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Admiral Duncan bombing: The day my life changed forever

Jonathan Cash April 29, 2009
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On the tenth anniversary of the Admiral Duncan bombing, survivor Jonathan Cash remembers the tragedy.

I had no idea when I left work on the evening of April 30th 1999 that my life was about to change forever.

In fact, there was nothing out of the ordinary about the day and date, except, perhaps, the weather. It was glorious; unseasonably warm for April. It was a Friday night and a bank holiday. The night was full of promise.

I’d arranged to meet two friends in the Admiral Duncan in Soho to have a few drinks as we normally did on a Friday. I was standing sipping my drink, waiting. They were late. I looked around the pub and didn’t recognise anyone I knew. People seemed in good spirits, the sunny bank holiday was pulling in a crowd.

But people had started to notice a bag on the floor and were pointing to it. I saw it and moved a few feet away. London was on high alert. There’d been two bombs the previous weekends – one in Brixton, South London and one in Brick Lane in the east end. Much of the press thought it was a race-hate thing, but the gay press had suggested that a gay bar might be next. Frankly no one knew.

The pub’s manager Mark Taylor bent over the bag to investigate. It was 6.37pm precisely when a bomb filled with fertiliser and hundreds of nails went off in his face.

It was the loudest, most alien noise I have ever heard. It ripped through the building. I really can’t say how long it lasted; a few seconds perhaps. I can’t remember, but there was a crunch of something solid, something structural.

But what I can remember is the acrid smell, the sulphurous dust. My ears were ringing, my eyes were smarting , the dust filled my nose making it hard to breathe. I could see very little in front of me – perhaps five or six inches. Just a moment before familiar shapes from the bar had gone flying towards the open front of the pub.

After the silence people began to scream. I can remember being on the floor, surrounded by debris. And with all the strength in my body, I crawled out of the front of the pub on to Old Compton Street, sitting dazed on the pavement.

The explosion blew a hole in my shoulder. I lost a chunk of my thumb and my hair was burned off in places. I was lucky. Later I learnt that three people had died, dozens were injured and some had lost limbs and had amputations and skin grafts.

How do you get over something like this? Very slowly is the answer. For months after the bombing, I couldn’t leave the house. Eventually I left London and moved to Brighton. I didn’t work for a year. I couldn’t talk about it and that was a very alienating experience. It’s no exaggeration that I stopped living for five years. Moving on for me came when I used some of the compensation money to do an MA in dramatic writing.

The result is a play called The First Domino – my way, if you like, of dealing with what happened and trying to turn an awful negative event in my life into something positive and strong.

The story is a tense psychological thriller about the encounter between a hospital doctor and a convicted bomber, a person filled with hatred, bigotry and intolerance. What I’ve tried to do is look at is how people expect those who are different from them to be and what difference in Britain means these days.

David Copeland bombed Brixton assuming it would be mostly black people he would hurt. But he injured white people too.

He picked Brick Lane because he’d heard it was an Asian market. Apart from being misinformed about the day it was held, he was also woefully ignorant of the fact that, although it would have been full of Asian people, it would have been inundated with black and white shoppers, tourists and sightseers.

Copeland said he hated gays so picked a gay bar. But on that night, just like any night in a gay bar, there were straight people there. One was a pregnant woman having a pre-theatre drink. She was killed alongside her two gay friends, leaving her husband in a coma for weeks.

Britain is no longer polarised, nor are its people. Lives intertwine. Our neighbours, friends and family can be of any different backgrounds. Like the bomber in my play, the David Copelands of this world want us to live in boxes, and keep amongst our own kind. Of course it’s an irrational concept in a diverse country, but then bigotry and intolerance is irrational. That doesn’t stop people buying into it.

One clear memory I have after the bombing is stumbling along Old Compton street and a girl pushing me out of the way so she could get a look at the “puffs”.

Ignorance and intolerance exists in every section of society. Some is frustrating, some insulting, some deadly. All of it, however, needs challenging.

The First Domino by Jonathan Cash will be performed at the Latest Music bar in Brighton from May 19-23 at 7pm as part of the Brighton Festival Fringe. For more information call 01273 687171.

Related topics: England, London

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