Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Cast offs (part one)

Cast-offs: Pieces of writing that I submitted to websites, or elsewhere, that were either rejected outright or ignored. 

Submitted to Smoke: A London Peculiar on the 20th May, 2012 

The assassination of London in 1991

Brian Borrie vigorously grinds the heel of his palm against a raised white bump on the left lobe of his reddening chin.

“Gnat bite,” he says. “I’m trying not to scratch it with my fingernails.”

We are standing, roughly waist-deep, in the middle of a huge patch of gently swaying nettles which, I am only just discovering, have evolved the ability to sting through denim.  The now overgrown, but once immaculately landscaped, gardens of Hinton Hall stretch out around us, having well and truly gone to seed. 

Situated incongruously on what is, at present, the border between the London suburbs of Tooting and Streatham, the 18th century manor house is a ruin, broken down to its lower storeys, which poke out above the unruly foliage, like the carcass of an animal that has been dragged into undergrowth and picked almost clean.  Our entry to the property has breached a government-enforced quarantine order which has only periodically been infringed during its 21 year history. According to the pristine black ledger that we were both required to sign prior to being granted access, the last official visit occurred almost three years ago, in 2009. When my turn came to make my mark in the book, I added my name to a list of six previous signatories that, taken collectively, barely make an impression on the first page.

In the hope of better finding our way around the decaying estate, Brian had the foresight to acquire a map. Both the local planning office and the usually reliable British Museum had failed us on this account, leading us to throw ourselves upon the mercy of the Donald Dainty Museum. Located a few streets away, the blue plaque-adorned  childhood home of the now largely uncelebrated,  Victorian workhouse reformer, echoes with the reluctant footsteps of school parties on educational visits, tramping in loose formation along its bare-wood corridors, past roped-off studies and musty bed chambers that have been purposefully frozen in time.

Our borrowed map turns out to be at least twice the size of a standard OS chart, far too large to be handled in an outdoor setting. We only have it partially unfolded and already its rectangular panels have established a rebellious topography that amplifies the imperceptible breeze into something forceful, the insistent tugging of the wind making it difficult to manoeuvre the huge sheet without getting stung by the nettles. As a last resort we try laying it out as flat as possible on the bobbing heads of the plants, where it shifts about and bears no concrete relation to our surroundings, no matter how we orientate it.

Eventually we give up and fall back upon our still-crystallising knowledge of the property, making a last ditch attempt to establish the location of the manor and its various landmarks through a combination of observation and our own questionable sense of direction.  As we lurch around the former gardens, our precise whereabouts remain an enduring mystery that defies solution, the soles of our shoes connecting with what appear to be crazy-paved pathways, or the flat brickwork collars, fringing what were once flower beds. Here and there islands of rubble emerge from the rampant sea of tangled greenery. On occasion these ruins will achieve a momentary coherence, sketching out a lower wall, incorporating the bottom portion of a window frame that has been sheered off at a crumbling angle,  as if the architecture above it was gnawed away by some passing scavenger. 

Our clumsy and inept passage belies the solemnity of our location and its unheralded status as the site of one of the most audacious acts of sabotage ever committed.  On this spot, in the spring of 1991, two shots were fired that will one day destroy the city of London .


Our ad hoc investigation had staggered to a start last January at Simon’s - a bijou greasy spoon,  shoehorned into one of the terraced railwayman’s cottages on Greet Street. Nearby, the silver/grey canopy, enveloping the international platforms on Waterloo railway station with a repeated pattern of stretched ellipses and compressed rectangles, parted the surrounding metropolitan architecture like the swollen body of an overfed snake.

 The cafe’s favourable location means that, despite its basic fare and refusal to sell anything as continental as a panini or a smoothie, it remains busy throughout the day. A typical crowd is a cosmopolitan mix of regulars,  non-health-conscious commuters and confused tourists who, against all odds, have managed to lose themselves in the miniscule warren of well-signposted streets between the Arrivals and Departures hall at Waterloo and the thriving Southbank.

