Thomas Heatherwick: Poison-Tipped Umbrella

Thomas Heatherwick: Poison-Tipped Umbrella

What was the sharp pain that George Markov felt in his ankle as he crossed London’s Waterloo Bridge one day? Spoiler: it doesn’t end well for George. Designer Thomas Heatherwick and host Alice Loxton tell the sad tale of a Bulgarian dissident’s encounter with one of the most notorious tools of spycraft.
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Thomas Heatherwick: Poison-Tipped Umbrella

NARRATOR: What ghosts lie hidden in the archives of espionage? What story might an unassuming item yield, when placed under the right light? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects. I want to begin this expedition into the archives with a story. One that will vividly embody the intersection of everyday life, espionage, and cunning design. It begins on September 7th, 1978. London’s chaotic morning rush hour. Amid the thrum of traffic, a continuous stream of commuters make their way north over Waterloo Bridge, hurrying into central London. Above them, a gray sky hangs heavy, threatening rain. It’s a morning that begins exactly like thousands more before and since - but for one man in the crowd, it’s going to end differently. 

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: There was a man called Georgi Markov who was on his way to his work at the BBC in London. 

NARRATOR: George - or, to use his birth name Georgi - Markov. Born in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, Markov had been one of his country’s most controversial novelists, an unapologetic bohemian and frequent victim of state censorship. At the tail end of the 1960s, he fled Bulgaria for Italy before renouncing his nationality altogether and moving to London. There, he found a life working on the Bulgarian desk of the BBC World Service, and broadcasting for Radio Free Europe. By 1978, he has built a reputation as a staunch critic of the authoritarian regimes behind the Iron Curtain - a first-hand witness to the realities that his motherland would rather keep hidden. He has been sentenced, in absentia, to six years in prison for his defection. But here in London, on Waterloo Bridge, he is a long way from the reach of the Bulgarian authorities. Or so he thinks.

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: He suddenly felt this sharp sting in his thigh, apparently. Someone had walked up to him and seemed to have accidentally jabbed an umbrella into the back of the leg. And the man spoke with a foreign accent, apologized, and then jumped into a cab and rushed off. And that was all he remembered.

NARRATOR: A brief pause here, to introduce the man telling you this story.

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: My name is Thomas Heatherwick and I'm a designer and the founder of Heatherwick Studio. We design buildings and public-facing projects mainly all over the world - including buses, and museums, and housing projects, and places where people work.

NARRATOR: Thomas is being modest. His portfolio includes some of the most beautiful and eye-catching works of contemporary architecture in the world from the Seed Cathedral in Shanghai to The Rolling Bridge in London to the 2012 Olympic Cauldron. Perhaps it’s his engagement with the idea of public space that has led Thomas to the story of Georgi Markov, hurrying along Waterloo Bridge, so out in the open - and the item he is offering for inclusion in the archive.

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: The object that I was going to talk about is this Bulgarian umbrella. And it's thought that it was designed by the KGB for Bulgaria's Secret Service. The umbrella we're talking about is your absolute clichéd image of an umbrella folded up. It's black nylon. It's a brown wooden handle. It's got brass fittings and a wooden bit at the very end. If you saw someone walking past you with one of those in a newspaper under their arm, you'd just think it was the most ordinary-looking object in the world. And I suppose that its brilliance is that anyone seeing someone else [carrying it] would be extremely relaxed and not for a moment think that there was a lethal quality that it possessed.

NARRATOR: It’s this very Bulgarian umbrella, so unassuming in appearance, that Georgi Markov is unlucky enough to feel brush against his thigh on this overcast September morning.

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: This umbrella had this special feature that it could shoot a tiny two-millimeter pellet from its tip at close range.

NARRATOR: By the time Georgi arrives at work, there’s a small red bump on his leg. He complains about the incident to his colleagues - the rush hour crowd, the foreign man, the sharp jab of an umbrella - and tries to go about his day. A lingering unease in the pit of his stomach curdles into nausea. By the evening, he’s sick as a dog.

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: And then he was coming down with this terrible fever.

NARRATOR: Markov is rushed to hospital where doctors are puzzled. His insistence that he has been poisoned sounds like the ramblings of a madman. But Markov is not mad.

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: The victim lasted four days and then died. 

NARRATOR: It’s only in the days and weeks after his death - once the facts of Markov’s exile and his status with the Bulgarian authorities surface - that an autopsy is carried out by the Metropolitan Police. Then they discover the tiny pellet lodged in his leg and begin to piece together the fate that has befallen this dissident novelist.

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: The two-millimeter pellet that shot into his leg had been laced with ricin, which is a terrible poison.

NARRATOR: Terrible is an understatement. Four days of writhing, sweating hell, and only one possible outcome. Even if the doctors had identified Ricin as the culprit immediately, it would have made no difference. There was no antidote.

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: I guess the Bulgarian Secret Service is not going to care, really, how somebody dies but the administering of a toxic - [an] awful substance like ricin - is almost crueler than shooting someone with a bullet because this ricin takes hold of the body and takes four days to kill you. So it must be the most awful death, whereas at least a bullet would just end someone's life much quicker. So it's a pretty heartless, callous way to eliminate somebody.

NARRATOR: The man responsible for Georgi Markov’s assassination has never been definitively identified. After he vanished into that black cab, he was gone. Years later, the former KGB General Oleg Kalugin - by now defected to the United States - would claim knowledge of the operation. By his account, a collaboration between the Bulgarian Secret Service and the KGB itself. And, as for the all-important murder weapon?

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: The exact umbrella that was used in London on the bridge was never reclaimed and found. But there is one in the German Spy Museum in Berlin.

NARRATOR: A reconstruction, born out of a cultural fixation on this most particular assassination. Even though some theories argue it was a different weapon altogether that lodged the pellet in Markov’s thigh - the umbrella has stayed vivid in the popular imagination. For Thomas Heatherwick - a designer himself - there’s a terrible allure to an item like the umbrella gun that may have killed Georgi Markov. It might be deceitful, brutal, inhumane but it’s also a powerful testament to human resourcefulness and ingenuity.

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: It's extraordinary what the inventive mind can come up with to solve a problem, even if that problem is not necessarily something that's better for the world, but is something that has this evil purpose. There's still ingenuity, and a precision, and craftsmanship that is fascinating to see.

NARRATOR: I’m Alice Loxton. Join me next week to slip back into the shadows and bring the covert history of another item into the light. If you like this podcast, please give it a five-star rating, or leave a review. Ratings and reviews help other people discover the series and help us bring you more episodes like this one. Or why not forward the podcast to a friend? And thank you for listening!

Guest Bio

Thomas Heatherwick is an English designer and the founder of London-based design practice Heatherwick Studio where he works with a team of more than 200 architects, designers, and artisans.

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