Friday, 9 January 2015

Bookhounds, Night's Black Agents, Esoterrorists: Forgotten London, Crystal Palace

I'm going to kick the new year off with a discussion of one of London's long-forgotten landmarks. This material should be useful to any Keeper setting up a London-based campaign, and I'm also going to discuss its relevance to modern day gaming with Night's Black Agents and Esoterrorists. Night's Black Agents is something I've discussed before and should need no introduction. Esoterrorists, for those of you not familiar with the setting, is broadly the same kind of modern espionage-type RPG as NBA except that the main adversary is a terror group - the Esoterrorists of the title - whose goal is to break the membrane of modern life that protects us all, and make supernatural horror a reality. Not a million miles away, now I think on it, from the motivation that guides the Dreamhounds of Paris. But I digress.

The Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was only ever intended to last a few months. Part a demonstration of British talent, part an attempt to cock a snook at the French who were rather better at design, manufacture and sales than the British ever were, the Exhibition was born of a desire to show the world what the Empire could do, when it put its collective mind to it. Certainly there would be educational showpieces, of course there would be entertainment, but the real purpose of the Exhibition was to show off British design and inventive ingenuity, with over 100,000 exhibits provided by 17,000 exhibitors.

The Exhibition was divided into five types of display: raw materials, machinery, manufactures, fine arts, and miscellaneous. While British displays were naturally at the forefront, the Exhibition also housed displays from Russia, America, France, Italy, and Portugal, as well as examples from all over the colonies. "It is a marvelous, stirring, bewildering sight," Charlotte Bronte, a five time visitor, is supposed to have said. "A mixture of a genii palace and a mighty bazaar."

It was all housed rather at the last minute. Hyde Park was never the favorite destination, but as it turned out nothing else would do, so Hyde Park was chosen. Then there was a question of design, and though a competition was held to pick the best, none of the competitors really made the grade. With some creative fudging of the rules, the Committee finally decided on a glass design by Joseph Paxton, later Sir Joseph, head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire, who answered the objection that Hyde Park's trees would be damaged by extending the design so that the trees were completely enclosed. It is this monumental glass enclosure - 92,000 meters squared, 33 meters high at its tallest point, with 293,000 panes of glass -  that eventually gave the Crystal Palace its name.

The Exhibition closed in October, but it was felt that to demolish Paxton's Palace was a waste of a remarkable piece of design. The trouble was, what to do with it? It could hardly stay in Hyde Park. In 1852 the House of Commons finally decreed that it had to go, and shortly afterward the Crystal Palace Company formed, with Paxton's enthusiastic involvement, using subscriptions from investors to buy the Crystal Palace for 70,000 pounds cash in hand. It was moved to Sydenham Hill in Norwood, south London; a prodigious effort, when you consider all the panes of glass that had to be carefully removed and transported by teams of horses, unbroken, to their new home. Construction began in August 1852, and took two years to complete. This version of the Palace was considerably larger and taller - three storeys at its highest point - than the original, containing nearly twice as much space, using twice as much glass. Probably also twice as many leaks; no technology available at the time could make this massive greenhouse totally waterproof.

This time the intent was educational. The Palace's Illustrated Encyclopedia included ten Architectural Courts, each an elaborate reconstruction of ancient buildings and figures, designed according to the most modern - in 1854 - archaeological studies. Visit Pompei, or the Alhambra, the gorgeously decorated Temple of Karnac, or gothic Medieval splendor. When you're tired of that, see 33 examples of extinct animals, displayed as they would have been in life; but not dinosaurs, as they hadn't been discovered yet. Or visit the tropical animal display, with its jolly hippopotamus. Then of course there are Paxton's magnificent gardens. Any illustration of the Palace you care to look at is ablaze with greenery, hanging from every possible protrusion, or extending overhead. When you're tired of that buy a shawl, a memento, or even a piano, from one of the Palace's many vendors. Or admire some of the nude statues that the Church is in such an uproar about, panicked lest the public be ruined forever by seeing genitals on display. Visit one of Paxton's artificial lakes, reservoirs, rivers, cascades or fountains, all elaborately designed and operated via his Grand System, so elaborate and consuming it needed two massive water towers to function.

The biggest problem the Palace had was how to turn a profit. It was intended to be educational, but there's no money in that, and a building as large and elaborate as the Palace eats money morning, noon and night. Soon the Palace became known more for its special attractions and displays, like the Forester's Fetes that brought in tens of thousands to play at being Robin Hood's merry band, or conjurers, Punch and Judy, tightrope walkers, balloonists, cat shows, dog shows, wild menageries, and of course, music. This is an age before the Albert Hall, and the Palace became the preeminent venue for the largest concerts imaginable: the first performances in England of composers like Schubert and Handel, Schiller and Mendelssohn.     

But even then the Palace could not recoup enough money from ticket sales to pay off its debts. One of its biggest problems when it began was that it could not open on the Sabbath; the Lord's Day Observance Society forbade it, though many working people were busy six days in the week and could only attend on Sunday. The Palace overcame this obstacle in 1861, but by then it was more of a downmarket attraction, and its appeal began to fade. In 1911 its management finally declared bankruptcy. In 1914 the Earl of Plymouth bought it, to save it from developers, and it was eventually bought from the Earl by subscription, to save it for the nation. From 1920 onwards it was run by a board of trustees who restored it as best they could and opened it to the public again, with fireworks displays each Thursday. The Palace began to make a modest profit.

