With the weekend’s news dominated by The Grexit and surprisingly little said about HS2 for some months, I have wondered whether the current financial instability of our European neighbours is not the start of something unimaginable.
(This thought provoking contribution by author and former transport planner Peter J Wiltshire suggests I am not alone.)
‘Good evening, this is the ten o’clock news …’ said the motherly newscaster, ‘on Thursday the eighteenth of August, two thousand and forty-four.’ The image cut to military vehicles gallantly protecting Buckingham Palace. ‘The disturbances in London are now firmly under control … said the Home Secretary at today’s special cabinet meeting …’
‘At Chequers,’ I added, my words punctuated by yet another explosion, somewhere down towards the Oxford Street Pods. We both winced, but the kids were oblivious.
‘He went on to say …’ she continued, ‘that, to maintain access for emergency services, the restrictions on car use in central London would remain in place until noon tomorrow. We now go across to …’
‘And in the meantime you can all go hungry,’ said Fanny. She was on the edge of the sofa, Zoe and Pete playing behind her. In the two hours the curfew permitted, the scrum in Camden High Street had been unbelievable. I had only managed to get frozen peas and a sweet cake. Her phone went. She waved it away, her eyes still fixed on the news. I picked it up. It was her brother, her excitable brother. ‘Hold on,’ I said and took him into the hall.
‘Ben,’ he yelled, ‘they’ve turned the North Circular into a barrier. The army’s taken it over. Stopping anyone going south. I watched them use stunners … on some guys trying to get back down Colney Hatch Lane. I tell you Ben, this is serious, don’t believe the news, the government’s definitely lost it.’ He was being jostled. It looked like he was on a bus. Everyone was shouting. Some were cursing. Kids were crying.
‘It’s all quiet here. The army’s in control. Look … chum … please keep things calm if you can … the kids … you know?’
‘Ah, yes … sorry. But I think my raving might be the least of your worries, which is why I’m sounding a bit fraught; there’s a rumour they’ll be cutting off the phones any mo…’
In the resounding silence, I leant against the wall. I never thought I’d long to hear his mad voice so much. Now we were alone. Responsibility gnawed at me. It’s down to you, it said. You’ve got to protect them. Keep your head together. It’s all you’ve got. No heroics. You’re only a feeble little history lecturer. Cold calculation … that’s what you need. I pressed my forehead against the cool glass of the window. How could this be happening in London? Below me, two storeys down, the quiet streets of Chalk Farm were lit by the threatening orange glow of the night sky over south London. Out there, the air was acrid, it left the taste of burnt toast in your mouth. For the last four nights, sleep had been difficult. You’d just drop off, then you’d be woken by the reports of explosions rolling across the city like thunder, flashes of light reflecting off the clouds. Alarms and shouts would follow in their wake.
Looking up I could see a column of fiery smoke against the orange. It must have been from the earlier sound we’d heard. It looked very close. Could it really be the Oxford Street Pods, I wondered. They were only a couple of kilometres away. The Miggs in them had been remarkably quiet until now. Things were certainly getting worse … and much too close. I began to panic, they had done some terrible things in Chelsea. ‘Get a grip,’ I quietly told myself, ‘and think!’ After all, we had the army barracks in Regent’s Park, between them and us. We couldn’t be better placed. I rehearsed our argument once again: the government couldn’t risk the Miggs looting the Grade A properties in Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury; losing the Grade B residences in Kensington and Chelsea was one thing, but letting the Miggs loose on the Financial Aristos would have international repercussions. No … it was better for us to sit tight. With the army based in Regents and Victoria Parks it was obvious that the Financials were calling the shots, not the clowns in government.
Pete ran out squealing, Zoe chasing him, with ogre-like fingers threatening his ears.
‘She’s a Migg,’ said Fan.
‘Same lies: stay calm, it’s all under control. “The government is more than willing to consider improvements to the accommodation of our immigrant workers, though we would like to point out that the pod system complies in all respects with international blah, blah.” My arse … how would they like living in a one metre diameter pipe? They don’t want to know. They’ve got slave labour all buttoned up and the Financials won’t give in on principle.’
‘Your brother says the army is stopping people coming into town. Then the phone went dead.’
‘No surprise there, then.’
‘It looks like we can’t do anything else but wait,’ I said.
‘Is our theory sound, Ben?’ said Fanny, clutching her arms around her.
‘I can’t see the government pulling the troops out. Leaving all the city palaces that’ve built in Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury. It would make the French revolution look like a tea-party. And just think: a good part of the world’s valuables are down there, not to mention the bullion.’
‘And if you’re right that the Financials are really in charge, the government can’t pull out.’
‘On the other hand, the Cabinet is at Chequers,’ I said. There was an inconsistency.
‘So what about the terrorism theory?’
‘It’s not impossible … if the Miggs have radical groups in their ranks.’
‘And we’ve agreed they’re mad enough to cheerfully sacrifice a million of their own people.’
‘They blow up the pods readily enough.’
We stood looking at one another in the narrow hall, her one side, me the other, the sinister orange light in the window between us. All was silent, apart from the kids chatter in the bathroom and a few distant sirens. Normally we wouldn’t notice the rumble of the Drain train passing beneath us.
‘They said on the news that there would be no trains running into central London today,’ said Fanny. She thought a while. ‘Why do they call it the Drain train?’
‘Oh it was something to do with its high cost … it couldn’t ever be justified as a normal railway.’
‘So why was it built?’ she said.