On that particular morning the booths were full to bursting point, the seated patrons crushed against each other on the orange/brown leatherette of the padded bench seats. Having shuffled our way to the front of the queue we made our selection from the more portable items on the menu. We took our respective purchases outside and ate them while leaning against the wall of an adjacent residential property, both of us pretending that we hadn’t noticed the laser-printed sign in the net-curtained front room window, politely requesting that we did not do so.

“London is alive, but London is dying,” said Brian archly, in those over-enunciated Shakespearean tones that he likes to use whenever he is attempting to  make a serious point. I passed his comment off as one of the pretentious, non-sequiturs that he sometimes employs as conversation starters. Instead I  continued to focus my concentration on avoiding the globules of tomato ketchup that were plummeting from the opposite end of my bacon sandwich, before splattering, a second or so later, onto the pavement in a halo of melted margarine. 

“...By which I mean that London is terminally ill.”

I continued my studious contemplation of the ketchup-stained flagstones. A more determined psycho-geographer than myself would have already extracted reams of meaning from this abstract Morse Code, which, in more fanciful imaginations than my own, would have mimicked the blood spatter of an unsolved murder committed centuries ago upon this very spot. I was more concerned that none of it ended up landing on my new boots.

 “Basically, London is fucked.”

“Okay Brian, tell me why London is fucked.”


With his free hand he reached into the pocket of the heavy grey duffle coat, that gifts him the manoeuvrability of a medieval knight in full plate mail armour, and removed a slightly desiccated sprig of ivy. 

I took it from him. The arrow-shaped leaves were somewhat smaller than normal. The creamy-white border around their dark green heart was smeared with a distinctive reddish tinge, as if it had recently been wiped against blood congealing on an open wound. The stems were covered in thousands of downy spines that prickled like pins and needles on the flesh when brushed in the opposite direction of growth.

“A legacy of the Falkland islands conflict,” pronounced Brian in the authoritative tones of a man who has recently come into possession of a large body of knowledge, that he is about to use as the basis for a lecture.

“In South America it’s known as the Perdici√≥n de la Ciudad. In this country we call it by the more prosaic moniker of Gorse Ivy.” 

He took an untidy bite from his All-Day Breakfast Roll – the contents of a fry-up, liberally doused in brown sauce and smooshed between two halves of an over-sized white bap.  A fold of slightly browned, fried-egg white momentarily trailed over his bottom lip before his tongue swept it back into his mouth.

“It’s what Toledo, Rome, Pisa, London and, unofficially, Paris and Hamburg all have in common. They are all terminally ill urban centres, infested with a parasitic climbing plant that eats cities alive.”

I handed the sprig of ivy back to him. He stuffed it roughly into the side pocket of his coat where it fought for space with a crumpled white linen handkerchief.

“Its sap is corrosive to most forms of metal and stone work. It forms extensive networks of initially very slender burrowing roots that expand over time and channel moisture into standing structures.  Eventually it will pull down any building it attaches itself to. Once it’s established it’s extremely difficult to get rid of without resorting to really toxic chemicals. At best you might be able to contain it and slow down the damage. The Hazardous Plants Census, conducted by Kew Gardens in 2011, concluded that 27% of all the buildings in the Greater London area are infested to varying degrees with Gorse Ivy. That’s up from 25% in 2007. In 2010 Gorse Ivy was cited as either the primary or contributing factor in the demolition of 82% of all condemned properties. In summary it’s a losing battle. London is like a sandcastle facing an oncoming tsunami that will one day wipe the city from existence.” 

I took advantage of his pause for breath to ask the obvious question:

“If this is such a threat to our way of life, then why have I never heard about it until just now?”

“Well, when the wonderfully composed and splendidly informative book, that I have recently been commissioned to write, hits the shelves I daresay that more people will be talking about it. In the meantime the question you should be asking yourself is: Who in their right mind is going to invest their money in a dying city? You have to understand Sam, that, behind closed doors, this is a massively controversial issue, involving scientists and lawyers and politicians, all with their own opinions and agendas.”

For the sake of brevity I will summarize the rest of Brian’s monologue and strike my inane interruptions from the record altogether: 

The relatively recent introduction of Gorse Ivy to the UK had been a parting shot fired by the instigator of a war that had long since ended, even though the resentment on both sides still seethes. General Leopoldo Galtieri was the Prime Minister of Argentina during the Falkland Islands conflict of 1982. By 1990 he had fallen from favour, been stripped of his military rank, and placed under house arrest.

