Thursday, 30 April 2015

On Being Nearly Blown Up

I wasn't of course. Not even hurt. Nor even rattled, until a while after the event. But three died, many were injured. There was chaos.

Sixteen years ago today a bomb exploded in the Admiral Duncan pub in Old Compton Street in London's Soho. It was a friend's birthday, and I was waiting for her, and my boyfriend at the time, with her husband in a pub (the Three Greyhounds), just a couple of blocks away. Although it's really not far from the Thames, and can't be far above London's water table, Soho is full of cellars. Some of these are the lower parts of bars and restaurants, shops, and loucher establishments. Some are quite literally cellars - full of beer and other booze for the partying people of that noisiest part of town. On a Friday or Saturday night, the population can rise to 250,000 souls. This was a Friday night.

My only previous experience of bombs was very much at second-hand, from schooldays, when the IRA had bombed the house in which our English teacher lodged. Their target was Sir Michael Havers, attorney-general, and MP for Wimbledon, who also lodged there. Mr Miles woke up covered in broken glass, but arrived at school unscathed, and bearing two bottles of Champagne to celebrate the payout on the insurance. For some time after, if a pupil left his satchel or briefcase unattended on the desk, he would ask in a solemn tone "does that contain a bomb?"

We'd chosen this pub because we intended to head south to Chinatown later (all of two streets away) and it was easy to find, and for Jez, not too gay (unlike the Admiral Duncan). We were standing with our drinks when it happened. The first thing was rather remarkable, which is that we felt the explosion through our feet. That's why I mentioned the cellars. The force reverberated underground just ahead of the sound which burst overground, and laid waste that landmark of gay London, and so many innocent people who were planning, like everyone else, to start a cheerful West End evening there. After the "bang" came the smell. I have to be honest, I don't now remember it, but I have a feeling that if I were to smell it again, the memory would return at once.

Within moments, there were sirens, people rushing to help, people being pushed back from helping, people shouting and general commotion, the mobile telephone lines went down. I remember it happening at 6.29, but the newspapers said 6.34. My watch is rarely slow, but maybe that was when the emergency services got there - there is a fire station in Shaftesbury Avenue, literally a block away. In that astonishing way the British have, police, ambulances, fire officers, had the site under control in no time. There was nothing to do but pick up our drinks and carry on with our evening.

And start to think. A few weeks before there had been a nail bomb - as this proved to be, a vicious, nasty, cowardly, weapon - in Brixton, a part of South London with a high proportion of Afro-Caribbean citizens. Then there had been another just off Brick Lane in the East End, with a similar proportion of citizens of Asian descent. When this bomb went off, we knew who it was for. He'd hit the blacks, then the Asians, next it would either be Golders Green or Soho, the Jews or the gays. Obviously, he hated gay people more than Jewish people. Or maybe we were an easier target.

So, although it didn't harm me, that bomb was personal. The bomber wanted me dead. And all the rest of us in Soho that evening. Gay people and their friends, and those who didn't mind either way.

What can you do in the face of such insane hatred? We finished our drinks, found another pub, waited for our partners, and went out for Yvette's birthday celebration Chinese meal together. Just like we had planned.

You don't forget a night like that. But many others have had to live, bereaved, maimed, or wounded, with its terrible consequences ever since.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
April 2015


  1. As I recall,when that particular pub bomber was caught,he turned out to be nothing more than an individual nutcase who was doing it because he could and wasn't running any kind of campaign. People suffered for his ego and still do. He later claimed not to know it was a 'gay' pub.
    That's no help when you have the feeling they're trying to get you because you're you and what you are and they don't even have the excuse of revenge for anything you've done to them.
    I was staying with a friend in Hove when the Brighton bomb went off. I'd been drinking in the Grand Hotel earlier,when the bomb must have been lurking and waiting. I can't remember if we'd eaten there. Probably not. I do remember we took a taxi home instead of my car and her bike,and we were stranded the next day because the town was cordoned off and I wasn't allowed in to pick up my Morris Traveller with the bike in the back.
    The IRA wanted to kill the government and wouldn't have given a monkey's if we had died with them. We were British and in their Irish eyes deserved to go to Kingdom Come in the name of their spurious cause. Knowing that somebody means you harm for no reason other than the country you're born in, and to no end, is creepy. The intention of the terrorist is to frighten the public. You were right to carry on drinking and I've been in many a hotel bar since then too.

  2. The chap was against the racially inadequate and other "degenerates", so there was nothing random about his campaign. He wanted to generate hatred against minorities and support for extremists. I think he failed. But I'm not sure.