies of new-build blocks along railway and canal; the bicycle tribes of Santander, the early morning contortionists of Haggerston Park with their personal trainers. Parry-Davies appreciated that the original pool and its coal-fired Lancashire boilers occupied too much space. Plans were drawn up to drop the pool to a lower level, to do clever things to make it as adaptable as a post-Olympic stadium. One way or another, if the proposal succeeded, the pool would be reopened to the public. To those committed individuals who had carried on the fight for 15 years.

It’s like breaking into an Egyptian tomb, labyrinthine corridors insinuate in every direction, stairs snake towards unfamiliar offices and storage spaces, into sinister chambers where utilitarian grey tubs, the remnants of the second-class female baths, look more suited to archive footage of cold-hosed lunatics. The swimming pool is drained and the three churchy windows towards which I used to swim, as through a flooded cathedral, in my laboured choppy crawl, before breaststroking back again, were covered over. The natural light that used to flood the high-ceilinged hangar is excluded, in favour of sanctioned entropy. Haggerston Baths is another of those decommissioned non-places kept in a persistent vegetative state, like the Gothic mass of the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in Hackney Road, until the right development package comes along. And meanwhile spiders knit their spectral nets. Shivering phantoms stand before empty mirrors in white-tiled washrooms where the taps leak coal dust.

Location-promiscuous film crews exploit the creep of suspended animation, the unreachable lives, the loud emptiness of cellars and toilet stalls, for arty bits invoking Tarkovsky, for fashion shoots and music promos. It is only reasonable that tribes of squatters, sensitive to the spirit of abandoned places, should occupy buildings dedicated to social improvement from which society has been ruthlessly excluded. Haggerston Baths, on this hardhat tour, is so far from the way it struck me on my last visit before the padlocked doors and the fateful announcement that I began to mistrust my own memory. Did I ever bathe here? Am I confusing those episodes with other bathhouses in other parts of London or Dublin? Research suggests that the male slipper baths were removed between 1962 and 1964 to make way for a gym.

We never entered through the twinned doors, male and female, on Whiston Road. The front elevation, in a style known as Wren Revival, was too grand for the rat-run traffic ditch the road had become. Paying customers climbed a few steps to a new entrance on the west side, aware of the hissing laundry steam, the minatory chimney stack. I came with my children. They learned to swim, with bribes for achieved distances, and years of self-confident feats of diving and underwater retrieval ahead. The clapped-out changing rooms and dribbling showers took nothing away from the experience of a community asset within a short stroll of our house. On wet afternoons, when I didn’t fancy walking, I detoured to Haggerston Baths for an equally valid immersion in the matter of London. I met people I hadn’t seen in years, time-stealers between tasks and episodes of childcare, enthusiasts with relish for a resource that had outlasted its permissions. Those meandering lengths, before the era of roped-off fast lanes, were a chlorine meditation, puckering the skin and opening the swimmer to an enhanced connection with locality. This building, along with associated libraries, hospitals and street markets, struggled to justify its continued existence in the coming era of leisure as a billable outcome.

It was immediately evident to the Parry-Davies reconnaissance party that Edwardian Gothic had been improved by 21st-century cave-art defacements, the work of the expelled squatters. The drained pool, some of its tiles chipped out, was rimmed with comic-book skulls, acid signatures, tribal tags and sub-political slogans. Knots of hardhats, fingers to lips, contemplated the scale of renovation needed. Graphic-novel speech bubbles leaked from their mouths, street codes of the vanished occupants. Windows were veiled in gauze. Furniture and machine parts from the earlier regime had been adapted for use by the non-paying clients of this ghost hotel. The public baths were now a cancelled set. Dark passages snowed in white powder, and cellars with massive, rusting boilers, offered a covert terrain as an alternative to the conspicuous visibility of the Shard. Comments were not filed on tactfully provided cards. They were chalked, sprayed or scraped on the walls. death sex is for life not just for xmas! a place where skaters, junkies & artists can excell in. lsd. lizard nation. Branded anarchist symbols. Schematic heads looking like Charles Manson. I’ve rarely been inside a building in which it was so easy to get lost.

