“The power of the crowd is only to destroy” (Gustav Le Bon)
Jim lived in a stuffy cubicle of techno confinement. It was a poky room starved of sunlight and air, but rich in screens, apps and digital discourse.
This was modern London, and he was paying two thousand pounds per calendar month for this six-foot cell of chic imprisonment. The pretty girl at the letting agency had hypnotised him with her hyperbole by describing his street, dominated by betting shops, payday loan-shops and kebab sellers, as a ‘vibrant cosmopolitan residential area’.
He shared the flat, which was above Deluxe Kebabs from where the sickly aroma of processed lamb wafted into his home, with two struggling Eastern European app developers who had failed to conceive their dynamite app and were now doing hand-to-mouth programming jobs and selling ecstasy pills in night-clubs to pay the rent.
It was Sunday evening, and Jim’s hands were welded to his PlayStation console; he was engrossed in a critical phase of game-play on Mission Creep, a complex geopolitical simulator game where the objective was to topple foreign governments by using a wide arsenal of pretexts.
“The use of barrel bombs against civilians is a crime against humanity”, said Brad Omaha, the pixelated president he was controlling in the game. Jim hit the pause play icon as Omaha’s regime-change rhetoric commenced. He’d been gaming for five hours straight and needed a break.
He went into the kitchen, which was as cramped as his room. There were numerous bright, cheaply manufactured domestic appliances which could only be operated via smart-phone apps, which were constantly being upgraded and tinkered with by schools of programmers working by lamp-light in developing countries. However, the code was often faulty, and they went without being able to boil water or cook food for days.
Dimitri and Igor were sitting at the miniature dining table with their phones held aloft, ear-phones lodged in and stupefied faces fixed on the screens. Dimitry was immersed in a new program he was developing while Igor was watching some Baltic porn, with a red-haired woman with enormous breasts stripping to a rap soundtrack with thumping base.
“Hi guys”, said Jim wearily.
Igor and Dimitri turned their heads and grunted in unison. He tapped instructions into his phone for a double cappuccino and was relieved when the device started to make obliging whirring and belching noises.
An abrasive techno ringtone violated the silence, and Jim picked up his smartphone and looked at the caller icon. It was Hugo, his fellow Computer Science graduate and friend who designed games for mobile devices. Jim swiped the accept icon on the screen and Hugo’s wide-eyed, leering face appeared via the Face to Face video chat app.
“Yo” said Jim.
“Hey, what’s up?” shouted Hugo. He was drunk and chemically stimulated. His baggy, lined eyes had a glazed, glossy glint and the fuzz on his cheeks and chin was about seven days old. Work hard and party hard was Hugo’s mantra, and he managed to squeeze as much debauchery as his forty-five thousand pound per annum salary would allow.
“Just chilling out” said Jim, who used the expression habitually, especially when using cannabis.
“See anything good on Find a Flash Mob?” said Hugo, referring to the popular website they depended on to provide their flash-mob ‘experiences’.
“Yeah, did you see that Immolate for Democracy event coming up? It looks well sick. Shall we give it a try?”
Flash-mobs were Hugo and Jim’s fetish. They participated in these digitally contrived social convergences for the thrill. For the buzz. For the atmosphere. For the fleeting amphetamine spark when the stimulations of drugs or PlayStation couldn’t feed the fix. Most of all, they coveted the surge of energy that being part of a breathing, gyrating, sweating mass which thought and acted as one delivered. It exceeded the raves, trance parties and music festivals that ranked second on their list of sense fulfilment preferences. For this reason, they joined the faces in the culled crowds, turned off their minds and waved their hands in the air when the music started.
“It’ll be mad. We could meet some hot girls”, squealed Hugo revealing the pair’s secondary agenda at flash-mobs.
“Yeah!” said Jim, dreaming of the girls he only ever had the nerve to approach at these impromptu performances.
“What do we have to do?” asked Hugo, as his eyes stared wildly, and his tongue lolled out of his mouth like a purple slug.
“Hold on”, said Jim. He went to his laptop and clicked the link to the Immolate for Democracy event on the list of ‘hot events’ on the webpage. This link was surrounded by a collage of mobs. There were people in panda costumes conducting an obscure protest, alongside a wild, frolicking conga of coastal drag queens doing the can-can along a peer.
The link revealed the typical instructions for participants in the up-coming mobs, whether they were learning dance moves, or reciting verses to hundreds of protest chants recycled from the previous century.
Hugo navigated to the page also and they read the instructions together.
Participants will need to bring their own petrol to the event and wearing ragged and highly flammable clothes is advisable. Meeting at Trafalgar Square at noon. There will be a set of dance moves to learn that you can download in PDF from this link. For health and safety reasons, you are not permitted to bring your own ignition apparatus, but lighted tapers will be provided inclusive of the registration fee. Although the event is intended to raise awareness of global oppression and denial of human rights, no chanting containing language that is sexist, discriminatory, racist or intended to incite racial hatred will be tolerated and people violating this rule will be reported to the police.
