If a nation’s culture dies, so too does the nation.
These were the words that passed through my mind as I eagerly awaited the train. The London underground was a strange place at this time; a place where the underclass crawled from their hidden tenements and stalked the night.
Nobody knew my habit; by day I was a pretty normal teenager. I generally kept myself to myself, and didn’t ruffle any feathers. By night, I was François McCandle; graffiti artist and vandal.
A wise man once said that graffiti breaks the hegemonic hold of corporate and governmental style over the urban environment, and the situations of daily life. As a form of aesthetic sabotage, it interrupts the pleasant, efficient uniformity of planned urban space and predictable urban living. For us, graffiti disrupts the lived experience of mass culture, the passivity of mediated consumption.
It was through graffiti that a nation’s culture was truly exhibited; expressing the wider societal frustrations and problems that went unaddressed by the oligarchs who controlled every aspect of our daily lives. It was our way of striking back, decorating the streets as we saw fit, spreading a message that many tried to ignore; a message that those in power did their best to censor.
Most of the carriages were empty at this time; I had to ensure that there were no witnesses to my crime. I dropped to the floor. The spray can hissed as I filled in the gaps. When I’d finished, I discarded the stencils, stood up and viewed my work in all of its glory; the black and white image of a homeless man, sleeping on the carriage floor. In the bottom left corner, my insignia was written in silver; François McCandle with a small, melting candle next to it, illuminating the whole piece.
I’d taken the inspiration for my name from the Haitian slave who’d resisted French colonial rule in the 18th century. His was a story of true rebellion; organising escaped slaves, and sending them out in a guerrilla war, poisoning the water supplies of the colonial masters. For his crimes, his punishment was severe; burning at the stake, a warning to other slaves of the price of resistance.
I’d taken my inspiration for this piece from an incident I’d seen on the tube no less than three weeks ago. A homeless man had been forcibly ejected from the train by the police for sleeping in the carriage. I watched as the police grabbed his hands –one of which was curled inwards from Dupuytren’s contracture- and forced them behind his back. I looked into his eyes -one of which bore a discoloured iris and seemed to glow dimly in blue- as they glassed over with tears.
The poor man had been publicly humiliated, and as he was restrained and forced from the carriage, he’d turned to the apathetic passengers and in a deep gravelly voice, he said ‘What do you want from me? Just because you don’t want to see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I’m just going to be homeless somewhere else!’
His words resonated with me that night. I wondered where he’d slept, squirreled away out of sight and mind, in some decaying squat in the city, or in a multi-storey carpark that stunk of diesel and petrol fumes; the effluence of affluence.
As soon as he was out of sight, everyone in the carriage turned their faces back to their phones, forgetting the homeless man immediately. Well, I wanted his image to stay in their minds; I wanted it to be the first thing commuters saw on their way to work.
Through this small act, I was rebelling against the powers that be, the ones who believed that a problem could be solved by pushing it to the periphery. The ones who thought that anybody who had been failed by the dominant capitalist ethos was a failure to themselves, and could be treated as sub-human waste.
I grinned at my work, as the train pulled up the next station. I stood by the doors, ready to make a speedy exit, but the doors remained shut, and the train stationary. The sound of somebody entering the carriage made me freeze up with panic; I hoped against hope that the doors would spring open and I could make my way to freedom.
I turned to face the person who’d entered. I looked at his badge, hat and epaulette as he marched towards me. He reached down to the handcuffs that were holstered at his waist, withdrawing them and holding them up.
I stood, frozen to the spot, the last bastion of resistance against a regimented phalanx, threatening to steamroller through this isolated pocket of rebellion. At last, my act of rebellion was to be struck down, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
The police officer stepped forwards. I could feel nothing but the steady thudding in my chest, rooting me to the spot.
“Drop it.” The officer ordered, reaching out to restrain me.
With no prior thought, I raised my hand upwards, letting loose a blast of spraypaint into the officer’s eyes. He reeled backwards, clutching his face and dropping the cuffs.
I sprang forwards, ducking and diving around the officer, and racing towards the open door he’d entered through. I scanned the station quickly, sprinting as a handful of officers pursued me. I charged down parallel to the train, running down the edge of the platform and leaping down onto the rails.
I ran along the railway track, leaping from sleeper to sleeper, pressing myself onwards, deeper into the blackness of the tunnel.
The echoing of my footsteps, clattering off the rounded walls of the tunnel eclipsed any other sound. I wondered whether the officers had given chase, or whether a train might burst around the corner and tear my body to ribbons of shredded flesh and pulverised bone.
A man appeared before me, standing with his arms open in the centre of the line. I looked upon the man, one of his eyes seemed to glow in the darkness of the tunnel, and one of his hands curled downwards.
“François McCandle.” The man spoke, “Let me light your way.” He beckoned me towards him.
I ran towards him, and at once he turned off into a small inlet in the side of the tunnel.
