Gay Times April 09 - Issue 367
Look Back In Anger
Ten years on from the Admiral Duncan bombing, Simon Edge speaks to people who were there and investigates the aftermath
More from Gay Times April 09 - Issue 367
It was Monday evening at the offices of the Pink Paper, and editor Alistair Pegg was short of a ‘splash’ (newspaper jargon for a front-page story) when his news editor came up with a tentative idea. London’s best-known centres of black and Asian population, Brixton and Brick Lane, had been targeted on two successive Saturdays by a nail-bomber. It was only a freak of good fortune that nobody had died, and the fear was that a Jewish area like Golders Green would be next. But what if the bomber struck the gay community?
On the basis of a half-hearted police warning – mailed second-class, it was later alleged – Pegg decided to talk up the possibility. “At the time it just seemed like an interesting angle to cover the story,” he recalls. “It was a different age then, when there wasn’t an all-points security alert for ethnic and minority communities. People weren’t geared up for it at all, and all we thought we were doing was a clever bit of journalistic thinking.”
As he says, this was the pre-9/11 era when bag checks were a rare event and the IRA bombs in London were becoming a distant memory. The manager of The Yard in Soho told the Pink they had already put up a poster warning customers to be vigilant, but one Manchester licensee admitted to the paper: “I thought the bomb attacks were a racist thing. There has been no additional security around here at all to my knowledge.” And Julie Waterson, of the SWP-led Anti-Nazi League, said dismissively: “I’ve never met a Nazi who is gay-friendly, but I really think that being racist is at the top of their agenda right now.”
That was the quote on the front page of the paper, beneath the headline “Gays on fascist bomb alert”, on the fateful evening of Friday 30 April, 1999, when a bomb filled with 1,500 dirty nails exploded in the face of Mark Taylor, manager of the Admiral Duncan pub on Soho’s Old Compton Street, who had noticed a suspicious bag and was investigating it. Taylor survived – he later won a Pride of Britain bravery award – but three of his customers did not: two gay men called Nik Moore and John Light, and their pregnant straight friend Andrea Dykes, who had all come for a drink on their way to see the show Mamma Mia.
Professional photographer Chris Taylor had been taking arty shots of aubergines in Berwick Street market when the bomb went off. “Strangely, I didn’t hear anything,” he says. “It was the cordite smell that first hit me when I came round the corner. I realised something serious was up when I saw all these people running towards me. I could see billowy smoke and I ran towards it with my camera in my hand. I saw wounded people coming out of the Admiral Duncan. I was shaking, but you get a strange adrenaline rush in situations like that, and I was clicking away, not wanting to take the photographs but knowing I had to. It was only when I got to the lab to develop the film that I broke down in tears.”
One of Taylor’s photographs showed Jonathan Cash, the classified ads manager of GT. The Admiral Duncan was his regular Soho hangout, and he was waiting for two friends there to start what looked set to be a glorious Bank Holiday weekend. He later described the moment at 6.37pm when the bomb went off: “The loudest, most alien sound I have ever heard ripped through the pub and smashed into my head. I don’t know how long it went on – a couple of seconds, perhaps – then the most enormous crunch of something structural and solid. I felt no pain, just terror. My eyes were ringing, my nose filled with sulphurous dust and, in the blink of an eye, I saw unrecognisable shapes flying past towards the doors. With the dust and smoke, I could see little more than six inches in front of me. Somehow I was on the floor. Then I heard the screaming. I didn’t make any sound. Or perhaps I did. I can’t remember.”
One of more than 70 injured in the explosion, Cash got off much lighter than some – Dykes’ husband Julian was in a coma for three weeks and several people lost limbs or eyes. But the emotional scarring was deep. “Thankfully, my friends were late that evening, but it meant I was on my own in the pub and I still don’t know anyone else who was there,” he says now. “The experience was lonely and terrifying. I remember when everyone went back to Old Compton Street the week after, I was furious at some of the speeches. Ken Livingstone basically implied it wouldn’t have happened if we still had the Greater London Council, and I thought ‘what am I doing standing here?’ It was all well meant, but it had been put together by someone who hadn’t really been through anything.
“In the following weeks, I got used to the fact that anyone I told about it would say, ‘I know what you mean, I could have been there too if it had been three days earlier’, and I wanted to scream at them, ‘But you weren’t there, and I was!’ Of course they were trying to be nice, but I really resented everyone’s desire to be part of it. If only they knew what being part of it was really like. I had to leave London and I couldn’t work for a year.”