Jim and Hugo considered the date. “March twenty-first”, said Hugo with his eyes drifting towards the active messaging apps, games in progress and hard-core pornography playing on his desktop. He made a slight adjustment to the block he was moving in a game of Minecraft and then hovered his mouse over the window of a screen where a woman with heavy mascara was writhing on a bed as several shaven-headed, muscular men pleasured her.
“Let’s register for it!” Jim’s face flushed with excitement, while his laconic housemates looked up briefly from their screens across the kitchen, and then continued gazing into their digital mirrors.
Jim and Hugo were coasting through central London in a packed Northern Line tube train surrounded by fellow flash-mobbers en-route to Immolate for Democracy dressed in identical protest uniforms. They carried placards giving fascism, racism and capitalism the f-word and denouncing certain politicians. Most of them were student types with pierced noses, Doctor Martens boots and jackets bearing the communist hammer and sickle motif whose collective passion for a better world was inspired by corporate hashtags flowing down their Facebook feeds.
Jim and Hugo exchanged hopeful glances as they eavesdropped as some attractive banner bearers gossiped about the sex experiences of absent friends, narrated their Glastonbury debauchery, and compared their tequila shot limits. They compared their gap-year travelling plans of the future, the developing countries whose toilet floors they were going to be christening with their educated vomit, and the Twitter feed fashion statements of their favourite reality television celebrities.
“Did you book through Find a Flash Mob?” asked Jim to the girl he had made eye contact with.
“Yeah. It’s great isn’t it?” she replied.
Strangely, flash-mobbers paid online fees to register for their chosen flash-mobs, and QR codes for Immolate for Democracy had been plastered onto the faces of boarded up business and lamp-posts around London for several weeks prior.
“So, are you at uni then?” said Hugo, addressing a girl with shoulder-length hair dyed purple.
“Yeah”, she grinned, adding: “How could you tell?” She said she was studying Gender Studies and Economics at Goldsmiths College. Near the top of her left arm was a tattoo of The Fool card from the tarot.
“And I’m doing Journalism and Film Studies” said her companion urgently, as if the world should stop conducting its business at the significance of the announcement. She was wearing a black t-shirt with Chinese characters written in gold calligraphy.
“Journalism eh? So, you’re going to be famous then?” teased Jim, trying to charm his seduction target.
“I’ve already done work experience at Sky TV. Said I’ve got natural presenter ability, and a good chance of getting on the graduate presenter fast-track programme next year” replied the girl. “Cool!” said Hugo, unable to stop his eyes from roaming over her body
“Came prepared I see”, said Jim looking at the red jerry can beside the ripped jeans of a pierced and heavily tattooed gothic girl.
“And you’ve come prepared too”, replied the news anchor of the future. Jim and Hugo had driven to a Shell garage in Hugo’s Vauxhall Insignia and filled a one-gallon can before getting on the tube.
Throughout the carriage the other mobbers also had their petrol supplies close by. The bottles and containers were in all shapes and sizes, just like the pilgrims making their way to this spectacle of performance art driven by a moral imperative nobody could name. There were middle-aged good-timers, trust-fund hipsters and men dressed in string vests with heavily pierced faces and tattooed eyelids. The smell of petroleum was pungent.
“Phew! Nobody light a match” jested a man with greying hair who looked out of place among this herd of young wildebeest anxious to have their righteous grunts heard.
People close by laughed, and Jim and Hugo begrudged the older man’s comic timing, wishing the girls were appreciating their jokes and nobody else’s.
“What’s this mob about anyway?” said the girl armed with the foolish tattoo and a half completed liberal arts degree.
“Yeah. And what does immolate mean?” asked her companion.
“Hold on. I’ll find it on my phone”, said Hugo as his over-worked forefinger opened his device’s dictionary app.
He paused, and then looked up with a vexed expression.
“Er, bit embarrassing this. How do you spell it?”
“E-m-m-o-l-a-t-e”, said the future news anchor.
Hugo entered the faulty spelling and frowned at the negative search outcome.
“Not here. What a crap dictionary app”, he said.
“Who cares what it means? Once they get the music started all that matters is having a laugh. Right?” said Jim, nudging Hugo, who was pointing his phone’s camera at a black girl, a normal passenger and not a flash-mobber, whose looks had got his attention.
“Yeah. It’s all about having a good time, ladies. You can’t beat the atmosphere of a flash mob eh? Everyone’s watching you and you feel like a star for the day, literally like a celebrity you know. It gives you a buzz”, said Hugo directing his insight into the face of the purple-haired girl.
