"The Destructors": A Short Story by Graham Greene
“The Destructors” was published in Graham Greene’s 1954 collection that was simply entitled “Twenty-One Stories”. This story was also dated 1954, and it is clear from hints in the story that it is supposed to be set at around that date.
London, particularly the eastern part, was heavily bombed during the early years of World War Two, and the rebuilding of destroyed houses took a number of years to accomplish, although the rubble was cleared away fairly quickly. That meant that many empty bomb sites remained, and in this story one of these has become an impromptu car park and the “headquarters” of the Worsley Common Gang.
This is a group of a dozen or so schoolboys, with the oldest being about 14 years old. The word “gang” should not be taken to mean what might be implied by a gang in more recent years. These are not knife-wielding criminals who wage war on opposing gangs, but simply kids who play on the bomb site and indulge in a bit of naughtiness from time to time, such as seeing how many free rides they get on the local buses without being caught by bus conductors.
Next to the bomb site is a solitary house that escaped the full force of the bomb that destroyed its neighbours. It was formerly part of a terrace but now stands alone, supported by wooden struts. Its sole occupant is Mr Thomas, who is known as Old Misery by the gang members. He keeps himself to himself but does not object to the boys making a noise on the car park or bouncing footballs against the wall of his house. He even gives the boys some Smarties chocolates on one occasion.
A recent recruit to the gang is Trevor, who prefers to be known as T. One morning he surprises the others by telling them that he has been inside Old Misery’s house. He simply rang the front door bell and asked to be shown around, which is what happened.
T was impressed by what he saw and is happy to tell his colleagues that it is a beautiful old house with features that include a 200-year-old spiral staircase. He is also able to tell them that the owner will be away from home for the next two days and the gang could therefore break in while Mr Thomas is not there.
However, T’s idea is not to steal anything from the house, but to destroy it. As their new leader, T wants to make a name for the Worlsey Common Gang, so that even the “grown-up” gangs will take notice and respect them for what they have done.
Under T’s direction, the boys then go about their business in a clinical way. T makes sure that they have the right tools for the job, especially chisels, saws and hammers, and they begin the job by smashing everything they can find in the house. Theft is not the object, and this even applies to the banknotes that they find. These are burned, one by one.
On the second day, which is August Bank Holiday, they get to work on the structure of the house, sawing through the joists so that the floors collapse in turn without causing injury to anyone.
Two of the gang were not able to take part on the second day because they had to go with their parents to the seaside for the day. One of them later arrives at the house with some bad news, which is that the bad weather has not only caused his family to come home early, but Mr Thomas has also cut his trip short and was on the same train. He can therefore be expected to turn up at the house in a few minutes time.
Quick thinking is needed, and this is provided by T. Mr Thomas is met at his door and is persuaded not to open it but go round to the back of the house and climb the garden wall. He is told that one of the gang has been using his outside “privy” and got trapped in there. However, it is Mr Thomas who ends up being shut in with the door locked. However, the boys have no personal animosity towards “Old Misery” and shove a blanket and some food for him through the small hole in the door, the intention being that he will not get out until the following morning.
The gang can now get on with their work of destruction uninterrupted. With all the floors collapsed, they work on the mortar between the bricks at the lowest level, chipping it away, after which the gang go off home.
There is a lorry parked in the car park next to the house. The final job of the gang was to tie a rope between the lorry and the strut that had formerly kept the house upright. When the driver arrives the following morning and tries to drive away he unwittingly performs the coup de grace on the house which is thus reduced to a pile of rubble.
The story ends with Mr Thomas surveying what had once been his house and the lorry driver is convulsed with laughter.
The big question about this story is surely: why did the boys do what they did? It was not as though Mr Thomas had been their enemy in any way, or that he had been unkind to them. Indeed, he had even given them sweets and shown one of their number round the house.
It was also not as if T, having been shown the house, did not admire what he had seen. He is the son of a former architect and appreciates its internal features such as its paneling and the spiral staircase that are relics of a previous era.
T clearly has an artistic streak in him, and that is the key to his motivation. For him the act of destruction is one of creation. Just as his father would have undertaken a design project and taken pride at its completion, T regards the demolition of the house as an operation that has to be carried out with meticulous planning and attention to detail.
T is asked by another gang member if he hates Mr Thomas. His reply is revealing: “Of course I don’t hate him. There’d be no fun if I hated him.”
This is followed by another revealing line, spoken by T as his face is illuminated by the flames from the burning pound notes: “All this hate and love, it’s soft, it’s hooey. There’s only things”.
So what is Graham Greene saying in this story? Surely this is a commentary on what war can do to the morality of ordinary people, especially children. These are boys who started their lives in the middle of a terrible war, with their childhood memories being of bombs falling all around them and nights spent in air raid shelters. Some of them would have lost their fathers on overseas service and would then have grown up suffering the deprivations of postwar austerity. It should be no surprise that some of them would have become materialistic and come to believe that hate and love made no difference because “there’s only things”.
A parallel might be drawn with William Golding’s famous novel “Lord of the Flies”, which was also published in 1954. In that story, a group of boys of a similar age form a “gang” in which the norms of morality are set aside at the same time as the rest of the world is engaged in World War Two. There are clearly many differences between Golding’s novel and Greene’s story, but they make an interesting combination.
A dramatized version of The Destructors formed part of a BBC TV series in 1975.