The party of potential hardhat rescuers split up. In hushed groups, they approved some relic of another era. They whispered through the heavy silence and left their footprints in the dust. It would be a great thing to bring the pool back to life, they agreed, but it would not be this pool. The outcry for new housing was the necessity of keeping builders and property developers in business. I wondered if the economic dip in China would have some benefit for the London property market, all those empty tower blocks in Stratford, the speculative purchases. Parry-Davies explained that it would have the opposite effect. With the stock market in trouble, the Chinese would want more bricks and mortar in a safe and welcoming city.

My​ last visit to the periphery of the Shard was with Bradley Garrett, author of Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City (2013). I asked him to show me how he had avoided the £25.95 elevator surcharge by breaking into the construction site and running, undetected, up seventy floors of the central concrete core, before clambering out on the counterweight of a giant crane to snap a few selfies. And to experience the ultimate vision of the organic city, where everything flows; railways are rivers, and rivers are pulsing veins and arteries. There are no people. The only sound is the wind. The Shard is most itself when it is registered from the one place where it can’t be seen, from the pinnacle of the sail.

We leaned on the bridge above the escalators linking London Bridge station and St Thomas Street. It wasn’t quite how Garrett remembered it. He was preoccupied by new projects, a novel of UFOs, ley lines and a 3000-mile US road trip to hot springs and abandoned mines – and then, closer to home, guerrilla initiatives in response to the housing situation in London. We compared notes about the catalogue of unoccupied buildings, locked, boarded up or cast into perpetual limbo. Asylums, public baths, small factories. How many authentic wildflower meadows could be found behind corrugated-iron fences. Secret spaces not worth the cost of security.

The easiest time to infiltrate a site, Garrett said, was shortly before the topping-out ceremony. They had no problem with the Shard. They watched the watchman as he left his hut. And they walked straight in through the open door and across to the central staircase. It takes longer now, as a site worker or jobbing designer, to get to the floors designated as offices (levels 4-28), than it took Garrett and his urban explorer crew to run up the ladder to the stars. I asked one architect about her experiences fitting out a floor for a company selling desk space. It was quite usual, she said, to wait half an hour for a lift. The empty space on which she worked was partitioned into theoretical cubicles and tactful subdivisions. Some clients want the Shard address. They employ a person with a high boredom threshold to sit at a desk, but they never leave the safety of the suburbs. Others run their affairs from Shanghai or Malaysia or Estonia. You can phone through and be connected, as if to a human standing at the window and glorying in the electric potency of the view, London and all its target towers, the Viagra growths of the City. But the office floor is deserted, a work in progress, like a site on an ordinary failing high street waiting to become a charity shop. But Irvine Sellar continues to endorse the vision of the Shard as ‘a place where people live, work, enjoy themselves’. Renzo Piano wants ‘intensified’ urban experience, a 24-hour vertical city without suburban sprawl. Bradley Garrett found a tapering glass coffin standing upright, a high ledge on which to commemorate his intrusion.

The solution that Garrett and his friends are working on sounds very simple: put up shacks and hideaways in places so obvious that nobody will notice them. Robert Macfarlane, who lodged in a black hut assembled by urban explorers wearing orange hi-viz overalls during the fuss of the London Marathon, called his windowless shelter an ‘urban bothy’. The crew survey the territory as thoroughly as the developers with whom they are in open competition. They site plywood constructions under concrete stairs, in those awkward angles left over by architects who haven’t had time to find an elegant solution to a problem. There are bivouacs, where people are free to rest, write, eat, sleep, disguised by black paint and a padlock, like just any other workman’s hut, within the dead zones of some of the most secure and surveillance-heavy spook enclaves in the City of London. With so much random construction work in progress, who will notice another hide shaped from standard building-site materials? Here is an invisible army of occupation, an informal network providing free accommodation without direct confrontation, without the battles faced by squatters or Occupy campers alongside St Paul’s. The hut I visited with Bradley Garrett was still in play when I passed two months later.

