Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Simon says by Ian Walker (New Society 3 January 1980)

Regular readers of the blog will know that I have a longstanding admiration for the late Ian Walker. A campaigning journalist for The Leveller, New Society, The Observer and the Daily Mirror from the late 70s up until the late 80s, Walker combined radical politics with a wonderfully fluid writing style. (Sadly, the two don't always go hand in hand.).
Thanks to SJW, I have been able to secure photocopies of a number of Ian Walker's articles from his time at New Society and, over the coming months, I'll be posting these articles on the net at regular intervals if and when time allows.
I guess I could do the sensible thing and post the articles in chronological order, but as it's my blog, it's my rules, and I'll be posting them in the sequence in which they've caught my eye.
First up is an article from January 1980 about the National Front in Hackney.
Simon says by Ian Walker

The Greek woman who opened the door looked scared. She looked scared because she knows that the man who lives above her was a National Front infiltrator. She knows the Front know where he lives. She has been told to expect, one night, a knock on the door from men out for revenge.

Simon Read, that is his pseudonym, has told her all this. He also told a public inquiry in Hackney, on 12 December, that he worked as a night guard at Excalibur House in the East End. NF Properties claim that this premises is used solely for printing and business purposes. Its opponents claim it is the national HQ of the National Front. The inquiry resumes on Monday. Under art deco light fittings in the town hall's main chamber, the inquiry is presided over by Inspector Kealey from the Department of the Environment, his voice as neatly clipped as his moustache. He is fighting a rearguard action against the intrusion of politics into legal argument. As far as he is concerned, the inquiry is taking place in response to appeals against enforcement notices served by Hackney borough council in May 1979. It is a planning issue under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1971. The inspector must keep the chambers clean of ideology.

Gerard McMorrow, a systems designer at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, is giving evidence on behalf of Hackney trades council, of which he is chairman. His argument is that the use of Excalibur House by the Front is contrary to the council's policy of encouraging employment opportunities; that the presence of the NF will lead to frequent political clashes which will be a disincentive to firms who might otherwise have set up in Hackney; and that the racist nature of the Front will discourage black workers from seeking jobs in the area.

Cross-examined by Anthony Reed-Herbert, the lawyer representing the Front, and himself a member of the party, McMorrow becomes more emotional: "People are frightened in south Hackney."

"And they're frightened of being mugged too, by blacks, if you want to bring politics into it," shouts out Derrick Day, the NF activist, in a brown crumpled mac, sitting behind his lawyer.

The witness after Gerard McMorrow is Abdul Noor, an executive member of the Bangladesh Youth Movement for Equal Rights. "What is your form of oath?" the inspector asks him. "I mean, what is your religion?" Abdul replies he is a Moslem; he has to swear by Allah.

When he starts reading his statement, the inspector frowns, and Michael Gettleson, the second lawyer for the Front (but not himself a party member), screws up his face, "I simply can't understand him." Gettleson says he would prefer a translator and the inspector agrees. But Richard Allfrey, one of the opposing lawyers, explains that Abdul has to be back at work after lunch. When this humiliation of Abdul Noor has been completed, the difficulty is resolved by Allfrey reading out the statement for him.

It describes how Abdul was beaten up by four white skinheads who came out of Excalibur House one night while he was walking home from work. He lost consciousness, and was picked up by an Asian minicab driver. Abdul has moved to a job in Whitechapel, where he feels safer.

When a young black called Edward Shaw sits behind the witness desk, the inspector does not realise the significance of his Babylon hat. Mistaking his light-skinned appearance for that of an Asian, he asks if he is a Moslem. "No."

"Well, what is your religion?"

"Rastafarian."

"Oh," replies the inspector. "I, er, don't think we have an oath for, er . . . " Stephen Sedley, the lawyer representing Hackney Council for Racial Equality, stands up smiling - though it is not that funny - and says, "You have power to issue an affirmation which is binding in all circumstances, sir."

Shaw recounts the harassment he suffered digging up the road at Great Eastern Street, where he was working for two and a half weeks: spat at, called a "nigger bastard," stones thrown. Every morning he had to clear out the rubbish which had been tipped overnight into the hole he was digging. "But this could happen anywhere, couldn't it?" asks the inspector. What does he know?

Derrick Day did not know that Simon Read was going to be a witness at the inquiry. When Simon worked as a night guard at Excalibur House, he got quite friendly with Day. He used to get Day cheap cuts of meat from the kitchen where Simon works as a chef. Day even invited him round for tea once to his bottom floor flat on a Hoxton council estate. Day's wife said that Simon looked like a communist, and Day laughed.

