The Owl Man has gone. He has left Hackney, left London. His gaunt property, close to the newly fashionable barbecue pitch and managed wildflower meadow of London Fields, has been made secure and rigged with scaffolding. Above mildewed steps, pasted with boot-smudged council notices, a wonky sign, hand-painted in red on white, is still visible: DISABLED BIRD OF PREY KEPT HERE. GUARD DOGS LOOSE. CCTV IN OPERATION. The faint reek of feathers, rotting meat, might have something to do with the drains, but it persists. Round at the back, on Shrubland Road, the Owl Man extended his wild garden, his choke of buddleia and sycamore, to enclose ground that was once a bus station with its satellite café. When the bus station was demolished, the café failed. David Mills, the Owl Man of Albion Drive, fenced the site, built hutches for his birds and excavated a carp pool. For years, nobody cared. He had, like so many others in this borough, slipped into a crack between worlds. If the council acknowledged his existence and granted him a rent book, they would become responsible for the water running down the walls, the lichen pillows, and the subtle way that interior and exterior had become indistinguishable. Tumbledown shacks contained ailing Land Rovers, self-cannibalising motorcycles and birds of prey in various stages of recuperation: an owl, a saker falcon, a chug and several common buzzards. A protective wall was constructed from corrugated iron and plasterboard. The corrugated iron rhymes very elegantly with the Sight of Eternal Life tin church, painted in blue and white, on the other side of Shrubland Road. But our new thrusting Olympic-inspired Hackney has no place for Mr Mills and his well-behaved raptors. A neighbouring mews property, occupied by shifting generations of squatters and casual craftsmen, and left well alone by the authorities, was put up for public auction with a guide price of £250,000. This alerted a number of successful local artists hungry for more space. The ruin fetched more than a million pounds and will cost almost as much again to rebuild and restore. David Mills, quietly living in a gothic shell for which nobody wanted to take responsibility, was soon identified as an unsightly nuisance, a blip on the unblemished myth of urban regeneration. The Owl Man was old and wild. He was raw nature against the pasteurised alternative, that eco-milkshake of green politics, donkeys in city farms, traumatised sheep dancing to the beat of Danny Boyle’s sensational Wagnerian lightshow.
LRB 30 August 2012 | PDF Download