“If we’re lucky they’ll be TV cameras. I hope so. I want the camera to spot me doing the Time Warp”, said the girl with, clearly confident of her future celebrity credentials.
“No, you’re thinking of the last Rocky Horror Show Infinite Time-Warp flash-mob we did last month”, said the girl in the black t-shirt. “You got so wasted afterwards you can’t remember. It’s different music today, right?” Jim and Hugo were gratified that she was turning to them for confirmation, certain that rapport was developing. So far, Jim had been the most successful in exploiting flash-mobs for sexual benefit by connecting with an outgoing estate agent who’d joined him for a few encounters in his overpriced room but abruptly lost interest, and he couldn’t understand: he’d offered to share his tips for expert game-play on Mission Creep with her. Perhaps Igor and Dimitry had put her off coming around?
“Yeah, I heard they’re going to play Take That’s Re-Light my Fire”, exclaimed Hugo making wavy flame gestures with his hands. His amphetamine cocktail had made him ravenous for attention, and the girls laughed at his display. Jim became more encouraged.
“You hear about Realty TV producers coming to these flash-mobs, you know, to find people like you with big personalities who will make their shows more interesting”, said Jim to the Film Studies undergraduate. She grinned at the compliment and considered calling it cheesy to his face but then decided to share her social media strategy for the day instead.
“I’m going to put everything on my Instagram story”, she said.
“Cool! Are you on Facebook too? I’m Jim by the way”, he said. “And this is Hugo.”
“But just call me Hugh”, said his friend.
“I’ll let you into a secret”, said the purple-haired girl. “We’ve already auditioned for Big Brother and we’re waiting for the call-back.”
“No way!” screamed the boys.
“We were probably too loud and in-your-face for them”, said the black t-shirted girl with phoney pessimism.
“I can see your name up in smoke, I mean light”, said Hugo stopping to correct himself.
The train screeched to a stop at Charing Cross station and Jim, Hugo, the two girls and the other mobbers alighted. They filtered out and formed two columns and moved through the claustrophobic tunnels past the posters for stale musicals that had been stuck in theatres for decades and shows regurgitating Disney animations. One poster advertised We Didn’t Start the Fire: Celebrating 45 Years of the Music of Billy Joel. Commuters shuffling in the opposite direction towards the train barely noticed the ostentatious throng with placards and petrol, with only a few of the non-digitally opiated pedestrians using the London Underground actually frowning at the jerry-cans and registering the fossil-fuel odour.
They emerged into the sunlight of Trafalgar Square, which was flooded with people carried by conflicting currents of intention as some streamed towards the fountain and its enchantment while other clusters drifted away to the streets and the shops with bankrupting prices. The ubiquitous sightseeing buses lumbered around the island like red motorised elephants.
The Immolate for Democracy mob strode towards the centre of the square and were suddenly joined by more people seemingly part of the same event as Duncannon Street fed the square more flash-mobbers as did Pall Mall from the opposite direction and the confluence suddenly swelled the population of the square. They swarmed into the space with their petrol cans, propelled by their collective extrovert energy and need for the buzz.
Jim and Hugo kept close to the girls, but suddenly found their desire for them had become superseded by the desire to perform well and serve the ritual: to feed it the required energy and provide the ‘spark’ when the music began.
The group slickly converged, and assumed, as if by telepathic understanding, a hexagram shape in the centre of the square as grinning bystanders began to murmur their conjectures of the spectacle about to take place. Each member dropped their jerry can onto floor in perfect sync and as the receptacles clattered the opening bars of the nineties boy-band Take That’s cover of Dan Hartman’s Relight my Fire boomed out of large speakers that seemed to have been teleported from nowhere and were positioned on either side of the formation. As the lyrics began, Jim and Hugo, standing in the centre of the star, grinned as they two-stepped and clapped in time with their colleagues. People in the crowd reached for their phones and started filming as onlookers exchanged looks of amusement, clearly looking forward to some conventional entertainment that came with ‘party atmosphere’. Some were intrigued by the petrol cans and questioned their function. Chinese tourists with telescopic selfie-sticks longer than fishing rods stopped their photography marathon of Nelson’s Column and turned their cameras towards the dancers. They laughed and commented how the quaintly eccentric side of British culture was displaying itself.
On one beat the troupe swooped down and picked up their jerry cans, and on another they unscrewed the caps of their containers. On the lyric line You took away the love that I knew they began tipping the pungent petrol over their clothes, soaking themselves until a murky cloud-shaped stain on the pavement surrounded them.
Several people then came out of the crowd—witnesses were later incapable of describing any distinguishing characteristics to the authorities—holding flaming tapers which they handed over to people positioned at the points of the star. Just as the first line of the chorus began, the flame-holders ignited themselves in one coordinated movement. On Relight my Fire an almighty whoosh cancelled out all other sounds as an enormous orange fireball engulfed every one of the flash-mobbers, caressing their torsos as flames several meters high danced and emitted a thick, acrid black smoke into the air.
