Saturday 17 December 1983. The Science Museum basement, London
Not many people – to my knowledge – had seen that basement. Apart from staff. But there wasn’t time for a good look around. There had been a bomb threat and we were being shepherded out at speed.
Little did we know but, not far away, a bomb had exploded outside Harrods killing five people. Ordinary people shopping, on a Saturday afternoon, at one of the world’s most famous department stores. Just a week before Christmas.
Here is how the New York Times reported it:
LONDON, Dec. 17— A car bomb exploded here today in a street crowded with Christmas shoppers outside Harrods, the department store, killing 5 people and wounding 91 others.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the blast, but Scotland Yard officials said they were convinced it was the work of the Irish Republican Army.
The dead lay with the wounded on the rubble-strewn street as the remnants of the explosive-laden car and others caught in the explosion burned fiercely.
Wrapped Gifts Strewn About
Some of the wounded, covered with blood and stunned by the explosion, sat numbly, waiting for help. Distinctive olive-and-gold Harrods shopping bags lay in the gutters, spilling brightly wrapped gifts into the street.
Not far away, in the museum district, we wondered what to do. Some idiots pressed close to the security cordon blocking the street, not thinking what might happen if a bomb did go off.
We decided to head back home.
Home was a flat in southeast London. Not a swanky area. Just a place I could afford to buy, after years spent renting dismal bedrooms in other people’s houses.
But it was mine. And I loved it.
The flat, unusually for London, gave me access to a big back garden shared with the other flats in that converted, Victorian, terraced house.
A huge tree shaded the far end.
Beyond it were three garages. Beyond them a workshop.
In that workshop were many whole and partial washing machines. And Sammy.
Sammy was Irish. And I treated him with extreme politeness.
Just in case.
Just in case he was a terrorist. An active member of the IRA, or the Provisionals.
I hoped he wasn’t, he was a pleasant chap. But he had all the necessary ingredients.
Irish, male, not too old, not too young. Lots of spare mechanical parts – either camouflage or useful – and an out-of-the-way workshop accessible only through our flats or down a cobbled back alley, past a gate.
Also down that alley was a row of garages, one containing a horse. Now and then I’d bump into ‘Fingers’ – so called because of his lack of them on one hand. Fingers was a rag and bone man. The cart pulled by that horse was his working vehicle.
I often saw him, sitting on a straw bale, feeding the horse, talking to it. Or passing the time of day with Sammy.
But daily life in 1980s London – and before it the 1970s – could be tense.
Roads closed for bomb alerts.
Political figures assassinated.
Attacks on ‘soft’ military targets, like musicians giving concerts in public parks.
Constant vigilance on the underground. Occasional evacuation when suspect packages were found.
It was the ordinariness of those last three targets that made wariness an essential way of life.
But in the early ’80s, there was a kind of ‘arrangement’ with the IRA. Code words would be given to confirm that telephoned threats were real, usually giving time – in theory – for police to evacuate areas of civilians.
On the day of this particular Harrods bombing (there have been others) a warning was phoned and received. Other warnings were given, too, for shops elsewhere in London. Stretching the security services and paralysing the city’s commerce.
Members of staff at Harrods were given a code word over the PA system, told to look for suspect parcels inside the store. But the bomb was outside. That’s where people died.
In the worst years of the ‘troubles,’ many innocent people met their ends at the hands of the IRA, but also at the hands of other terrorist groups. And, yes, at the British army’s hands. I’m not on anyone’s side in this except that of the injured and dead innocent.
And the terrorism wasn’t confined to London, of course.
In 1996 a massive bomb was exploded in Manchester city centre by the Provisional IRA.
A warning was received 90 minutes before the blast occurred. This footage, published in 2016 by the Manchester Evening News, shows how touch-and-go it was that day.
Money poured into Manchester for extensive rebuilding – which some say spurred that formerly-smoky industrial city’s recent cultural renaissance.
Then, yesterday, terrorism found Manchester, again.
What we had in Manchester yesterday was a different kind of terrorism. Terrorism twenty-first-century style.
Young girls were having the night of their young lives. The princess of their fairy-tale dreams was live on stage.
Concert over, they were shopping, perhaps, for merchandise, when the bomb went off.
The IRA’s cause was ultimately political, not religious – though religion, to be sure, came into it. I’ll say no more about that, there’s too much on all sides that can offend, hurt, be regarded as sympathetic or offensive to the ‘wrong’ side. Whichever that is.
But this ruthless, callous, cold-hearted man was driven by – what?
A man who thought the lives of young girls – living their dream for one night – were worth nothing.
What religion could condone such a thing?
These are not religious zealots.
These are not human beings.
Terrorism leaves us no choice but to carry on. It’s not being brave, it’s essential.
And we may – we will – feel fear. But evil won’t overcome, unless we let it.
I wish the world was free from terrorism, war and poverty.
But it isn’t. So, let’s all keep on hoping, wishing, voting – and doing what we can.
Just keep on being human.
[The image is Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, now a hotel.]