Wednesday, 20 July 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Red Weed


Had the Marsians aimed only at destruction (as I often do), they might have annihilated the entire population of London by Thursday lunchtime. If one could have sat in a chinook in the sky above London, every road running out of the tangled maze of streets would have seemed black with the streaming fugitives. I wittered at great length on my brother's account of the road through Chipping Barnet, in order that you may realise how that swarming of black dots appeared to one of those concerned. And because he said I had to mention him in my book, or he'll reveal everything about the crumpets incident.

Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.

Over the blue hills that rise southward of the river, the glittering Marsians went to and fro, calmly and methodically spreading their poison cloud over this patch of country, and taking possession of the conquered country. They do not seem to have aimed at extermination so much as at complete demoralisation and the destruction of any territory - a bit like Vince Russo. They exploded any stores of powder they came upon, cut every telegraph, ate the last peanuts and wrecked the railways here and there. They seemed in no hurry to extend the field of their operations, and did not come beyond the central part of London all that day. It is possible that a very considerable number of people in London stuck to their houses through Monday morning. Certain it is that many died at home suffocated by the Black Smoke.

Of the falling of the fifth cylinder I have yet to tell. The sixth star fell at Wimbledon. Mycroft, keeping watch on the women in the chaise in a meadow, saw the green flash of it far beyond the hills. On Tuesday the little party, still set upon getting across the sea, made its way through the swarming country towards Colchester. The news that the Marsians were now in possession of the whole of London was confirmed. They had been seen at Highgate, and even, it was said, at Neasden. But they did not come into my brother's view until the morrow.

That day the scattered multitudes began to realise the urgent need of provisions. As they grew hungry the rights of property ceased to be regarded. Farmers were out to defend their cattle-sheds, granaries, and ripening root crops with arms in their hands. A number of people now, like my brother, had their faces eastward, and there were some desperate souls even going back towards London to get food. These were chiefly northeners, whose knowledge of the Black Smoke and adverbs came by hearsay. He heard that about half the members of the government had gathered at Birmingham, and that enormous quantities of high explosives were being prepared to be used in automatic mines across the Midland counties.

He was also told that the Midland Railway Company had replaced the desertions of the first day's panic, and was running northward trains from St. Albans to relieve the congestion of the home counties. There was also a placard in Chipping Ongar announcing that large stores of flour were available in the northern towns and that within twenty-four hours bread would be distributed among the starving people in the neighbourhood. But this intelligence did not deter him from the plan of escape he had formed, (although he did steal some flour) and the three pressed eastward all day, hearing no more of the bread distribution than this promise. Nor, as a matter of fact, did anyone else hear more of it. That night fell the seventh star, falling upon Primrose Hill. It fell while Mrs Hotpants was watching, for she took that duty alternately with my brother. She saw it.

On Wednesday the three fugitives — they had passed the night in a field of unripe beef (ie. cows) — reached Chelmsford, and there a body of the inhabitants, calling itself the Committee of Public Supply, seized the pony as provisions, and would give nothing in exchange for it but the promise of a share in it the next day. Here there were rumours of Martians at Epping, and news of the destruction of Waltham Abbey Powder Mills in a vain attempt to blow up one of the invaders.

People were watching for Marsians from the church towers. My brother, very luckily for him as it chanced, preferred to push on at once to the coast rather than wait for food, although all three of them were very hungry. By midday they passed through Tillingham, which, strangely enough, seemed to be quite silent and deserted, save for a few hunting for food. Near Tillingham they suddenly came in sight of the sea, and the most amazing crowd of shipping of all sorts that it is possible to imagine.

For after the sailors could no longer come up the Thames, they came on to the Essex coast. They lay in a huge sickle-shaped curve that vanished into mist at last towards the Naze. There were ships all shapes and sizes scattered out along the bay — English, Scotch, French, Rodian, Dutch, and Swedish; steam launches from the Thames, yachts, electric boats, pirate ships, boats made from folded up newspaper, a small turtle that was just pretending; and beyond were ships of large burden, a multitude of filthy colliers, trim merchantmen, cattle ships, passenger boats, petroleum tanks, ocean tramps, an old white transport even, neat white and grey liners from Southampton and Hamburg; and along the blue coast across the Blackwater my brother could make out dimly a dense swarm of boats chaffering with the people on the beach, a swarm which also extended up the Blackwater almost to Maldon.

About a couple of miles out lay an ironclad, very low in the water, almost like a water-logged ship. This was the warship ThunderChild. It was the only warship in sight, but far away to the right over the smooth surface of the sea—for that day there was a dead calm—lay a serpent of black smoke to mark the next ironclads of the Channel Fleet, which hovered in an extended line, steam up and ready for action, across the Thames estuary during the course of the Marsian conquest, vigilant and yet powerless to prevent it.

At the sight of the sea, Mrs. Hotpants, in spite of the assurances of her sister-in-law, gave way to panic. She had never been out of England before, she would rather die than trust herself friendless in a foreign country, and so forth. She seemed, poor woman, to imagine that the French and the Marsians might prove very similar.

Words: Brad Harmer & H.G. Wells
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