The thousands of bystanders in Trafalgar Square recoiled from the heat, but then began to cheer. All smartphone lenses were concentrated on the flames and the shapes writhing in agony within the inferno. Fingers tapped and swiped frantically to open short-cuts to Facebook and Instagram to share the ingenious bonfire sure to send Twitter into meltdown as the observers became citizen journalists competing to be the first to broadcast the carnage from their feeds, while the Chinese tourists huddled together for the obligatory we were there photograph complete with dual ‘V for Victory’ hand gestures as the flesh burned and the fire muffled the victims’ screams.
“Help them!” cried an old lady furiously. “Don’t just stand there like bloody sheep!” She gesticulated wildly with her arms and shrieked the exhortation again, before leading by example and heading towards the burning people.
The old woman’s words and deeds jolted many out of the collective stupor paralyzing the gawping crowd. They screamed and covered their mouths as some of the human fireballs staggered in agony towards the central fountain. When they reached it, they fell over the rim and their bodies hissed grotesquely and plumes of steam rose out from the water. Some people jumped on the dying, burning performers or used their clothes to smother the flames. Others waded into the fountain and pulled the extinguished and charred bodies out of the water. A semblance of civic responsibility had returned to some in the crowd, who attempted to save the writhing, burning figures by using whatever was close to hand to smother the ravenous, brutal flames. Others stood frozen and mute while others continued to film developments in the mass, self-inflicted auto-da-fe, running from one lifeless heap of smouldering flesh to the other grasping their phones and panning for the best views. The hundreds of non-burning voyeurs in Trafalgar Square had themselves become a vast flash-mob choreographed by the horror, but its dance was not coordinated, and its rhythm was missing. Sirens blared in the distance, and before they arrived off-duty doctors and nurses shoved their way through the thickening walls of transfixed, rubber-necking spectators, and uniformed people with fire-extinguishers appeared. However, they came too late for Jim and Hugo, whose bodies were burned beyond recognition. Their limbs were contorted, and their skeletal, tar-coloured faces grimaced through the smoke, as though annoyed that this last flash mob had failed to fulfil their expectations. The Film Studies student had somehow survived and was being hauled onto a stretcher when one of the Chinese tourists glimpsed the outline of the character on her half-incinerated t-shirt and gasped when she saw that it was sacrifice. Soon the last of the flames were extinguished by firefighters and emergency services began cordoning off the square. The police arrived in substantial numbers to marshal the jostling, swelling hordes converging on the square to feed their curiosity. As the cacophony of sirens intensified, and the plumes of thickening, sickening smoke dispersed through the streets, on top of his column the deep-set, shadowy eyes of sandstone Lord Nelson watched impassively.
The explosion of coverage across the internet and broadcast news domain implied, at first, that a terrorist attack had taken place. However, after the facts had been collected and it became clear that this had been a voluntary act of collective self-destruction that had no target other than the destroyers themselves, the news narrative mutated and the tragedy was interpreted as the result of a brainwashed suicide cult using fire to end their lives to make a traumatic statement about environmental pollution. However, despite some creative journalism, the claim soon lost credibility as relatives of the dead angrily disputed it and threatened legal recourse. The state kept free counselling available to all affected for months afterwards while the media scavenged for copy among the witnesses and peripheral actors of the event. Hugo and Jim got their posthumous 15 minutes of limelight as tabloids constructed multi-page exclusives from the ashes of their lives and friends eulogized them on Facebook. Crowdfunding paid for their funerals and a famous digital impresario, entrepreneur and TED Talks speaker organised a benefit concert for survivors featuring the victims’ favourite music and allowed the Prodigy to perform Firestarter with the blessing of the family members. The Film-Studies undergraduate had third-degree burns to live with and became a fixture on daytime television talk-shows in which she shared her experiences and described her involvement in fire survivor support groups. She was able to explain many things, except for why she and nearly five-hundred other people had set fire to themselves. “That day’s a blank. I just can’t remember a thing”, she repeated each time holding back tears.
Investigations led nowhere because the Immolate for Democracy link vanished on the day of the burning and www.findaflashmob.com was unable to trace it to anything or anywhere as searches for its IP turned up nothing. Liability was pushed towards the flash mob event website and lawyers for the families pursued various avenues of criminal negligence before beginning legal action in civil courts. Meanwhile, the clamour for answers grew, and the shadowy creators of news began weaving the fabric of a new public paranoia from threads of supposition and ignorance as politicians started calling foreign governments ‘to be held accountable for their diabolical actions.’
Titus Green currently works at a university in mainland China. His short fiction has appeared in a number of online and print journals, including Empty Sink Publishing. Fear of Monkeys, Literally Stories, Stag Hill Literary Journal and others.