Clapham Common. I'd forgotten how close we are to Brixton, to the junkies,
crackheads, prostitutes, beggars, and religious nuts. I'm on my way to
see a close friend, a last bit of normality before I leave tomorrow, when
the military transport will dip down towards Tirana, dropping steeply
towards the city's twinkling coal-fired lights, banking to avoid the missiles
that could come flashing up at any time. From there we'll take a helicopter,
then the long twisting drive up into the foothills and mountains, past
the ruined Soviet-era factories, bribing the different mafia clans, and
on towards that much-photographed border.
My friend's lived in Brixton for the past few years, drawn to the vibrancy
of the place. I remember first going there, during an evening out at one
of London's biggest gay nightclubs. I'd wandered, amazed, watching the
pills being quaffed, meeting members of the protest/rave community at
a Celtic dub night. It was my first real introduction to a subculture.
My friend's lived in Brixton for the past few years, drawn to the vibrancy of the place. I remember first going there, during an evening out at one of London's biggest gay nightclubs. I'd wandered, amazed, watching the pills being quaffed, meeting members of the protest/rave community at a Celtic dub night. It was my first real introduction to a subculture.
I think my friend was also woefully ignorant about the true face of the area. Not the bars and restaurants, but the crime and mental illness, the drug use and poverty. Houses might be trading for UK 300,000, but it's still an area where some of Europe's poorest citizens live.
It's also the spiritual heart of black Britain, home to many original
West Indian emigres. They started arriving on ships such as the Windrush
after the Second World War, encouraged by the government of the day.
Listen to people like Nick Griffin, and Brixton and the Windrush often
crop up in their conversation. Blacks now make up only about half the
area's population, but the influx of different nationalities continues.
I'm told you can hear over 100 languages being spoken there. The black
and white communities tolerate each other, rub shoulders in the shops
and markets, yet barely mix. Massive race riots tore the place apart in
1981. Everyone's desperate to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Listen to people like Nick Griffin, and Brixton and the Windrush often crop up in their conversation. Blacks now make up only about half the area's population, but the influx of different nationalities continues. I'm told you can hear over 100 languages being spoken there. The black and white communities tolerate each other, rub shoulders in the shops and markets, yet barely mix. Massive race riots tore the place apart in 1981. Everyone's desperate to make sure it doesn't happen again.
The slight-looking figure had been standing there, stick-like, hands thrust deep into the pockets of a blue jacket. A baseball cap hid his features. The twitch of a tiny dreamy smile played above a pale, almost smooth chin.
He appeared to be staring up Clapham Park Avenue. Perhaps following in his mind's eye the journey down through Acre Lane - past the small grocery stores, the Caribbean bakery, minicab firms, takeaways, timber yard, and on past The Hope and Anchor, the newly built supermarket - his surprise a small grunt, on seeing how many white faces pass him.
Down into Brixton. Straight into the heart of hell he's just created.
A crack of thunder peals overhead. I have to pull the hood of my sweatshirt up quickly, as the rain starts to piss down. It soon works itself into a sweat-drenched lather, lashing the hapless Saturday shoppers. I've got to walk the 20 minutes from Clapham yet. Brixton station is closed off. No explanation why. Must be the bloody engineering works again. The foul, tepid air of the Tube is expelled in a constant whoosh, tugging at my clothes, as I struggle past the crowd.
At the corner of the Common, I angle through the 'sheep'. That's a word he would use to describe them. They don't know what he's done. Yet. But they will.
'You can't go any further, son.' The cop's stern tone might have sounded patronising. Not today, though. His dark-sleeved arm is a firm but gentle barrier. A look of anxiety, perhaps even panic, struggles to surface beneath his professionally set features. 'What...?' I start to ask, but I'm pushed away, others surging around and past me. The policeman is overwhelmed for a moment by the sudden flow, before two colleagues join him in pushing back the crowd.
I double back, behind Lambeth Town Hall and out onto Brixton Hill. I squint, screwing up my eyes to peer through the sheet of rain, willing the scene to focus. I hear sirens, and dark rumbling thunder overhead. It sounds horribly close. The rain drums down hard.
I start walking towards the Tube.
There's a hum, a sort of energy. People are walking up and down Acre Lane, and even here on the Hill, chattering, pointing, looking. The town hall clocktower chimes out. No one even seems to notice.
A helicopter suddenly buzzes overhead, its angry whine left ringing in my ears after it's passed. Christ, it's flying low. Water hits my open eyes. There's another - I can hear, rather than see, the approaching rotors - coming from the direction of the prison. What's going on'
'...omb...' I catch a half-heard snatch of phrase, spoken by a deep Caribbean voice. A group of black youths are running past. It's repeated, then taken up, travelling between the shocked, blanched faces of those stumbling about me.
Slowly, I make my way back towards Brixton High Street, trying to work out what's happening. I wonder if my friend's come out yet. Was she shopping at the time? Have the IRA targeted Brixton for some reason? For the life of me I can't think why. There's no significant military target. All Brixton's famous for is its black population...
A siren shrieks past. A riot van full of cops screeches around the corner, powering towards the police station. Near the crossroads, marked now by a thin stretch of red-and-white tape and a cordon of police bikes, the usual Saturday crowds are absent. To my right, the neon light of the recently renovated Ritzy cinema glows comfortingly.
My gaze is drawn downwards by a sharp crunch beneath my heel. Glass litters the street. Shrapnel of various kinds glints softly. Metal, and something else: red, shredded, torn. Near me, someone's crying. Someone else wipes a thin trail of stale vomit from his ashen face and clothes.
A finger lies in the road.
