Gulls, like the people promenading or sitting on the beach here in Brighton, appear more relaxed under an evening sky than at high noon. Earlier today, small factions of herring gulls were in a mugging mood, mobbing a woman and her child so brutally that they dropped their food and fled, stealing a sandwich bite from out of a man’s mouth.
The anarchy of gulls is impressive. Their direct actions are sudden and intuitively coordinated. They have their own way of living with us that can feel very uncomfortable to those who think nature is benignly self-governing, birds are decorous and the seaside exists for entertainment. When the British population of the European herring gull, Larus argentatus, crashed, to show their appreciation they came to live with us. In his 1958 essay, Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen, Alan Watts quotes the Taoist Chuang-tzu: “Those who would have good government without its correlative misrule … do not understand the principles of the universe.” Gulls are the cackling, car-crapping, collectively scary, chip-stealing spirits of misrule.
Lockdown must have been hell for them too: suddenly no people, no chips. As cafes and takeaways reopen, and gulls emerge from a hungry time raising young, adults and juveniles take what they can from wherever they can. One develops a sideways scooping technique for spilt ice-cream; another carries a McDonald’s bag into the air to shake out crumbs; another drags a polystyrene kebab tray like a trophy.
And then there are the spectacular mob frenzies that overpower a space so that the most dominant can bolt down lumps of bread the size of their heads; the less powerful but more agile pluck morsels from midair and the others have to pick at debris with forensic intensity. They steal from us and then from each other; all property is theft, all theft is existential.
The evening calms them. They move between the sitters, ever watchful but with looser wingbeats and an almost languid poise in the air between the shingle and the ruin of the old pier. They proclaim their way was the right way all along and human behaviour is only now catching up with them. The zeitgeist is gull. Gulls and the people are the front and back of this place.