“This way.” The man spoke, pushing open an old iron door, which led to a concrete stairwell.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
The man lifted a brass lantern that hung on a hook at the top of the stairwell. He struck a match, and lit the red candle within.
“We’re going to the Palace of King William.”
Together we cautiously descended short, steep staircases, ducked under rusty iron pipes, and meandered through labyrinthine hallways; some of which opened into large cavernous rooms, and others which were so tight you had to press yourself sideways against the walls just to squeeze through.
“This is a brass Davy lamp.” The man explained, “A wondrous invention of the 19th century. The metal mesh surrounding the flame allows oxygen to enter, but prevents the flames from escaping. If the flame grows, there are flammable gases in the air, but if the flame dies, so too will you, unless you leave immediately.”
We gingerly paced the halls for many minutes. The air was musty and damp, with a soft heat behind it that felt somewhat stifling. My guide seemed to know exactly where to go, but –seeing that I was treading carefully- he slowed his pace to match mine.
The minimal light provided by the brass lantern cast deep shadows on the walls and ceilings, as it swung gently in his curved hand.
“What is this place?” I asked, looking about at the obscure graffiti.
“Some of these tunnels are over a century old.” He explained, “For years, we have carved through the silt and rock, linking old forgotten stations, bunkers, sewers and tunnels, creating a network that serves as a subterranean city; a safety net for the lost and rejected.”
At once, we came to a dead end; a large empty cellar.
“We stand beneath the Wren monument to the Great Fire of London; above us and to the south stand London Bridge.” he explained, before pointing to a large grate on the floor, “Below us, you will find the Palace of King William.”
He stooped down before the grate, setting down the brass lantern and gripping a handle on the iron grate.
“I’ll need your help.” He said.
I stepped towards the grate, gripping one of the handles and heaving it upwards. The metal scraped as we lifted it free, revealing an old spiral staircase below, wrought from cast iron.
I followed the man into the stairwell, replacing the iron grate behind us as we descended the stairs.
The Palace was illuminated by brass Davy lamps, hung on iron hooks which looked like they’d been embedded in the walls for decades. Parts of the palace were decorated with fading marble tiles. The walls bore decaying wartime propaganda posters, and old metal medical kits with A.R.P written on them.
“This is… an air raid shelter.” I said.
“It is –and has been- many things.” The man explained, “It was at one time, the northern terminus of the City and South London railway; the first deep-level railway in London. Before that, it was a masonry station tunnel. During the Second World War, this place was used as an air raid shelter, and now…”
We walked through into a clearing, filled with people lying on beds.
“…it is a refuge for the lost.”
I walked with trepidation along the tile floors, lined with beds. Upon the beds, men and women with rough, pockmarked skin lay in all states of malaise. Some were missing limbs, others emaciated and skinny; some wheezed and coughed, and others writhed about in pain.
At the end of the room, a man sat in an old dusty armchair. His spine seemed to curve, hunching him forwards. His skin was withered and aged, with thick wrinkles surrounding reddened eyes which seemed to bulge from their sockets. His hair was white and hung in wisps about his head. He held a long ebony cane, adorned with the head and wings of a bat, upon which he rested his left hand.
He raised his right hand, and with long skeletal fingers, he beckoned me towards him.
“Stand before me.” He spoke, in a shrill, metallic voice. Every syllable extended, as though he struggled to enunciate them
I turned to my companion, who stood several feet behind me.
“Go.” He nodded.
I stood before the elderly man.
“Who are you?” he said, tightening his grip on the ebony cane.
“François McCandle.” I spoke in a shaky voice, “Street artist. Vandal.”
“François McCandle.” His eyes narrowed into slits, “The wisp of flame in the suffocating darkness…”
My hands trembled as the man leaned forwards, the Davy lamps illuminating the cracks in his skin.
“The flame burns bright…” he said, “and the shadows grow darker.”
“What is…” I swallowed a dry lump in my throat, “What is this place?”
“This…” He said, raising the cane and waving it slowly across the room like a conductor, “this is a palace of the world to come; a safe haven for the forgotten, and for the damned.”
He lowered the cane once more, “We are London’s orphans, a generation abandoned in body and in mind, and the kings of tomorrow.”
His eyes seemed to flash in the light of the Davy lamps, “And tomorrow is a rough beast, slouching towards incarnation; unpitiable, contemptible and unstoppable. And great fires come with it, for everywhere the beast goes, death follows.”
My hands began to tremble violently, as I took a step back.
The old man slowly rose from his chair, “For what you are now, we once were…”
The light from the Davy lamps seemed to grow in its intensity as hues of blue and green filled the room.
“…and what we are now, you shall be.”
I felt my legs tremble, as a rumbling from above shook the entire palace. I fell to the floor, as the Davy lamps burned ferociously, casting bright lights and heavy shadows in every nook and cranny of the palace.
“We were born in your world…”
The elderly man stood tall, raising the bat cane above his head.
“…but you shall die in ours.”
© JC Axe 2016