Text from Brian Catling’s reading in Parlour Souterrain:
Four minutes walk east from the dwarfed doorway above that you have just had to bend or crawl through is another circular building, another inverted tower. It stands ruddy on the lip of the Thames, its red brick and wrought iron slit windows pretending grandeur, like an observatory or enshrined tomb. Opposite, across the river in Wapping is its twin. They are ventilation shafts for the Rotherhithe tunnel, lavishly named Cupolas. They stretch down near to the points where the tunnels velocity snaps into two dog-legs; sharp bends put there to shield the horses eyes from the oncoming bellow of daylight each side of the river. The brick towers above also conceal a momentum. Once you have stepped or forced your way inside them, a spinning roar swallows all the dropping space. A tower of the winds in reverse vibrating and acrid. Far below four vast fans scream in their steel cages, originally designed to suck up the smell of horseshit from the overused tunnel. Now they axe into the noxious ghosts of petrol and diesel.
When I was a kid, one of the most exciting local sports was collecting nails and screws and other bits of small resilient junk and taking them to the cupola at night. Standing up so as to reach over the circular metal balcony in the entrance halls and dropping the splinters of steel and iron down onto the feverish rotary blades below. This was mostly done with targeted skill; one or two projectiles at a time, but there was always some flash cunt who wanted to up the stakes and emptied his entire trove of metal all at once into the spinning jaws. The sound then was awesome and a lot of iron and steel came back up, ricocheting against the circular walls with a demonic force.
Some kids said that it also shrapnelled down onto the road below, A lethal hail that dented cars and tore at drivers. But we knew that wasn’t true because the fans were spiralling up and sometimes you could see or hear the same bit of metal dancing with the blades and being spun up and falling back over and over again.
Long before they moled under the Thames, they were digging the tidal shallows out between Deadman and Greenland wharves and found a number of wooden cargo vessels of some antiquity. A plan was made to dredge then clear off the silted marsh and try and trace their origin. Two months into the excavation it became clear that it was impossible. When the hulks were pulled clear and the mud dried off, the timbers of the craft began to splinter and fall apart as if they had been made of ash or salt. Every inch of the vessels had been trespassed and eaten out to create a hollow that was only held together by mud and the excrement of the offending parasite.
Teredo navalis it was called. The SHIPWORM or Skeppsmask; a big rubbery maggot, not unlike a human male member, but with a flat anvil shaped head full of overlapping teeth. An invertebrate cousin of the Lamprey. This worm only does three things; eats, digests and multiplies and it does them all ferociously. A tide of Teredos can devour a ship in a year, leaving a perfect replica of it in their wake . The Shipworms shore up the channels of their passage by leaving a solidifying wall of muck behind them, inventing a ghost ship constructed of its waste.
Isambard Mark Brunel had met this beast and much admired its tenacious ways. He also saw in it a way to eat his way beneath the Thames and by 1826 he had completed the 15 ton steel SHIELD that would gnaw its way under the bed of the river. 36 miners mimicked the multiple teeth of the blind worms head, while behind them and the remorselessly moving shield an army of masons copied the worm’s secretions in hurried arches of brick and mortar.
The SHIELD itself resembled a harmonica or mouth organ, three tiers of 12 men in small compartments pushed against the rockface. Only a series of moveable horizontal shutters between them and the dripping stone. It looked like a tiny library cell, each shutter being a shelf . The illiterate miner would unscrew the shutter, scratch and hew out a crevice a few inches deeper behind it, then replace the wood and move down to the next shelf. Repeating the action over and over again, while the entire mass of the SHIELD was pushed slowly forward by powerful winches. This scratching and shoving only achieved between 8 and 12 feet a week and would often come to a halt when some obstinate substance was found behind one of the shutters.
It was rumored that all manner of unknown creatures and branches of petrified flora were discovered during its tedious implacable thrust. At first experts were invited to view and take samples of the disclosures, but as time dragged on such niceties had to be put aside. The river was leaking and its noxious gasses were slithering in to sniff at the naked flames of the workers unsheathed lights. When the bone soles of the feet of what appeared to be a giant were discovered they were nearly half way through. Brunel himself came to witness the unnerving find. Because the relentless machine was moving directly forward towards the supposed skeleton, it could not be dug out. Also the aggregate around it at this point was of the hardest yet found and the miners had to work in treble shifts to remove smaller and smaller amounts of the inching tunnel.
So it was decided that they would simply ignore the miracle and just eat their way through it. It took ten days before they crunched through the last sliver of skull and the shutters on the shelf were closed again. The hollow of the unknown man-like object had joined all the other hollows behind the SHIELD when the great vacancy beneath the water was finally achieved.