Anything to do with death, geography, space, houses, money and lies is bound to be architectural if you look hard enough. And the story of the back-from-the-dead canoeist that has played out over the last week or so has revealed a piece of ingenious and deceptive DIY on a family home.
For those who don’t know, this is the bizarre tale of John Darwin who walked into a central London police station saying he was a missing person. He’d apparently been dead for five years, after going missing while canoeing.
He and his wife Jane have been arrested and the story seems to revolve around life insurances, widow’s pensions and escaping to a new life in Panama. The big question has been where John Darwin had been for those missing years, and on Sunday the News of the World scooped an exclusive about the secret domestic arrangements of the Darwin’s home. What they describe as a ‘tunnel of love’.
“The News of the World was the first paper to see the coffin-shaped doorway which led from the home he shared with wife Anne to his secret hideaway next door.
When family or friends called on “widow” Anne, “dead” John would use the hidden passage to nip into his three-bed bolt hole in the adjoining terrace.”
“The hideaway was found on Thursday as police searched No3, The Cliff, Seaton Carew, Hartlepool. The bolthole was No4.
They were led to the suspicious cupboard in Anne’s bedroom by new owner John Duffield.
He told us: “The police asked if there were any passageways between the houses so I looked at the master bedroom. There were gasps as I eased away a piece of shaped hardboard, painted to look like the back of the cupboard.
“But when it came off it was just glued to the breeze blocks which had been hastily put up with cement all over the place.”
The doorway was blocked up before the Darwins sold No4 in March prior to fleeing to Panama.”
The NOTW describes some ingenious architectural detailing:
“Anne, 55, claims he showed up at their home 11 months later and they constructed the tunnel to his bolt hole. The coffin-shaped doorway framed by painted skirting board in the sickly green bedroom is not the only eerie feature of the ???295,000 house overlooking the North Sea.
Beneath a section of carpet is a cement floor, laid so John would not creak floorboards as he flitted between No3 and No4.”
This DIY passage between ‘life’ and ‘death’, between one identity and another, is in a grand architectural tradition. Passageways in the Pyramids are about links between life, death and the afterworld. In fiction secret passages often dramatise the difference between ‘this place’ and ‘that place’ – think of Sweeny Todd’s trapdoor (the invisible gateway between seemingly innocent barbers shop and gruesome murderous human pie factory). In Batman, the secret passage separates two aspects of Bruce Waynes psychology – suave society pillar and crime-fighting dark knight. Batman’s passage is activated by red button concealed in a flip-top bronze bust (all great secret passageways should be activated by unusual control, ideally combining electronics and historical artefacts). In Edgar Allen Poes ‘The Cask of Amotillado’, the wall becomes means of separating life from death – wall as murder weapon. And of course, the revolving fireplace, bookshelf or other architectural feature is a staple of horror/crime/comedy genres.
These are stories about the difference between ‘this side’ and ‘that side’. They suggest that buildings are deceptive, that they hold secrets and lie to you. Form follows not function, but felony.