"When I was in London a few years ago, the Gherkin was lonely," an American visitor once told me. "Now there's a whole glass picnic in the sky!" From some angles, the Gherkin is almost completely concealed by the Walkie Talkie, the Cheesegrater, the Can of Ham, the Scapel and the Heron Tower. Such constructions could not exist without the tower crane that pivots and rolls, like some gigantic kinetic sculpture, moving steel pieces, concrete columns and edgings into position. They seem autonomous, these cranes, with a life of their own, but behind each one is an operator, with stories to tell about London's changing skyscape.
"He was screaming, 'You've knocked the fucking oak tree over! Get down here!'"
Paul is a seasoned and skilled crane driver, building 16 new flats in north-east London. He describes his disastrous first day 20 years ago:
"I was driving a crane at a big manor house. It was a listed building and they were turning it into a conference hall, and in the grounds there were two cranes; one guy doing a new build and me. I had to pick up a three-ton generator and move it to the righthand side and put it back down again. There was an oak tree down there, a thousand years old, and it had poles to keep it from falling, 'cos it were that old. So I pick the generator up, and I wasn’'t looking where the tree was and started unrolling and I went straight through that tree.
"The site manager was going apeshit, he was screaming, 'You've knocked the fucking oak tree over! Get down here!'
"So, then he put me on the other crane, and what happened was I had to pick up a load. But this time I knocked the chimney stack off the listed manor house. After that I wasn't allowed up a crane. I had to stay on the floor and do the banking for them..."
"I feel very good, I can see everything from up there"
"Every day's the same," says Antonio, who is working for Bouygues UK, and whose view from his 55-metre high crane at the Postmark construction on the site of the Royal Mail sorting office, takes in the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye and the St George Wharf Tower. "I lift loads. That's it," says Antonio, "Nothing special. What's important in my job is concentration because it's dangerous and I always have to pay attention to every small thing, you know?"
Antonio has worked in cities across Portugal and Spain but in London the buildings, and therefore his crane, are higher. "I feel very good, I can see everything from up there. Sometimes stars, sometimes an aeroplane and I'm higher up!"
"I thought to myself What it that? What is that over there?!"
Crane drivers have views over London that are very specific: both distant and beneath one's nose, seen in different lights and weathers, a view that is always changing by what is being built. The pace of construction is startling. Some areas have altered so rapidly in such a short time I no longer recognise them, yet I also struggle to recall what was there before.
For the crane driver, however, it's the unusual occurrences they witness from their vantage point that stand out. While unobserved themselves, Antonio and Paul have seen traffic accidents and burglaries from the top of their cranes, but also other incidents.
"Here’s a funny story," says Paul. "I once had a job over in Hackney, I'm going back 10 years with this, it was very quiet and I'm having a little look round, and over Poplar way, I thought to myself 'WHAT IS THAT? WHAT IS THAT OVER THERE?'
"What it looked like were high rise tower block flats, and someone had hung themselves from the top! I got on the radio to the other crane driver and told him where I was looking, and he had a look and says 'Right, well it could be a suicide. I wouldn't know what to suggest.' So I phoned the site manager, and told him what I were looking at and he said, 'I think you should call the police'.
"So, I phoned the police, and soon the squad's around my crane. I come down and explain to the police where I'm looking. I said the easiest thing to do is come up my crane and look for yourself, but the police says, 'Oh we can't do that, we can't do that.' I said, 'Why not?' they said, 'It's against our health and safety.' I said, 'Look, you can go out there and confront people with swords and knives but you can't walk up a tower crane?!'
"They were umming and ahhing, then one of the police officers says, 'I'll climb up, we gotta find out,' so I got him up the crane and 20 minutes goes by and he's on radio and calls a police helicopter. The police helicopter goes there directly and comes back on the radio, and it turns out someone had tied a black bin bag and a mop head to the drain pipe. I said 'Oh, I feel a right fool! I’ll never phone you again and waste your time,' and the policeman said, 'No, you always have to phone it in, but that police helicopter's probably just cost 80 grand.'
"Everyone on site took the piss out of me for months for that."
Sometimes it's the crane that is involved in an accident. One foggy morning in January 2013, a helicopter en route to Elstree Airfield collided with the jib of a Terex CTL 180 crane at 208 metres from the ground, killing the pilot and one pedestrian.
The red warning lights on the crane were turned off at the time of the crash (regulation required them only to be switched on at night) but the crane's presence had already been listed in the Notice to Airmen issued by the Civil Aviation Authority. The project on which the crane driver was working was the St George's Wharf Tower, which today stands complete and as familiar a landmark on the London skyline as the MI6 HQ and the new American Embassy that stand close by.
The Civil Aviation Authority announced that the disaster which claimed two lives was the first fatal helicopter crash in central London since records began in 1976. The crane driver had overslept that morning, and wasn't in the crane when it was struck.
"I’ve been in a cab when it's been 48 degrees and I’m sitting there in my underpants"
A crane driver begins their day by climbing up to his cab. Once at the controls they're aware of the day's weather. "This particular crane I'm on, the cab's very tiny," Paul tells me. "If it gets cold, we have a little fan-heater. There again, lots of different cranes have more gadgets and even air-conditioning, but this one hasn't, so you just open the back door.
"I’ve been in a cab when it's been 48 degrees and I’m sitting there in my underpants. There’s been a lot of times with winds. You’re bouncing about in a 60-mile coaster…it's very stressful!"
"I don’t get lonely because everyone is speaking to me by radio"
Another stress of the job, you would have though, would be the isolation. At one construction site, a foreman tells me, "We never see the crane drivers. They're up there before we start work and they’re gone by the time we leave."
Is loneliness ever a problem? "I don't get lonely because everyone is speaking to me by radio," says Antonio.
But there are more practical difficulties apart from physical isolation; for a start, there are no toilets. "It's a long way down if you're 200 or 400 metres up in the air," says Paul. Lunch has to be planned in advance. "If your crane's so high, there's no point coming down, you just bring a sandwich up.
"In winter, my wife makes me home-made soups."
Calling female crane drivers
Women have made in-roads to many professions once off-limits to them, from engineering to plumbing, but there are still some employments that have yet to see a female workforce and crane-driving is one of them. "I've been in construction 30 years and I've never come across one," a worker tells me.
So, ladies, if you’re after a room with a view and you enjoy a game of Jenga, this might be a job for you. But something will have to be done about the toilets.