'The Destructors' (1954)
‘The Destructors’ was the first Graham Greene story I ever read, and I became slightly obsessed with it in an awkward teenager filled with rage sort of way. In it, a gang of London bombsite boys are galvanised by a newcomer to move away from their everyday ‘Beano’ style exploits and to undertake a far more ambitious and anarchic project: the utter demolition of a Christopher Wren designed house.
The story may be full of fun things like kids sawing through bannisters and hitting bathroom fittings with sticks but it has a surprisingly sombre and reflective tone. The architect of the scheme is a middle class boy called Trevor, although the gang have shortened his name to ‘T’ out of respect. Unlike most of the boys, he knows things, but, rather than be a potential victim because of this, he turns his knowledge to a use that even the thickest members of the gang can appreciate. Blackie, the group’s leader, assumes that T is motivated by hatred of the houses owner, a lonely, sour man they call ‘Old Misery’, but T’s explanation is far more ambiguous:
‘All this love and hate, it’s soft, it’s hooey. There’s only things, Blackie’.
This extends to the gang destroying all of Old Misery’s possessions – Blackie and T even set fire to his savings, watching the notes burn one by one. T isn’t quite as ambivalent as he makes out, however – he hints at a troubled home life, and is a classic outsider, so he is obviously driven by something more personal, even if he doesn’t know what it is . When Old Misery returns unexpectedly the gang turn on T in an instant and attempt to abandon the demolition – although Blackie understands enough of what it will do for the gang’s reputation to step in and ensure that they follow the plan through to its ultimate conclusion.
As the last brick falls, and the dust settles, Old Misery stands aghast at the devastation of his home, his life. A lorry driver who has unknowingly helped effect the collapse of the house by pulling it down with a rope attached to his vehicle stifles a giggle and says ‘I’m sorry, Mr.Thomas – but you have to admit it’s funny’. In Greeneland, it's hilarious.