When I took an early morning swim after my night in Shangri-La, the only other participants loosed themselves, very tentatively, from couches where they might have spent the hours of darkness. They seemed to be rounding off a heavy night and not greeting the rising sun over Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf. The man who looked like a slightly hungover and less twinkly Russell Brand – and who might well have been him – watched his companion, a slim girl in a black bikini, enter the water. To test it, over a couple of lengths, on his behalf. I waited my turn. I tried to calculate where the shadow of the Shard would fall. I knew that place. I had walked there with Bradley Garrett as my share of the story, telling him about how I’d been challenged by security, on the slithery grey carpet surface outside our seat of local governance, City Hall, for the potential crime of talking to a microphone in public. Which struck me as a severe reaction, when the high walkways of City Hall with the picturesque backdrop of the river are nothing but scenic platforms for recorded interviews. It is an extraordinary evening when the mayor does not present himself, shovelling back his golden fringe, on the local news. My interviewer put away his kit. He didn’t have the energy to argue his case. He told me that his father, who had been in haberdashery, was once called to make a pitch to Irvine Sellar in his earlier Carnaby Street incarnation. Sellar received him while lying like a Roman emperor, full-length on a couch.

If the Shard were felled, I calculated, and laid over the new cancer block of Guy’s Hospital, it would very nearly reach the wall of what is now known as the ‘Crossbones’ Garden of Remembrances behind Borough High Street. When I visited, restoration work was in progress and there was no access to Angel Path. The newly pointed wall, dressed at its base with freshly scoured tombstones, has a plaque marking the site of the Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison. The collegiate atmosphere of the prison, with respectable quarters for the well-connected and slum conditions for those who could pay nothing, was vividly described in Little Dorrit. The Marshalsea was ahead of its time. It was a privatised operation. The governors and turnkeys bought their positions and turned them to profit. Starving prisoners died in conditions of hideous overcrowding. Courts of inquiry stalled, leading to new trials and larger fees for the lawyers. What was prophetic about the scheme was the understanding that even debt, human hopelessness, can be squeezed and presented as a workable solution. Taking those miscreants with no respect for the sanctity of fiscal obligation, the natural rights of property, off the street.

The curved tops of gravestones finned from rock gardens of demolition rubble, heady with clusters of aniseed herbs and sharp-leaved stonecrops. There were paths made from shards of green glass, fragments that mimicked the bed of a stream. Under the shade of an enormous London plane, and cushioned by torpedo tombs, a number of rough sleepers were cocooned in sleeping bags, folded arms covering their eyes. The atmosphere of the park was timeless. Surrounded on all sides by high buildings and the heritage wall, it still functioned like the open yard of the prison. Groups of men occupied different benches, in quiet conversation. There was nothing here, but the planting and the weather; a microclimate honouring absence. The sundial spike of the Shard looming over the cranes of lesser construction sites, looked anachronistic and absurd. When it vanishes, for something bigger and brighter, it will be gone.

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Vol. 37 No. 21 · 5 November 2015

Iain Sinclair watches police helicopters circling ‘Hackney’s last vestiges of public housing’ from the ‘infinity’ pool at the top of the Shard (LRB, 24 September). At the last census, 44 per cent of people in Hackney lived in social housing (belonging to the council or to registered social landlords). Despite the sleepy depletion of stock through right-to-buy sales there are still 22,400 units of fully public (council) housing, held in trust for the people of Hackney and available according to need. Though hampered by the government’s refusal to let us borrow to build we are building new, high-quality homes for social rent every year and are consistently among the best-performing local authorities in this respect.

Ned Hercock
Town Hall, London E8
Labour Councillor for Clissold Ward

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