So, here we are, the dead middle of the night on the roof of an unfinished apartment block in east London. The air is pure still and the only sound is the kind of ceaseless static hiss a metropolis makes while it’s sleeping. For some reason the opening salvo of La Haine springs to mind. The bit where an ignited petrol bomb is falling from a seemingly great height while a voice intones: ‘Jus’que ici, tout va bien, jus’que ici, tout va bien’. So far so good, so far so good.
I look at Dan. He’s quiet now and focused, poised precariously on the edge of the building with nothing but empty space between him and the ground below. I point the camera at him. I’ll never make the shot but I’m going to try anyway, I’ve been snapping away for minutes. Pictures of Dan stood on the ledge, a forest of blinking high rises behind him, shrouded by the intense darkness of 3am.
Adrenalin and paranoia are racing through me. What if the flash puts him off somehow, scuppers his judgement? Before I’ve had time to think this one out though he’s jumped. I try and take a photo but fail horribly. A cracking sound follows like a mini lightning strike, as his pilot chute, trailing behind him, whips up and off the building and beats against the night air.
Gawping over the edge into his contrail I can do nothing but mumble dazed expletives. By the time I spot Dan he’s already landed on a football pitch below that looks about the size of a postcard and is scrambling about, gathering up his chute before anyone sees him. Now all I have to do is get out of here and I’ve got the story.
Getting into the building was one thing, getting out could be another. Especially now that security is potentially alerted by the site of a man falling off the building they’re supposed to be watching.
But let’s rewind a little. The story starts with a long drive through central London towards Docklands. Its midnight outside the tube station and I’m here to meet Dan Witchalls. Dan’s a base jumper. One of the best. There’s a whole cacophony about him on the internet, accusations, adulations and so on but I’m not here to talk about any of that. I’m here to watch Dan jump and ask him – why the hell he does it anyway.
It turns out he’s a man of few words though and besides, there’s no clear answer. As he puts it himself “It’s the story of my life really. In school, in work, at home…it was always, don’t do this, don’t do that. But I always did it anyway”. “So” Dan continues, “you sure you’re not a copper?” His accent – like his attitude – is heavy, old school east end. The kind which went to the Estuary looking for utopia and has a healthy distrust for the law.
A juxtaposition with authority is a major feature of Dan’s life. You’d think a man who’d been in this line of thrill seeking so long might have gathered up a few regrets along the way. A few broken bones, lost friends, near misses. But true to his roots Dan’s only regret is a time when the law got one over on him for a change.
“I was tracked by a police helicopter once,” he tells me “on top of a building in London. Stupidly enough I didn’t jump. I disappeared back into the building, hoping they was gonna go, but they came up the building. I should have jumped. That’s one of my regrets, I don’t have many, but that’s one of ‘em.”
I show Dan my NUJ card to prove my journalistic credentials. “Alrite” he says.
With Dan reassured that I ain’t the state we don high viz jackets and proceed to loiter around a half built skyscraper overlooking the cool waters of a dock and, beyond that, the Thames. Given that our aim is to be clandestine the high viz strikes me as counterproductive. Dan explains “they make you invisible. People assume you’re just a workman”. And it’s true, in the high viz Dan does blends into the midnight building site perfectly. It was high viz, Dan tells me, that allowed him once to stride brazenly into the Millennium Dome, past the foreman, up to the peak and then launch himself dramatically into the arena below.
I ask what Dan’s family make of all this. “They aren’t big fans” he tells me, “And they’re on my case constantly to 'retire undefeated.' My wife especially. She’s actually met friends of mine who’ve died basejumping, so the possibilities and consequences are all too real for her.”
“I understand her point though” he says, looking up the building and into the night sky, “when I go out at night jumping, or away on a trip, she doesn't know if she’ll see me again. I did hint that having a child would be my queue to quit, but I haven't stuck to that – yet.”
What about God? I ask. The words sound stupid coming out of my mouth but, given what Dan’s about to do, I’ve got to know his take on the hereafter. Some jumpers are known to pray before jumps. Some of them even pray for Dan but he remains unconvinced.
“Jesus isn’t in my life at the moment” he tells me, “and to be honest I can’t really see a time when he will be”.
“If, when my time comes, I find there is a heaven and I’m knocking at the pearly gates, I’d look pretty foolish staring Jesus in the face telling him he doesn't exist- so better to hedge your bets a bit”.
It’s hard to get your brain around this. For most folks Pascal’s Wager is an interesting philosophical party-trick, a fancy way of saying ‘why the hell not’. But for the kind of people who do what Dan does, it’s a genuine insurance policy: firmly assimilated in anticipation of the day when the luck runs out. As surely it will.
Because every time Dan hits the earth, alive and uninjured, the odds narrow. But despite all of this Dan’s only outward symbol of fate, faith or religion is a small stuffed elephant tucked into the front of his overalls – an elephant which has, he tells me, done more than 1000 jumps.
