Wednesday 18 May 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Red Weed


All down Wellington Street people could be seen reading newspapers. Men came scrambling off buses to secure copies. Certainly this news excited people intensely, whatever they thought of it previously (hey, even I was bored).

Going on along the Strand to Trafalgar Square, the paper in his hand, Mycroft saw some of the fugitives from West Surrey. There was a man with his wife and two boys, some articles of furniture and a dead badger in a greengrocers cart. He was driving from the direction of Westminster Bridge; and close behind him came a hay wagon with six posh birds in it, and some boxes and bundles. They stopped at the square as if undecided which way to take, and finally turned eastward along the Strand. Some way behind these came a man in workday clothes, riding on a farthing-penny (similar to a penny-farthing but with a large wheel at the back and the small wheel at the front).

My brother turned down towards Victoria, and met a number of these refugees. He had a vague idea that he might see something of me, and have a good giggle (not to be, as I was - at the time - parboiled and threatening a priest).

Mycroft noticed an unusual number of police regulating the traffic. Some of the refugees were exchanging news with the people on the omnibuses. One was professing to have seen the Marsians. "Boilers on stilts, I tell you, striding along like men. Well, drunken, fat men. On stilts. Dressed as boilers."

Beyond Victoria the public-houses were doing a lively trade with these new arrivals. At all the street corners, groups of people were reading papers, talking excitedly, or staring at the latest arrivals. My brother pestered several of these fugitives and got unsatisfactory answers from most.

None of them could tell him any news of Woking except one man, who assured him that Woking had been entirely destroyed on the previous night.

"I come from Byfleet," he said; "this bloke on a farthing-penny came through the place in the early morning, and ran from door to door warning us to come away. Then came soldiers. We went out to look, and there were clouds of smoke to the south — nothing but smoke, and not a soul coming that way. Then we heard the guns at Chertsey, and folks coming from Weybridge. So I've locked up my house and come on."

"You definitely locked up?" asked Mycroft.

"Yes." said the man.

"Even the back door?"

"Yes, I...oh, you've got me worrying now." said the man.

"Hah-hah!" laughed my irritating prick of a brother.

At the time there was a strong feeling in the streets that the authorities were to blame for their incapacity to dispose of the invaders without all this inconvenience. This is possibly the most English sentence of all time.

Mycroft walked from Westminster to his apartments near Regent's Park, about two. He was now very anxious on my account (he says), and disturbed at the scope of the trouble. His mind was inclined to run on military details. He thought of all those guns, of the suddenly nomadic countryside; he tried to imagine "boilers on stilts" a hundred feet high. Then he had a wank over gay porn. Probably.

There were one or two cartloads of refugees passing along Oxford Street, and several in the Marylebone Road, but so slowly was the news spreading that Regent Street and Portland Place were full of their usual Sunday-night promenaders, albeit they talked in groups, and along the edge of Regent's Park there were as many silent couples "walking out" together under the scattered gas lamps as ever there had been. The night was warm and still, and a little oppressive; the sound of guns continued intermittently, and after midnight there seemed to be lightning in the south.

He read and re-read the paper, "fearing" the worst had happened to me and giggling. He was restless, and after supper prowled out again aimlessly. He returned and tried in vain to divert his attention to his examination notes. He went to bed a little after midnight, and was awakened from lurid dreams in the small hours of Monday by the sound of door knockers, feet running in the street, distant drumming, and a clamour of bells. He jumped out of bed and ran to the window.

His room was an attic and as he thrust his head out, up and down the street there were a dozen echoes to the noise of his window sash, and heads in every kind of night disarray appeared. Enquiries were being shouted. "They are coming!" bawled a policeman, hammering at the door; "the Marsians are coming!" and hurried to the next door.

The sound of drumming came from the Albany Street Barracks, and every church within earshot was hard at work ringing the bells. There was a noise of doors opening, and window after window in the houses opposite flashed from darkness into yellow illumination.

For a long time my brother stared out of the window in blank astonishment, watching the coppers hammering at door after door. Then the door behind him opened, and the man who lodged across the landing came in, butt-naked.

"What the devil is it?" he asked. "A fire? What a devil of a row!"

They both craned their heads out of the window, straining to hear what the policemen were shouting. People were coming out of the side streets, and standing in groups at the corners talking.

"What the devil is it all about?" asked Mister Nude.

My brother shrugged, and soon men selling early newspapers came bawling into the street:

"London in danger of suffocation! The Kingston and Richmond defences forced! Fearful massacres in the Thames Valley!"

And all about him — in the rooms below, in the houses on each side and across the road, and all the vastness of London from Ealing to East Ham—people were rubbing their eyes, opening windows to stare out and ask aimless questions, dressing hastily as the first hint of the Marsian storm blew through the streets. It was the dawn of the great panic. London, which had gone to bed on Sunday night oblivious, was awakened in the small hours of Monday morning, to a vivid sense of danger.

Unable to learn from his window what was happening, my brother went down and out into the street. The running people grew more numerous every moment. "Black Smoke!" he heard people crying, and again "Black Smoke!" The contagion of such a unanimous fear was inevitable. As my brother hesitated on the door- step, he saw another news vender approaching, and got a paper forthwith. The man was running away with the rest, and selling his papers for a shilling each as he ran.

And from this paper my brother read that catastrophic dispatch of the Commander-in-Chief:

The Marsians are able to discharge enormous clouds of a black and poisonous vapour by means of rockets. They have smothered our batteries, destroyed Richmond, Kingston, and Wimbledon, and are advancing slowly towards London, destroying everything on the way. It is impossible to stop them. There is no safety from the Black Smoke but in instant flight. Oh, my fucking God, we're all gonna die. Aaaaaggh!!!!

That was all, but it was enough. The whole population of the great six-million city was stirring, slipping, running; presently it would be pouring en masse northward.

"Black Smoke!" the voices cried. "Fire!"

The bells of the neighbouring church made a jangling tumult, a cart carelessly driven smashed, amid shrieks and curses. Lights went to and fro in the houses, and some of the passing cabs flaunted unextinguished lamps. And overhead the dawn was growing brighter, clear and steady and calm.

He heard footsteps running to and fro in the rooms, and up and down stairs behind him. His landlady came to the door, loosely wrapped in dressing gown and shawl; her husband followed, ejaculating.

As my brother began to realise the import of all these things, he turned hastily to his own room, put all his available money — some ten pounds altogether — into his pockets, and went out again into the streets.


Words: Brad Harmer & H.G. Wells
You can become Brad's "friend" on Facebook, or you can "follow" him on Twitter. Depends how creepy you want to sound really.


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