Hours after the bombing, a 22-year-old Jubilee Line worker called David Copeland was arrested at his home in Hampshire. A former member of the BNP who had since joined an even more extreme neo-Nazi group, he had decorated his bedroom walls with Hitlerian insignia and newspaper cuttings on racist attacks. At his trial, it emerged that he had always been tiny for his age, had never had a girlfriend and was terrified of being thought gay – not least because his family had taunted him about it since he was 13. None of this family expressed any remorse and the bomber’s brother was overheard wishing Copeland had used a gun so he could have chosen his targets better. Copeland himself admitted the bombings but tried to avoid a murder sentence by pleading diminished responsibility. The jury rejected this defence and he was sentenced to six life sentences, with a recommendation that he should serve a minimum of 30 years before being considered for parole. Two years ago, a High Court judge upped this tariff to 50 years. He is currently in Broadmoor.
Amid the widespread revulsion at the atrocity, certain elements of society reverted to type. The upmarket media insisted on describing the Admiral Duncan as “popular with homosexuals” (to avoid being sued by any straight people who might have wandered in) while the tabloids called it a “gay haunt”. The supposedly gay-friendly Home Secretary Jack Straw visited both Brick Lane and Brixton, where there were no deaths and few casualties, but did not bother with Soho, merely sending a junior minister. It was left to Prince Charles to show him up by staging his own impromptu visit. Meanwhile Stonewall was inundated with anonymous calls saying the gays had got what they deserved.
But one positive development came out of the bloodshed. After it emerged that Julian Dykes would receive compensation for the death of his wife, but John Light’s partner Gary Partridge would not get anything for his loss, the law was changed to recognise same-sex couples under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Denouncing this move, Tory MP Gerald Howarth said it wouldn’t be long before the Government caved in to demands for homosexual marriages. He was nearly right: in the event we got civil partnership instead. The horrors of the Admiral Duncan were part of the route to that victory.
Ten years on, any plans to mark the anniversary are strictly low key. At the pub itself, where a ceiling sculpture of lights and tangled metal is the first thing that greets customers, the manager is clearly weary of discussing it. As a close friend of David ‘Sinders’ Morley, the barman who survived the blast only to be brutally murdered on the South Bank in 2004, he tells me he needs no lessons in grief, but he is trying to run an entertainment venue not a shrine. From his defensive tone he seems to anticipate criticism and he declines to be quoted directly, which is a shame because he puts across a fair point with great articulacy.
At Kairos, the gay spiritual project which played a prominent role in the aftermath of the bombing, are more forthcoming. “In memory of those who died, and with families who lost loved ones and friends, three cherry trees were planted and grow today in St Anne’s Gardens in Soho,” says chief executive Jane Standing. “Every year since then smaller numbers of people affected by the incident have gone to the gardens and laid flowers. The need for public collective action seems to have gradually reduced as people individually try to achieve closure.
“There have been discussions about what is needed now to mark the fact that 10 years have passed. A number of local organisations, including ourselves, have talked to their various constituents and customers and feel that a low-key and respectful remembering is most appropriate. These acts of violence are random and traumatic. Because there is little care institutionally for LGBT people, the act of remembrance can create trauma for those who have remained quiet and private about their experience.”
On the day itself, St Anne’s Gardens will stay open until 7.30pm for those wishing to pay their respects. The rector of the church will say a few words for families and friends at the time the bomb exploded. But Jonathan Cash will not be there. His way of moving on was to use his compensation to enrol on a Master’s degree in dramatic writing. The play that came out of it, a psychological thriller about a bomber in prison, will be performed as part of the Brighton Festival.
“I didn’t want to become a victim constantly whining about having been in the Admiral Duncan bombing, so this is my way of dealing with the experience,” he says. “Of course I’m nervous about the reactions. One person has even accused me of lying about being there. People affected by the bombing might think that this isn’t their story. But I fully recognise that everyone has different reactions to everything, and I’m not trying to speak for other people. This is simply my way of dealing with what I went through. After all this time, everyone who was affected will have found their own ways too.”
Jonathan Cash’s play The First Domino will be staged at Brighton’s Latest Music Bar from May 19th-23rd.
Words: Simon Edge
Pictures: Chris Taylor