The story begins on the eve of a three-day weekend, when the newest member of a group of tough young boys who call themselves the Wormsley Common Gang becomes its leader. Mike, who is nine and constantly struggles to conceal how many things he finds surprising, is the only one who finds this change surprising.
“The Destructors” explores the world of a group of young adolescent and pre-adolescent boys. Mike’s character reminds us that the boys in the gang are trying to discard childish innocence in favor of a bold, independent code of behavior respected by their peers (but that they still are children).
A boy named Trevor, whose father used to be an architect but whose parents have lost their position in society, is the gang’s newest member. Usually the boys would make fun of the name Trevor, but instead, because the menacing way he carries himself inspires their respect, they call the new boy “T.” and allow him to enter the group without going through any humiliating process of induction.
The boys disdain the upper class, but see qualities in the higher-class T. that raise him in their esteem. Their code of behavior is meritocratic and values toughness, which T. projects by never trying to please others or apologize for anything. T.’s upper class roots, meanwhile, are important for understanding his character as the story progresses.
The boys gather daily in a parking lot created when bombs destroyed many of the houses that used to stand in the space. Their leader up until the events narrated in the story is a boy named Blackie, who claims to have heard the sound of destruction when the bombs fall even though he would have been too young to remember it. On the edge of the lot, one house that survived the war still stands, although it was damaged and is propped up by wooden struts.
The setting of the story is a public space that was created through the destruction of private spaces (houses) by bombs dropped during the war. This shows that destruction can create new physical realities and in doing so set the stage for a more equal society. Blackie’s claim to remember hearing the destruction symbolizes his claim to have mastery over the present world that that destruction created.
T. surprises the group when he breaks his customary silence to tell them that his father, a former architect, told him that the remaining house was designed by the important English architect Christopher Wren, but Blackie responds to this information with scorn.
Blackie suspects that T. is breaking the group’s code by expressing respect for the tradition of British architecture that goes back to the pre-war time when class differences were of paramount importance.
This house is owned by Mr. Thomas, an elderly, solitary man who used to be a builder and decorator and whom the boys derisively call “Old Misery.” The plumbing has been ruined in his house and he won’t spend the money for the repairs, so he must go outside to use the toilet in an outdoor lavatory. On one occasion, Old Misery looks over the wall at the boys as they play.
Mr. Thomas comes from the pre-war world of rigid class distinctions. He would rather hoard his money than fix his plumbing, because he values his home and money more for what they represent as a material possession suggestive of class status than for their functionality. Looking at the boys, he reminisces about his own youth.
Another day Old Misery sees three of the boys on the common and gives them some chocolates, although he remarks that there may not be enough for all of them. The boys are puzzled by this gesture and a boy named Summers suggests that Old Misery is trying to bribe them, so the boys decide to bounce balls off his house to annoy him.
Old Misery sees giving the boys chocolates as an act of kindness towards a group of poor boys, while the boys assume this gift has ulterior motives. This interaction represents a clash between pre-and post-war class understandings and codes of behavior, in which the post-war boys instinctually view material possessions as corrupting forces designed to maintain the status quo and keep the upper class in power (though the boys themselves probably wouldn’t be able to explain their skepticism in this way).
The next day T. arrives late to the lot, after the rest of the boys have already put an idea for their day’s prank to a vote. They have decided to split into pairs and see who can sneak past the most bus drivers to steal free rides. Blackie interrogates T. about where he has been and it slowly comes out that T. has visited Old Misery and toured the old man’s home. Blackie wants to understand T.’s motives for visiting Old Misery, and thinks that the group may need to ostracize T., if his actions are not worthy of the gang. T. uses the word “beautiful” to describe the house, which puts Blackie in mind of a parody of an upper class man in a top hat that he has seen at a nearby variety show.
The boy’s practice of voting on each day’s activity reflects their belief in a society with a much more egalitarian political and social structure. In this context, Blackie dislikes the idea that T. may be giving respect to things representing pre-war society and its class divisions, especially because of T.’s use of the word “beautiful,” a word that focuses on aesthetics (something only the upper class can afford to think about) rather than functionality. That the word “beautiful” puts Blackie in mind of a parody of a pretentious upper-class gent in a top hat also establishes top hats more generally as symbolizing the obsolete and ineffective upper class in the post-war world.
T. reveals that he has a plan for a prank that will surpass all the gang’s past exploits in daring: he wants to destroy Old Misery’s house while the old man is out of town for the three-day weekend. Blackie raises objections to this plan, saying that they could be sent to prison, but T. assures him they would not steal anything, and Summers interjects that he’s never heard of anyone going to jail for breaking things. T. also says the boys can organize to efficiently get the enormous job of the destruction done. Eventually, the gang puts T.’s plan to a vote and decides to carry it out.
The boys’ code of behavior favors pranks that challenge the traditional in shocking acts of rebellion. This is partially because they are adolescents acting out against the world as they find it. They are all well-aware of the consequences of stealing, and look down upon it as a dishonorable act that subscribes too heavily to belief in the value of things.
Blackie walks away to ruminate on this sudden turn of events: he sees that T. has replaced him as the leader of the gang. At first he considers abandoning the gang entirely, hoping that they will learn that T.’s plan is actually impossible. But then he thinks the plan over and returns to the group, having decided that if the plan proves possible to execute it would burnish the gang’s reputation around London.
Although he is shocked and jealous at T.’s ascension to lead the group, Blackie sees that T.’s proposal involves the kind of bravery, daring and anti-traditional motivation that he must respect, especially if it will add to the status of the group around London. Blackie’s thought process here – in a moment of trauma – reveals that he really does believe in meritocracy, in rewarding and following those who prove themselves successful (as opposed to the old pre-war class system which was based entirely on what class a person was born into).
T., who suddenly seems to be filled with confidence and leadership skill, instructs the boys to bring tools for the destruction the next day. Blackie promises to borrow a sledgehammer from the storage space of some construction workers, while Mike is told to come after he gets out of church and whistle to be let in. Once each boy has his assignment, they disperse, promising to meet the next day.
The boys organize to get the task done, showing that this act of destruction will forge new social bonds within the group. The sledgehammer, which is usually used by construction workers building a house but that Blackie will take to destroy one, also links the processes of creation and destruction.