Will Self: PsychoGeography #116

The Buncefield incident

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We're always keen to welcome new talent in this column, so it's with great enthusiasm that we introduce to you a great big black cloud of hydrocarbons floating over southern England. Black Cloud - as we'll call it for convenience - first appeared on the morning of Sunday 11 December 2005. My friend Louisa was staying about two miles from Hemel Hempstead when at 6am she was awoken by an earth-shattering explosion: "The whole house shook on its foundations, some of the windows broke. Naturally our first assumption was that this was a terrorist attack, but when we turned on the TV we discovered that this oil depot had caught fire."

The Buncefield Oil Depot to be precise. Crazy name, crazy great inland lagoon of highly inflammable petrol and aviation fuel. I find the name itself highly suggestive, "bunce" being City traders' slang for the money they cream off the top of a deal. So a field of bunce suggests a veritable patina of profit dirtying every living thing. Still, I doubt it's an image that will appeal to the residents of Leverstock Green, who had to be evacuated from their homes as the huge death's head of smoke wobbled up into the sky.

Over the next couple of days while the fire burnt itself out we were treated to a magnificent photo shoot of Black Cloud as it struck various attitudes above the land: Black Cloud boiling and bloody in the immediate vicinity of the burning tanks; Black Cloud lowering and minatory over the bog-standard 1960s semis surrounding the depot; Black Cloud seen from a helicopter at 5,000ft. Eventually we were able to see a satellite image of Black Cloud hanging over the entire southern half of Britain, a filthy aorta beating in the heart of our green and unpleasant land.

In a year that has been marked by some really exciting disasters, both manmade and natural (although this is, in my view, a specious distinction), it's a great thrill to welcome the greatest explosion in peacetime Europe. It took 150 firefighters using 32,000 litres of water every minute to put out the blaze, while they blanketed the storage tanks with a winter wonderland of chemical foam. Up in Black Cloud itself were the equivalent of 25 per cent of a single day's hydrocarbon emissions in the UK.

Of course, put like that it doesn't sound so impressive after all. I mean to say, the spectacle of health official after environmental wonk popping up on our television screens to warn us of the coming sooty Armageddon, acquired a certain risible character when the camera cut away to reveal the Hemel Hempsteaders still tootling about in their hydrocarbon-emitting bumper cars immediately beneath the Black Cloud itself.

On the Friday after the explosion at the depot, I couldn't resist going to have a look at Black Cloud's theatre of operations. I told my brother I was taking him on a "mystery walk" in the London environs, and conducted him on to the train at Euston while he averted his eyes from the signboards. Detraining at Apsley I told him our destination and we walked on companionably, siblings united in absurdity. It was a perfect sunny winter's day, and not until we were within a stone's chuck of the BP Building which marked the southern edge of the "control zone" could we smell the rankest of the rank, but the patina of profit was nowhere to be seen.

The cops at the first barricade waved us nonchalantly on after I'd engaged them in a lengthy boring about maps and logistics. At the next roundabout the roadway was surfaced with the industrial linguini of flattened hosepipe. There were many emergency services vehicles a-flashing. A car load of coppers started tootling towards us. "We'll walk towards them," I told my brother, "that way they won't get narked." I flipped my NUJ card and said to the senior officer: "Press, we just wanted to have a look at the site."

"You shouldn't be here at all," he replied.

"Well, we'll just head back the way we came," I said breezily.

"No, you'll have to be escorted from the area. I've had experience of the press," this middle-aged Hertordshire policeman with grey hair and a fluorescent jacket said, as if he were a shape-shifting Ingrid Bergman, "and I've learnt never to trust a single thing you gentlemen say."

"We aren't those kind of press," I wheedled.

"No," my brother put in helpfully. "I work for Country Life."

We left under a black cloud of disapproval, smothered with the foam of shame, and pursued by distinctly porcine bears.

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