'Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be'
‘A screaming comes across the sky’ – the first line of Thomas Pynchon’s celebrated novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon’s story begins at the foot of Observatory Hill in Greenwich at the end of the Second World War, when a V2 missile explodes prematurely in the skies over London. Part of the wreckage, containing a secret code, lands – significantly – on the prime meridian in Greenwich Park.
Pynchon took the inspiration from this scene from another novel – The Secret Agent, published by Joseph Conrad in 1907. Conrad’s titular agent is Verloc, a foreign spy whose cover is running a shop which sells pornographic engravings. Verloc is ordered by his masters to attack the Royal Observatory, but his bomb goes off prematurely, and his brother-in-law Stevie is blown to pieces at the foot of Observatory Hill. In this scene Verloc’s spymaster, ‘Mr Vladimir’, explains his reasons for choosing Greenwich as a target:
This is what you should try for. An attempt upon a crowned head or on a president is sensational enough in a way, but not so much as it used to be. It has entered into the general conception of the existence of all chiefs of state. It’s almost conventional—especially since so many presidents have been assassinated. … But what is one to say to an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable; in fact, mad? Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion, or bribes. Moreover, I am a civilised man. I would never dream of directing you to organise a mere butchery, even if I expected the best results from it. But I wouldn’t expect from a butchery the result I want. Murder is always with us. It is almost an institution. The demonstration must be against learning—science. But not every science will do. The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy. Since bombs are your means of expression, it would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics. But that is impossible. I have been trying to educate you; I have expounded to you the higher philosophy of your usefulness, and suggested to you some serviceable arguments. The practical application of my teaching interests you mostly. But from the moment I have undertaken to interview you I have also given some attention to the practical aspect of the question. What do you think of having a go at astronomy?
But the story doesn’t end there. Conrad in turn was inspired by a real piece of Victorian terrorism. On the afternoon of 15 February 1894 visitors to Greenwich Park were startled to hear a loud explosion, and discovered the shattered body of the French anarchist Martial Bourdin. The late nineteenth century witnessed great public panic over anarchist attacks in Europe and the US, and it seems that Bourdin may have been trying to destroy the observatory, but was blown up by his own bomb.