After lunch, Simon Day, in a grey suit and Excalibur House tie, gives his evidence. "My political beliefs are that I am an anarchist, and I am not formally a member of any political party other than the National Front." The inspector frowns. This has been a puzzling day.

Simon goes on to explain that he joined the NF in August 1978 in order to provide the Anti-Nazi League with information about Front activities. From December 1978 to June 1979 he attended every meeting, demonstration and local leafleting session. He became a national steward, and spoke at the Front's annual conference. He describes Excalibur House:

"The ground floor consists of a 'security box,' which is a tiny room by the front door. There is a small bench for security staff, and a telephone which I remember had a list of numbers by it, including that of Centerprise [a radical bookshop in Hackney], the SWP [Socialist Workers Party], 10 Downing Street, and various radio phone-in programmes. Stacked in the corner, under the window, there was a pile of weapons, including wooden clubs and iron bars. A wooden pickaxe handle had something written on it in ballpoint pen. I think it said 'Jew beater'."

Simon rummaged round the office of the Front secretary, Martin Webster, on the second floor, he says, and found a letter on top of his filing tray from a National Front infiltrator in a left-wing caucus of the National Union of Mineworkers. Derrick Day yawns extravagantly. He attempts to read his paper and is scolded for so doing by the inspector. "Sorry, sir," says Day, folding up his Telegraph.

Simon has met Reed-Herbert, the Front lawyer a number of times. This becomes clear during the cross-examination, when Reed-Herbert says that the second and third floors of the "appeal premises" are used by a subsidiary of NF Properties for storing ties and shirts. "That's absolute rubbish," Simon replies. "They never stored anything there. If there had've been ties there, I'd have nicked them . . . Actually I'm wearing an Excalibur House tie, which you yourself sold to me, if you remember."

The only time Inspector Kealey intervenes in these exchanges is when Reed-Herbert alludes to Simon's arrest on the night of 21 June. He was carrying a bag which contained a tube of superglue, a bottle of concentrated acid and a crowbar. He was charged with intent to cause criminal damage. The case comes up later this year.

Just two days later, on a Thursday night, I'm sitting in the living room of the first-floor flat Simon shares with his girl friend, Karen, drinking coffee. He is now wearing a combat jacket; he says he's always "had a fetish about them." It is "amazingly easy," he reckons, to infiltrate the Front. "I'd got steel-capped boots and things; kept my mouth hanging open . . . They never talk about politics really. It's just racist abuse."

Simon, a middle class grammar school boy with a lower second in political philosophy, has a strange admiration for Derrick Day. "He's got a tremendous appeal. People talk about his speeches for years afterwards. Well, they're not speeches . . . . but it's effective, immensely emotional." He ranks Day No. 2 in the party, after John Tyndall.

I ask Simon how his view of the NF changed after he'd joined the party. He says that, contrary to left rhetoric, the police hate the Front. "I mean, who gives them trouble on a Saturday night? The left are not the fighting type. I've been on any number of anti-fascist marches, and I've never been kicked around and spat at and really hated like I was when I was with the National Front at Southall, when Blair Peach was killed."

Simon also went in thinking the party was on its last legs. "But I don't believe that now. They are a party in embryo stage. They're establishing an HQ. They even use the word 'cadres.' I think they're going to grow, especially with an Anti-Nazi League demise, media silence, and no violent reaction against them."

He is committed to a violent opposition, thinks that most anti-fascists are wet, and recalls that at Southall he marched in a 30-strong NF column through thousands of protestors and was never touched. "At Southall the only member of the Front who got beat up was an old guy of about 70. About a hundred people beat him up."

I say he seems to have enjoyed the frisson of being a fake fascist, a fake toughnut? "It's a lot more fun than being on ANL picket lines, standing for hours in the rain," he says. "The pickets have a role . . . But I just wanted to be as effective as possible. What was the alternative? An extra one on the picket?"

Karen, his girl friend, adds that Simon has a need for excitement. He grins sheepishly, and says that "when I left the Front I took up parachuting instead."

"When I came out of court," Simon says, "there was an NF photographer there, taking pics and saying, 'I hope you sleep well at night'."

Do you sleep well at night? "I'm afraid so. Yes."

"He's got no imagination, that's his trouble," Karen says. "I do all his worrying for him."

I was scared just sitting for an hour or so on his living room, listening for the crunch of boots up the pavement.
3 January 1980

1 comment:

james said...

Windy time to break wind.