There’s A Bomb
I have never understood why my parents worry so much about overseas travel. They seem to have this view that the UK is safe and that the rest of the world is about to get blown up at any time. This perspective has, of course, hardened since the attacks on the Twin Towers and the emergence of Al Qaida. It has, however, never really been my view. I am fully aware that Britain is often just as violent and at risk of terror attacks as anywhere else. I survived the Handsworth race riots. I lived in London at the height of the IRA bombing campaign. I was at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris when they carried out a controlled explosion on a bag. We were in Manchester in 1996 when the IRA blew up the Arndale Centre (for which we are eternally grateful – it was a dump! We now have a Selfridges and a Harvey Nichols as more than adequate compensation).
I am not sure why my mom and dad hold onto this xenophobic view of the world. Mom is from Warrington, which the IRA bombed to devastating effect in 1993; my dad was working late in Birmingham and was just yards away at the time of the pub bombings in 1974, and was outside Harrods during the bomb attack of 1983. Hmmn, come to think of it, I’ll have to keep a closer eye on my dad. I hope it is just a coincidence. He has never shown any tendency towards Irish republicanism…and I’m not sure that he is the mercenary type. But, it is always the quiet ones…….
Nevertheless, fear of Irish Republicanism and Al Qaida terrorism has led to a couple of notable experiences.
I should start by saying that I am not anti-Irish. I love the place. I love the people. One of the best holidays I ever had was cycling and camping around the southern counties aged 18. There were these two American girls.........The friendliest people you could hope to meet. And, my mother-in-law's maiden name (and we do not have a typical mother/son-in-law relationship - we like each other) is Hoolihan (the origin of the word "hooligan"), first generation immigrants from Ireland.
When the IRA bomb devastated the centre of Manchester in 1996, C and I were living in Alderley Edge. We lived next to “mad V” and Irish lady, who when not with her toy boys, lived alone, and who took regular holidays back to the “old country”. After the bomb, the police immediately sent out a plea for public support in the hunt for the bombers. They said that a typical profile would be a group of young Irish men who would have moved into a suburban area of the city a couple of days before the incident.
Well…….1996 was the time of the European Football Championship in England (we got knocked out by Germany on penalties in the semi-finals…so no change there). V, our neighbour, had gone on holiday but, unusually, left us a note explaining that she would be gone, and, that while she was away, some friends would be staying at her place. Some male Irish friends who were over to watch the football. However, even before the bomb, I had commented to C that these four blokes were the strangest football fans I had ever known because they were never out when the games were on at the Manchester grounds, and were never watching the football when they were next door. We would know. The walls were paper-thin. This was why we moved. In fact, it was because V played “I Want To Know What Love Is”, the Shirley Bassey version, non-stop, for a whole weekend. That is why we moved. I can still hear that bloody tune. Anyhow, C laughed at my suspicions. She pooh poohed my suspicions as obvious racism….until after the bomb.
Fortunately we had a friend who was in the Ant-Terrorist Squad at the time. He took my concerns seriously and a constable on the Manchester team that was investigating interviewed me. They were very interested and put a watch on V and her friends. Indeed, it never did lead to anything. They decided that V and her friends were not the ones they were looking for. But, they could have been, and I felt that I had done my duty by reporting it…….But, I am often (jokingly) derided by C (3rd generation Irish immigrant) and my friends for my anti-Irish racism….but not by my mate in the force!
Then there was the occasion of the on-board bomb on a plane between Manchester and Amsterdam. This was not long after the London bombings of 2005, when fear of Al Qaida was still high. It was another of those oh so typically frustrating journeys to Rotterdam. My plane had been delayed due to a technical fault. There was a lot of hanging around, but, eventually, we boarded. I was sat in the first row behind the business class section. As ever, I was first on board – I am well practised in the art of where to stand on the shuttle bus to be sure to alight before other passengers. As ever, having already checked out the on-board totty (the stewardesses), I paid attention to the talent that might be boarding in the guise of female passengers – I have to explain that this is typical male behaviour and does not mean that I am a pervert or anything – while looking for potential hijackers, bombers and the like. As you do. As I do.
I noticed one obviously African couple get on board. I say obviously African because both of them were in traditional tribal robes and headdress. T his was what had brought them to my attention. That and the fact that the guy was carrying the biggest, squarest, reddest holdall that you had ever seen. He placed it in the over-head lockers in the business class section and went to sit towards the back of the plane. This was not suspicious in itself, as often passengers would leave their luggage at the first possible spot they found in the overheads. No, my suspicions were raised by subsequent events.
The cabin crew carried out the passenger count. They did this three times. An announcement came asking if anyone on board was actually booked on the later flight to Amsterdam (which due to our delay, was scheduled to now leave just 10 minutes later). The announcement was repeated, twice. Eventually they must have cross-referenced the boarding ticket stubs and they identified that the extra passenger on board was, indeed, this African man that I had seen earlier. He was asked to leave. He left. He left without the big, red, square bag in business class……..(at this point, if this was a movie, there would be suitable mood music such as the da da music in Jaws…..)
I was suspicious. I discussed my suspicions with the guy next to me. He was suspicious. I discussed my suspicions with the cabin crew. The stewardess was suspicious. She sent for the captain. The captain was suspicious. The captain checked and a number of us had noticed the man place the bag there when boarding. The captain tried to lift the bag down but as he did the African lady came flying down the plane to explain in pigeon English that the bag was hers and that the man had merely been carrying it for her. Very suspicious.
We were all still suspicious, and a number of passengers around me told the captain that unless the bag was removed that they would leave the plane. The captain went to speak to the air traffic people and, it would seem a security protocol was put into place.
This security protocol seemed to hinge on making sure that if we had a bomb on board, the loss of life and damage to the terminal would be kept to a minimum by moving the plane to a safe area. With us on board. The doors were shut, the engines were started, and, we taxied to a far corner of the airport. Clearly, it was not our potential loss of life or damage to our plane with which the controllers were concerned. The bag was removed to the safety (not) of the galley area with the curtain closed. I hadn’t realised those curtains were bomb proof. I still suspect that they are not. The bag was searched by the captain, and declared to be safe………..
I can look back and smile at the incident now. It is a good dinner party story. Admittedly though, it is not as good a story as Smithy’s. Smithy is the boyfriend of my sister-in-law, Debs. He is a pilot. He once diverted a plane en route from India to Manchester to Germany because of a suspicious package on board. The package turned out to be an embarrassed passenger’s colostomy bag……
You all be careful out there and do it to them before they do it to us.