It was around this time that the disgraced former peer - Dennis Embery, whose arms company had dubious ties with the Galtieri regime, took delivery of a pair of full-size ornamental cannons. These were said to be a Christmas gift from the former Argentine dictator, although they did not arrive directly from South America, but via intermediaries in Italy – leading some to lay the blame for what was to happen elsewhere.

Whatever the origins of the two cannon, Embery was evidently well briefed as to their purpose. He placed both guns on plinths in the grounds of his London home, facing in the direction of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament.

Had there been any visitors to the gardens of Hinton Hall during the spring of 1991 they might have admired these charming new additions to the outdoor furniture. Some keen observers might have also noted the frail strands of apparently blood-tinged ivy trailing from the barrels and commented on the poetic nature of such a thing. By this time Embery had decamped to his home in Henley.  He never returned to Hinton Hall and was found hung from the rafters of his bedroom in 1995, shortly after his treason was uncovered.

By 1994, Hinton Hall had become so overwhelmed by Gorse Ivy that a survey carried out by court order pronounced it beyond repair. Brian showed me a photograph of the property that had been taken by the surveyors, depicting one side of the house completely and utterly engulfed by a rising tide of greenery. It brought to mind an oil painting that I once seen of a kraken pulling down a tall ship.

By this time the ivy had spread to neighbouring buildings on Rose Lane and Playford Close. These too were eventually scheduled for demolition, although that did not stop the climbing plant from gaining purchase elsewhere and slowly but surely spreading across the capital.

The following year the British intelligence service came into possession of sketchy documentation outlining Galtieri’s plans for a covert strike against London. These were handed to the conservative MP, Edward Vane, by an Israeli delegate, during a trade visit to Florence.

Outside the Simon’s cafe, I swallowed the last of my bacon sandwich and licked the salty grease off my fingers.

“Brian, If you call your book ‘London is Fucked,’ I promise that I’ll buy ten copies.”


“Here! Sam! It’s here!”

Brian is franticly clearing away a patch of briars and nettles, patently oblivious to the damage that he is doing to his bare hands.

Twenty feet away, I force an ungainly passage through the tangle of plants, the abundant frothing cuckoo spit, that makes the garden appear rabid, clinging to the sleeves of my jacket.

The barrel of the cannon is badly askew on its mount. Chips in the black paint have been colonized by rust. The muzzle is capped with a metal plate that has been very securely welded in place.

 “It’s smaller than I thought it would be,” I wheeze. Evidently something in that mass of vegetation is aggravating my asthma.

“It’s in poor condition. Frankly I’m amazed they left it here.”

“I can’t see any ivy.”

“I very much doubt that you would find any. When they first discovered it, they absolutely deluged the place in pesticides. That’s brought about its own set of problems. You only have to look at the birth records for this area. There’s a very, very high number of defects...”

He glances around the garden.

“...I expect the other one must be nearby,”

We pause for a moment, each of us lost in his own thoughts. My wheezing subsides to a thin, high-pitched whine that is almost drowned out by the background noise of the swaying trees bordering an adjacent property; a sound like fast-flowing white water cascading over small rapids.

“I know that you don’t take this as seriously as I do, Sam, or take anything seriously, but you should because this really is the beginning of the end for London. Big Ben, Foyles, Saint Pauls, the Canary Wharf tower – all those places you love. I promise you that, one by one, they will all fall.”

Brian so often comes across as a caricature brought to life that I find those moments when he descends to a human level excruciatingly awkward. In that craven manner in which men have traditionally sought to avoid openly acknowledging each other’s emotions, I scan my surroundings for something to focus my attention on. Finally my eyes alight upon a discarded copy of the Walthamstow Gazette that is poking out among the nettles. The headline reads: “GOODBYE DOTTY!” I actually remember the story from a few weeks ago – a fond farewell to a popular racing greyhound.

Nearby, a solitary magpie launches itself from a twisted column of red brick, its initial straight and true course rounding off into a graceful curved descent into the undergrowth, like an arrow that has fallen short of its target.

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