Before I have any real chance to dwell upon questions of mortality however the time is upon us. “Giz a bunk up” Dan asks and I haul him over a wall and watch him disappear into the scaffolding. Then I stand at an appointed spot and wait, trying my best not to look suspicious. It seems I’ve been waiting for some time when I get a phone call. Dan’s at the top of the building. Sure enough when I look up I see him. A minuscular figure poised between two jutting shapes that pinnacle the building, the red flash of the camera on his helmet giving him away. Then I witness my first base jump. It comes with a thunderclap and more mumbled expletives. It seems less of a jump and more just a straightforward drop, at speed and down the sheer face of the tower which stands silently dark in the night. Seconds later Dan’s bearing down on me – his parachute in full flower.
I rush over to ask some questions as he sweeps up his chute and begins strolling at speed in an opposite direction. How are you feeling?, I ask, “Very happy to be alive” he replies. Did you have an adrenalin rush? I can feel my questions getting stupider by the minute, “Yes”, You came down so quick! Dan looks at me earnestly, “it’s called gravity”.
Pleased with the jump and with the night air still windless we set off for our second target. It’s getting on for 2am now and it feels weird following Dan’s car through the streets of East London. It’s the world as seen by taxi drivers, darkly neon and inhabited by vaguely threatening or pissed characters. Despite multiple public information campaigns numerous people try to flag me down, seeing no danger, only a ride home.
Soon we are off the main thoroughfares though and down a side street where, nestled amongst estates old and new, another concrete block is under construction. Dan’s done this one before. He tells me how, last time he was here, he ran into another set of nocturnal hobbyists – the urban explorers. “I bumped into ‘em on the roof” he tells me in his Delboy accent, “they was up there taking photos and that so I crept up behind ‘em and said ‘Oi!’. You should have seen their faces!”
It’s not just UrbEx types either. There’s a whole subculture, albeit a small one, of fellow base jumpers at work in London. “But I’m definitely the most prolific” Dan tells me. And indeed he is. Dan’s jumping has taken him from Malaysia to the rainforests of the Amazon and to pretty much any major city with a decent skyscraper. Back in 2012 he made minor news in the UK when he filmed himself jumping from the Shard, making an open mockery of security around that most iconic of post-crash developments. And in 2011 he won basejumpings equivalent of Wimbledon by launching himself from the Hotel Gran Bali in Benidorm and landing on a target of ten metres square.
Other competitors weren’t so lucky and a couple of horrible injuries occurred but somehow Dan has got away with all this so far. “Couple of bumps and bruises” he tells me “nothing major, yet. There’s always a certain element of fear though and I’m not kidding myself but hopefully I’ll retire before it catches up with me”. As we climb a ladder into the next building site I ask Dan if he was a daredevil child. “Nah not really” Dan tells me “I was a normal kid. But when I say normal I mean by standards back then not by today’s standards. Today normal is sitting in your bedroom playing Playstation and all that shit. When I was a kid we used to go out, fool about, climb trees.”
Padding through the silence of an unfinished apartment block, cables and other dangerous looking things hanging from the ceilings like spiders I begin to feel nervous. Dan remains consummately unperturbed and continues to wax lyrical about the state of today’s youth. “You know you can get base jumping computer games?” he whispers back at me, “kids sit there playing computer, thinking they’re base jumpers, looking at a screen. They should have me as a character in the games.”
Then we begin the climb. Checking the windows regularly for security below we ascend the exposed concrete stairwells. The feeling’s akin to walking a plank. What if something goes wrong with the jump? And if all goes well, what then? I have to escape from this building alone. Years ago such a thing would have been nothing but I’m less agile now and more domesticated. Once we hit the roof though I know we’re past the point of no return.
The vista from the top is a city at its best. Due east Canary Wharf glistens in the darkness and to the West the old city is equally entrancing. And all around us are the towers you’ve never heard off, probably never noticed. The ones that a couple of decades ago would have been a novelty but now crowd the cityscape. Dan’s making final preparations for his jump and I’m simultaneously freezing cold and excited. I try to make small talk about the Olympics, thinking of the park sat out there, empty and cold.
“I’m not convinced by the Olympic legacy myth” Dan says “I suspect it was something to say to justify the enormous cost of the games. I doubt the kids in East London will see any real benefit. I tried to get into the main stadium when they were building it but they had security patrolling with dogs. I was born in East London but now my only real interest in venturing back is for work – I’m a roofer by day – and for jumping. This city’s a fruitful place jumping wise.”
I point my camera at Dan as he climbs onto the ledge. There’s nothing between him and the void. Jus’que ici, tout va bien, jus’que ici, tout va bien.
How do you feel right now? I ask, the words punctuated by the wail of a far off siren, “a bit nervous, but I’ll concentrate and try not to do anything wrong. Like I said, I was born in East London, so it’s destiny”. Seconds later he’s jumped, landed and scampered off. And the city didn’t notice a thing.
A few weeks later I’m asking further questions of Dan by email and he tells me:
“Just imagine yourself standing on top of a mountain 10,000ft up, your toes over the edge, the whole world below you; or on top of the Shard at night, London beneath you, nobody knows you are up there. Or watching sunrise from the crows nest of a 1,000ft antenna which gently sways in the wind – if there is a god then he’s definitely a base-jumper.”