So anyway, while I was walking along the Old Kent Road, I spotted this:
Now, the Old Kent Road is not the nicest part of London, it has to be said, but this would appear to be pushing it a little. Has gang warfare levelled up? Is this an innovative solution to car crime? What’s the hip hop scene like around Bermondsey – perhaps some up-and-coming rapper purchased it as an ostentatious display of wealth but didn’t make the big time and thus had to park it up before he could get it diamond-studded?
The tank was parked on a patch of waste ground on the corner of Mandela Way (yes, Only Fools and Horses fans, really) and Pages Walk, surrounded by weeds, wildflowers and litter. A broken wire fence surrounded it, which was basically an invitation as far as I was concerned.
But what was the story? There was no sign or plaque, and everything suggested the tank had been abandoned. But how and why? One does not abandon tanks as a rule. But then, one does not normally have a tank as a rule. I suppose that’s why this area used to be known as the Mystic East. Could this Banksy-style graffiti be a clue?
Perhaps a group of enterprising urban artists had turned this area into a makeshift anti-war monument. But there must have been some kind of official approval – if people don’t notice you parking up a tank, it’s a sign that you live in a dodgy neighbourhood and should consider moving.
So I did a bit of Googling. This is a vehicle with a rather fascinating history. I don’t know one tank from another, but apparently this is a Soviet T-34. These were built from the Second World War up to the end of the 1950s.
The Soviets nicknamed them “pies” due to their shape. They formed the backbone of the Red Army’s infantry for many years and were state-of-the-art at the time of their construction. Field Marshall Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist referred to them as “the finest tanks in the world.” Apparently some have survived in service in China, albeit converted into fire engines. Given that tanks are not known for their speed, I would be curious to know the thought process behind this. Many more have survived as war memorials, in preservation and in use by film companies. In 2006, one was nicked from a memorial parade by protestors in Budapest and used against police.
This particular example has a history that is no less eventful. It saw service in the Prague Spring Revolution putting down student protestors. Following the end of the Cold War, it was sold to a film company, who used it in the slightly bizarro Ian McKellan version of Richard III. After filming, it was sent for scrap, subsequently being bought by a property developer named Russell Gray as a present for his then-seven-year-old son.
At least, that’s Mr Gray’s story – the story told by locals is that Gray bought that patch of wasteland and had intended to build on it, but planning permission was refused. So he parked the tank there as a protest, with its guns pointing at the Council HQ. Another version of events has it that after the initial refusal, he asked if he could put a tank there. The Council, thinking he meant a water tank or septic tank, said that was cool. I find this story a little unlikely, though I’d love it if it were true.
[PARENTHESIS: It’s not the first time that sort of confusion has arisen – the word “tank” as a name for an armoured fighting vehicle on tracks comes from the fact that when the first such devices were delivered to the Western Front in World War I, the official story was that they were water tanks]
Since then, the tank has been subject to the work of many graffiti artists. In 2002, it was painted pink by Cubitt Artists in tribute to a 1968 prank by anonymous artists – the Soviet government mounted the tank on a plinth in Prague to commemorate the glorious crushing of the uprising in which this very example took part. The artists, not really seeing it from the government’s point of view, decided to camp it up a bit.
At the present time, it wears a yellow taxicab-style livery as applied by Graffiti4Hire, an organisation I cannot endorse due to its insistence on using the number 4 in place of the word for. The name “RUDY” has since been painted on its turret, presumably by local Eastern Europeans. Rudy was the name of a tank appearing in the popular Polish TV series Four Tank Men and a Dog (Czterej pancerni i pies).
The tank is locally known as Stompie. Cute.