Londoners delight in urban myths: Where is Lord Lucan; Did they buy the right ‘London’ Bridge; How much do cabbies earn.
But one myth is so neat it might actually have a ring of truth – The Pink Russian Tank called Stompie.
On a scrubby triangle of land a stone’s throw from the Bricklayer’s Arms quietly acquiring a patina of graffiti stands a Russian T34 tank.
[R]eputedly the tank was once used to defend Leonid Brezhnev’s social utopia against all odds in the Czechoslovakian Prague Spring students uprising in 1968. Once the vehicle’s useful life squashing protestors was over, in 1995 it was transported to London to feature in a modern day adaption of Richard III.
After Ian McKellen had cried “My Kingdom for a horse” (or in this case “kingdom for a tank”) the T34 tank ended languishing in a scrap dealers yard.
In 1995 for the princely sum of £7,000 the T34 was then brought by colourful character and developer Russell Gray who had lost his battle with Southwark Council to build some flats, not on Bosworth Field but a parcel of wasteland at the junction of Pages Walk and Mandela Way.
Gray bought the tank for his 7-year-old son (who wants Action Man when you can play with a real killing machine) and then successfully obtained planning permission to site a ‘tank’ upon the disputed land.
Folklore has it that Southwark Council assumed ‘tank’ was a vessel that would contain liquid of the septic variety. Gray sited the T34 tank with the barrel aimed resolutely at his nemesis, Southwark Council Offices, and named it Stompie. This was in memory of Stompie Moekatsi an ANC activist killed by Winnie Mandela’s bodyguards in 1988 after they suspected him of being an apartheid government informer, an inspired choice given its location at the end of Mandela Way.
In 2002 Gray was persuaded by artist Aleksandra Mir to have Stompie painted pink, maybe his son, now 14-years-old had grown tired of his toy. The choice of colour was reminiscent of an earlier event.
In Prague a Soviet war memorial in the shape of a tank [pictured right] commemorating the liberation of Poland from the Nazis symbolised for the local populace the tanks that were used to quash the student uprising – and Stompie’s finest hour.
Czech sculptor David Cerny painted the Prague monument pink. The Soviets who regarded this as an affront to their masculinity repainted it three days later to green. Ten days passed before political activists repainted it pink. Another green coat was applied by the authorities and that was soon repainted pink. Eventually the government realised they were fighting a losing battle and to save face replaced the tank with a fountain.
Since his pink period Stompie has been painted in a variety of colours including those of a Chicago cab, but now he languishes in a kaleidoscope of graffiti.
Apartheid iconography, cold war museum piece, symbol of a planning dispute, urban joke, movie extra, birthday present, Stompie lies in a forgotten field that is forever Prague. Now if you believe Chris Lawson it is one of London’s 10 quirky places.