As a Brighton boy, I grew up with seagulls. They didn't raise me, that would be weird, but they lived in the chimneys all around me and their barking is part of a comforting cacophony I like to call home.
It always surprises me when other people are surprised by the seagulls. My dad's from London originally and when his friends would call the house phone they'd be all like, "bloody hell Bas what's that noise?" It was old Steven Seagull, of course, chirruping like an angel on the roof outside.
Except, they're not angels are they? Yobs of the sky, I like to call them. They're merciless. One took half my hotdog out of my hand when I was a child and I'm still really annoyed about it. It marked me from far above, a helpless little human waving dinner around, and then it silently swooped and yomped it away before I knew what was going on. And they've only grown bolder since.
I love nothing more than seagull-watching in Brighton town in the summer. I've learnt to look up, and so I see all the yobs lined along rooftops surveying the shoppers below and the falafel wraps being carelessly wafted around. Old beaky above sees it, and I see that he sees it, and the next minute he spreads his wings, dives and that falafel is gone. The tourists (usually) don't know what hit them and it becomes a whole giggly drama they'll link with Brighton forever more. And that makes me proud.
Seagulls are such a menace in Brighton there are shops which carry warnings about them. There's a lovely little pasty and cake shop here (literally the Cornish Pasty Shop, on Gardner Street if you're interested) which wheels a cart out in the summer with a big sign on it that reads: We are not responsible for the Seagulls. It always makes me giggle, not least because I wonder how many times people complained before it got to that - a sign being made. "That bloody seagull pinched my cake!" "Oh, well, I'm sorry madam but they're nothing to do with us."
I had foolishly started to think I'd gotten the measure of them, the seagulls, like I carried some kind of Brighton membership card which said "oh he's alright lads leave him alone". Until a seagull landed on my head. I wasn't even waving my, um, falafel wrap around. I had it well guarded, low and close to my body when all of a sudden I heard a flapping behind me and felt webbed feet on my head and, well, I don't mind telling you I didn't keep my cool as I hoped I would. And that, a day after being dive-bombed by a seagull in the same spot. I bet it was the same one. Maybe it was new to town, didn't know me.
Not long after, I turned down a side street on my way home one night and standing on top of a car were two seagulls, looking at me. They're quite big, you know, up close, and they've got this wide-eyed, unhinged stare, and a little red smear on their sharp beaks I always thought was ketchup until I thought 'how come all of the seagulls in Brighton have ketchup on their beaks?' and realised I'd been a bit slow.
Anyway, I was a bit rattled, and I swear that as I walked down the street, they began shuffling towards me, eyeing me like they were going to come for me. And I actually thought, 'Oh christ what am I going to do if they do? Punch them? Can I punch a seagull?' Fortunately at that moment a car turned down the street and scared them off. I tell you, I don't know how toddlers do it, chase after them in the park - they're far braver than me. Even my cat doesn't fancy it when they land out front.
Of course above, when I joked about the cake shop saying "they're nothing to do with us", I was telling a fib. Gulls - particularly herring gulls as they're officially known (although I'm sure I've seen some of the rarer yellow-legged gulls here too) - have everything to do with us. They don't even take to the sea any more. They eat our food and feed on our waste. They've adapted so well they simply moved in. Brighton council now issues big wheelie bins to houses so no bin bags are left exposed on the streets, because if they are, they'll be torn to shreds and all the chicken bones and sorry contents of what we eat flung everywhere. I doubt seagulls would bother with places like Brighton if we didn't have so much readily available food here. Oblivious scoffers on the beach must look like some kind of slow-moving sushi conveyor belt to seagulls, they're such rich pickings.
But to read juicy headlines about councils being at 'war' with the birds, and to imagine these places being in a kind of perpetual avian Blitz, is to get a skewed image of how things really are, because the truth is, these birds are apparently endangered. Herring gulls are on the RSPB red list, and that's as serious as it gets.
So yes, they're a nuisance but they're our nuisance, and they're part of the character of the city. We even have a football club which made a mascot of them, and there's something strikingly poetic about being in the stands at the Albion, belting out "seeeeeeagullllls, seeeeeeagullllls" and seeing the birds themselves circling above.
Try as I might to dislike them, then, I can't. They're magnificent beasts. Stand within arm's reach of one gliding on the air currents off Brighton's pier (the one that isn't a wreck, obviously) and you'll see what I mean. Huge, snowy-white birds in full motion, probably picking their dinner from down below. I smile when I walk past one perched on a garden post and how it doesn't bother to move for me because why should it? It lives here too.
I particularly loved an exhibition here a few years ago by a photographer who watched and captured Brighton's seagulls in all their menacing majesty, pinching chips while hapless victims looked the other way. But one shot in particular stood out: it was a seagull lit by a beam of golden evening light, creating a huge, grotesque shadow on the wall behind. It looked like something out of a horror film.
I find myself wondering about these villains, the seagulls, and about what it's like to be them. The attraction of flying is obvious but what about the societies they live in? What are they saying when they throw their heads back and bark? How do they divvy up their turf? What's their relationship like with the local pigeons? And why do their poos have to be so big they feel like someone's thrown a pebble at you when they hit?
We've had the Untitled Goose Game about terrorising a farmer, now it's time to spread our wings and widen it to terrorising a whole city. Seeeeeeeagulls.