Then, in 1936, it caught fire. This had happened once before in 1866, destroying some of the architectural displays and the display of tropical animals; the hippo shrank like a well-roasted sausage. Insurance had been insufficient to cover the loss then, and that was only a relatively small portion of the Palace. In November 1936 the efforts of 400 firemen weren't enough to save the building; it was stuffed full of flammable materials, including old, dry wooden floors, and went up like the largest Bonfire Night in British history. Over 100,000 people came to watch. There was never any prospect of rebuilding it; it was grossly under-insured.

One of the enduring ghost stories that grew up around the Palace was the haunted train, full of long-dead passengers. The original is based on the pneumatic railway, built in 1864 as an experiment to prove the utility of an air-powered rail system. The pneumatic rail ran about 600 yards through the Park and cost  sixpence per journey. It was only in operation for a few months in 1864 before it shut down; remnants of the tunnel were found in 1992. In the 1930s a popular urban legend grew up around a woman's claim that she'd seen an abandoned carriage in the by then long-lost pneumatic tunnels, full of dessicated skeletons dressed in Victorian clothing. This ghost train later relocated, in popular imagination, to the Crystal Palace (High Level) railway station. This station opened in 1865 to service Crystal Palace traffic, but when the Palace burnt down people stopped using it. It was bombed during the war and temporarily closed, but didn't finally shut down until 1954. The ghost carriage was initially supposed to be Victorian, but local retelling now has it that the train was entombed there, with its passengers, during a tunnel collapse.     

Now, what does this mean for the Keepers out there?

The Bookhounds potential is easy to spot. The Palace is still there until 1936; the protagonists can visit it, explore it, wander in its gardens and gawp at its displays. Keepers using Megapolisomancy might make the architectural displays Megapolisomantic instruction manuals, models built in plaster by Victorian savants to instruct the sorcerers of the future how best to attune themselves to the workings of the city. The Palace itself might be one gigantic Megapolisomantic lever, or be inhabited by a paramental entity. Or perhaps one of the many different festivals and fetes might have something of interest to a bookseller, perhaps even be a book festival, like the famous Frankfurt Fair. Or the Palace could be the venue for a chase scene or similar; imagine running for your life through the gloomy Palace at night, with the Thursday fireworks outside going off like cannons. The great 1936 Fire could be the climax to the adventure, with the characters desperately trying to survive or pull something from the rubble while the impotent firefighters try their best to contain the blaze.

Night's Black Agents has at least two possible ways in. The first is via the Dracula Dossier, since it covers the period; it might even be good to stage a flashback scenario set while the Palace is still standing. Perhaps Dracula hid something at the Palace in the 1890s that he now wants to retrieve in the 1970s. The BBC stages an unsuccessful archaeological dig to find the pneumatic train tunnel in the 1970s; maybe it was getting too close to the truth, until Dracula threw a spanner in the works. However even without the Dossier there's still another obvious way in, and that's via the tunnels beneath the Palace.

Nobody really knows what happened to the pneumatic railway tunnel; it was probably destroyed by subsequent building works, but suppose for a moment that it survived. During the Second World War Crystal Palace became a hub for the manufacture of high tech equipment, while the underground tunnels nearby were used as bomb shelters. Suppose the pneumatic rail tunnel was requisitioned by the War Ministry for secret works, perhaps an underground manufacturing plant, a mission planning hub, or storage facility. The Government rarely gives things back once it takes them, and the intelligence services might have found an underground bolt-hole in South London useful after the war, again as a storage facility or manufacturing plant. Fast forward to the present day and it might as easily be abandoned as in use, but even if it has been abandoned Cold Warriors will remember it's there, and perhaps convert it for their own purposes.

Assuming it's a cold locale, then the tunnels are stuffed full of old tech and files from the war and beyond, up to about 1970-something when the project was abandoned for good. Among the aging machinery might be some Second World War era vampire hunting tools, or records of some very peculiar SOE missions. It might even be home to a deranged vampire or Renfield, who still thinks the war's on and is doing his best to bash the Boche from what he believes is the last bolthole in an occupied, bombed-out London.

A hot locale might be a privately run Tiger team, using it as a base of operations to monitor communications traffic, or to defend important installations at Canary Wharf, or even to infiltrate those same installations. Who knows who's really paying those hackers, and what the hackers' mission might be? Or it could be an off-the-books interrogation zone, with facilities fit to hold even the most difficult supernatural 'clients'. 'Sixpence to see the Palace' could become intel slang for the last trip a bloodsucker will ever take; but who's funding this little deathtrap, and for what purpose?

The Esoterrorists would go straight for that haunted train. It's the perfect excuse for all kinds of horror plots; for instance, the schemers could set it up so that schoolchildren's tales make it real, or that the dead aboard the train are coming back to seek the blood, or flesh, of the living. Though the High Level shut down the subway's still there, and is a Grade II listed structure, only occasionally open to visitors. It could be the perfect breeding ground for an Esoterrorist scheme. Maybe the terrorists are trying to create a new kind of monster, using the train as a template, which they'll send off into the underground network via the tunnels. Or the plot could have something to do with the parkland above, left vacant since the 1936 fire. All kinds of developers have stepped forward over the years with one scheme or another. Maybe the Esoterrorists see this as the perfect opportunity to build a Crystal Palace of their own, designed to collect and store the psychic energy they need to carry on their work.    

That's it for now! I hope you find this useful. Enjoy!

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