The TV crackles silently in one corner of the room. On the screen, I see flames licking under the hood of a car, tightly parked in a narrow street. Black smoke curls upwards, drifting past the Victorian buildings. A couple of brown-faced figures run past. Overhead, here in Albania, the sound of helicopters and jets bounces over the city above me.
I remember her face, crying, on that day. They'd only just got her sister into the Tube. The 7-Eleven next door was crowded. People jostling and shoving, muttering obscenities, desperate to buy their papers, drinks, and candy. The usual Brixton crowd; the usual high level of tension.
Then it happened.
An enormous bang, a crash followed by the telltale 'crump' and shockwave. For one small second, she stopped. They all did. But as she later told me, she knew instantly it was a bomb. 'Judy!' she shrieked, hands flying to her mouth, tears already starting to course down her face. 'No!' She turned to her partner, mouth open, her legs beginning to move her away from the counter.
A wave of dust and glass billowed over the street. There was a moment of silence. The teller smiled at her nervously. Then she rushed outside, ignoring the cries of alarm from behind her, thinking the Tube had been targeted. Where her sister had just gone.
'Get out of here, get the fuck out of here!' A plain-clothes cop, stomach rippling out over a flapping shirt, waved his hands furiously at the shocked pedestrians. 'Move! It's a bomb!' screamed another, water streaming over his head and down onto the glinting badge. She was pushed backwards, but could see the station was still untouched. Fifty yards down the road, though, was another story. Wounded shapes, some missing limbs, others with nails sticking from eyes, fingers, and other parts of their bodies, writhed in agony on the ground. Bone protruded from flesh. Nearby, someone stared silently down at his foot. It pointed backwards.
Then the screams started.
Run. That's all she remembers now. A blur. I must have turned up 20 minutes, maybe half an hour later. We missed each other. It wasn't until I returned from the war that we met up again.
Thirty-nine men, women, and children injured. Lives torn apart by a vicious, crude nailbomb, stuck in a holdall, next to an Iceland supermarket. Every year, I'd go back and stare at the small plaque that was later put up to commemorate it, a half-noticed reminder of some sick fantasist's dream.
And now this. A week later, another device, this time in the heart of London's Asian community, Brick Lane. Odd to think how I've ended up in one war, and seem to be watching another back home. Thirteen days of terror. No one knowing where and when the next attack will come.
The TV anchorman is saying that a group calling itself the White Wolves has claimed responsibility. I've never heard of them, but then it could be a C18 cover (I later hear they've claimed it, too). I bet there'll be raids going on all over the country now. If it is a racially inspired campaign, it'll be the first in Britain. The people of Brick Lane are lucky, though. The boot of the car has contained much of the blast (it's a nailbomb, like the Brixton device). Only six people are injured.
I'd talked to Nick [Lowles, editor of anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight] from my mobile as I sat at the airport waiting for my flight out. 'What do you think? Could it be them?' I asked. I was half-joking. Perhaps there'd be some other explanation. Animal-rights extremists, fringe Republicans. 'Dunno yet, too early to say. Might be, though. Good luck,' he added, wishing me a safe journey.
The more I thought about it, even from that first day, the more worried I became that this was linked to people I knew. Had someone from The Beast's [a rival leader of C18] crew finally committed to practice what they so often preached? Maybe we'd been following the wrong people all along - could William Pierce's cold influence have reached across the Atlantic. Could this notorious neo-nazi ideologue, author of The Turner Diaries and inspiration to thousands of extremists across the globe, have helped ignite the first round of a race war?
Six days later, and the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho - London's gay heartland
- dissolves in a flash of light, powder, sulphur, and nails. Three people
are killed, including a pregnant woman, and a further sixty-five injured,
including a friend of my landlord. I watch, silently, on CNN, as beer
trickles down my throat. Only this morning I've seen an entire town crossing
over the border from Kosovo.
I used to use that pub as a meeting point with other journalists. What
the hell's going on?
I used to use that pub as a meeting point with other journalists. What the hell's going on?
'Yeah, they're all down to me. I did them all.'
The 22-year-old spoke the words openly, without surprise, to the two plain-clothes detectives sometime after midnight. Most people had already gone to bed. Cove, a small suburb of the prosperous commuter town of Farnborough, Hampshire was quiet.
David Copeland stood, bare-chested, dressed only in tracksuit trousers. Although he was short, the Flying Squad officers could tell that he worked out. Most surprising was his openness. He didn't seem surprised to see them at all. Behind him, a large Nazi flag was pinned to the wall of the bedsit. A loaded crossbow sat on the bedside table. Unknown to them, explosives and fireworks were wedged in the bottom of his cupboard, tucked into the corner of the tiny room.
'It's him!' the cop exclaimed, looking from the photofit image back to Copeland's face. 'It's him, the bomber.'
When I got back from Albania, the rumour mill was already rife. No one seemed interested in the foreign conflict anymore. Everyone had a pet theory about the man they were calling 'The London Nailbomber'. The tabloids were busy speculating about neo-nazi gangs and terrorist networks. People I'd never heard of were suddenly being quoted as experts. The so-called White Wolves and other (fictitious) organisations were also doling out warnings and claiming responsibility. Some thought it was the work of a mad loner, like the random killings seen more commonly in the US.
Copeland's admission of guilt seemed to suit the Metropolitan Police quite well. 'There is no suggestion at this stage that the arrest is linked in any way to the extreme right-wing groups that have claimed responsibility for these attacks on innocent people,' Assistant Commissioner David Veness said. 'There appears to be no trigger event or specific date that sparked these attacks, which were clearly the responsibility of the same person. The man is not a member of any group that made claims of responsibility for the bombings, nor did he make any of the claims using their name. It is understood he was working alone, for his own motives.'
And that's what most journalists printed.
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