I’m out of my front door by 4.35. There are chaffinches trilling in the bushes to greet the coming dawn. Down the empty street, the porch lights flare. The sky is clouded and grey. I guess today’s sunrise will be muted.
Near the tube station, I’m struck by how much electric light is commanding the scene: streetlamps, bollards, roadsigns, beacons blinking aimlessly by the zebra crossing. There are even lights on in the church hall.
I’m a lone figure until on the Terrace – our local parade of shops – I see a man come to unlock the security grille at the newsagent’s. There’s a youth at the greengrocer’s dumping empty boxes on the pavement. The door of the butcher’s shop across the street is open, a white van parked outside.
‘Hallo Bill,’ calls the boy at the greengrocer’s.
‘Hallo Tom,’ replies Bill, the butcher’s man.
As I pass, I say ‘Good morning’ to Tom cheerily, as if we have some common purpose. To be up and about at this hour means you can say ‘Good morning’ and really mean it.
I turn right along the High Road and I’m shaking my head again at the energy being pumped to illuminate all these shopfronts. A cleaner is sweeping the floor of an estate agent’s office. A bakery van pulls up to deliver fresh bread next door.
I take my first picture – of an empty street. There’s so much shadow it requires the tripod and a two second exposure. Then I spy a funfair set up on the green. But it’s dead – no lights here, no flashing proscenium bulbs, no noise or swirling music, no grinding generators. The stalls are shuttered, carts covered over with tarpaulins. And I’m walking around completely alone. For once, the ghost train with its menacing skulls actually does give me the creeps.
By 5.10 the marbled clouds begin to be tinged with a pale yellow light. I head back eastwards and eventually turn down towards the river. I cross the A4, though not by the underpass. It’s easy to pick a gap in the traffic already rushing out of town, and I stroll over to the far side. Past sleeping houses, I find the Thames path. The river is up, wide and swirling; the tide must be going out. The water is the colour of mud, or where it reflects the trees on the opposite bank, khaki. Plastic debris and small tangled rafts of rubbish are being carried away downstream. A squadron of swifts is feeding overhead.
I wander along feeling how small we are beside this permanent force, for all the city we’ve built beside it. I hear a church bell ringing six o’clock and at last the sun shows through weakly, still diffused by cloud. The morning runners begin to appear, jogging to the rhythm inside their heads. I turn away from the river when I reach Hammersmith Bridge. And it’s 6.24 when I catch a shaft of light strong enough to cast a shadow from a thin sapling planted by the slip-road under the elevated section.