Sunday, May 11, 2014

Meeting Paul Golding of 'Britain First' (in his BNP days)



Between 1998-2004, while researching what was to become my book about far-right organisations worldwide, HOMELAND: Into A World of Hate, plus a BBC drama film for which I was a producer, I met many activists from the far-right British National Party (BNP), among whom was its (then) young publicity officer, Paul Golding.

Today Golding is the front man for Jim Dowson's Britain First, which is seeking to present itself as 'Christian warriors' tackling the 'Muslim threat'. Theirs is a paranoid world, linked to the wider counter-jihad ("Muslims are taking over") movement, which ranges from Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer in the USA, through to the English Defence League and Norwegian killer Anders Breivik in Norway.


Britain First Facebook page: tasteful!
The tiny Britain First has a large social media presence - despite its founder's link to Protestant fundamentalism, Loyalist flag protests in Belfast and anti-abortion extremism - and recently held 'Christian Patrols' in London's East End, which generated a (presumably intended) shock value.

In reality, the party enjoys something of a symbiotic love-in relationship with the Muslim extremist Al-Muhajiroun, of Anjem Choudary, the two groups feeding off each others' extremism (as covered here by VICE).

Today reports drifted in via the party's Facebook page and a newspaper report that it had "invaded" two mosques in Bradford, harassing some confused but peaceful looking Muslim elders. 

Here I will share a short clip from the time I first met Paul Golding, back when he was hero-worshipping BNP leader Nick Griffin and acting as his PR junior. See what you think.

***

Another special day, this one. I’m moving back into English nationalism, to the heart of the “new” BNP, to meet one of Nick Griffin’s up and coming stars. As I surface from the hot breath of the Northern Line, slanting drops smash against the soot-encrusted pillars above. The rush hour mob surges through the rain, a tide of humanity shrouded in black and grey. London Bridge. I like this area of town. Lots of old buildings around here weathered the Blitz. TV and film companies tend to use it as a base for period dramas. A couple of ancient pubs even survive from Dickens’s day.

I’ve called ahead to Paul, telling him when I’m coming. He’s one of Nick Griffin’s wonder boys. Not even 20, and the party’s new director of publicity. The kind of guy Griffin wants me to meet.

On the train, towards the commuter lands of Kent, I gaze at the passing landscape. Mothers with babies, life trundling on around me. There must be hope in this world, I think. Why go through life consumed by angst, or abusing others? I remember a teacher asking us to write an essay about what we’d tell a Martian visiting our society. I knew it was an artificial exercise, but I tried my hardest to explain the world, as I saw it, around me. Now, I’m not sure what I’d say. That 12-year-old was a happier, more innocent person than I am now. What would I tell an outsider about my world? About us? After my travels, I’ve seen how mean, twisted, and introverted we can be. Can we offer no better than these puerile extremes of religion, ethnicity, and political beliefs? Why do fear and hate rule so much of our lives – not just in the warzones I’ve seen, but here, too?

Station names flash past. The first few I recognise – Lewisham, for example, dubbed by some brash estate agent “the new Notting Hill” (it isn’t). Then we trundle through places off the map. Or at least off the Tube map.

A sign for Eltham blurs through the rain, as we judder onwards. The suburb where black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993. Everyone knows it was a racist attack by a white gang. But no-one’s yet been convicted, despite compelling circumstantial evidence. A friend of mine, when he invites me around to his new house in the area, becomes visibly frosty and defensive at my mention of Lawrence, as though I’ve insulted him personally.

I step out at Bexleyheath, on the nondescript borders between London and Kent. No man’s land. It’s deadly quiet. A tiny station, forgotten in the middle of the day. The soul of this place, if it has one, is sunk at the moment in the heart of the city. It’ll come back to life between five and seven, when the workers return.

I take out my mobile and call for directions. “Paul? Nick Ryan, the writer here.” Pause. “Er...You okay?”

“Yeah,” he says. His voice is direct. Not clipped, exactly, but too firm. Maybe my imagination.

I turn around, trying to keep the mobile dry from the pelting rain. “How do I get to your place then?”

The south London accent directs me as I begin to walk up the railway siding. There’s no-one else around. I’m surrounded by houses and parked cars, yet feel alone.

I follow his instructions, holding a thin, tattered umbrella against the battering elements. It turns inside out, and I junk it in a passing bin. The journey takes about 20 minutes at a stiff walk. Over a bridge, the dark Victorian brick stained and immutable. Ancient graffiti speaks of youth long past. Down a long, narrow stretch of road, identical semi-detached houses stretch each side of me. The pebble dash facades feel typical to London: prewar, depressing, drab. The smell of cat shit persists, despite the breeze.

I reach a crossroads and call again. I move over the highway, past a café, a newsagent, and a car accessory shop. Songbirds call out through the streets. I start to relax and notice sycamores lining my path. Is this the kind of place the right is targeting? Seems quite pleasant.



***

I’d noticed how the BNP had finally revamped its web presence, merging its many amateurish sites. Slowly, clear sections appeared: contacts for the media, press releases, articles refuting unfavourable coverage, and links to dozens of other ultra-right groups. It obviously borrowed heavily from nationalist sites abroad, such as the French Mouvement National Républicain. Nick Griffin’s face ended up plastered right across the top.

“Fanks,” says Paul Golding, facing away from me, down towards the screen. From this angle, his still-rounded, baby-faced features are hidden. I’ve just complimented him on his work redesigning the BNP site. His cheeks are flushed, perhaps embarrassed. “I’m still workin’ on it.” His fingers tap furiously, then rest on the scratched surface, grime caked under the nails. “There,” he says contentedly. A Union Jack appears on the screen, and strident, patriotic-sounding classical music thunders away from a stereo. His fingers float over keys again, a quick, intense flurry, then I see a status bar flashing. He leans back.

“Impressive,” I say, half meaning it. “Do it all yourself?”

“Yeah, taught m’self while going to college. Just picked it up really.” He wants to shrug his shoulders in a show of modesty, but seems to suppress the movement. “It weren’t that difficult, like, after a while.” But he seems suspicious, perhaps surprised by my positive comment.

“What do you use?”

“Dreamweaver, and raw HTML.”

I could be talking to any teenager. But there’s something off-centre about his image. As with Griffin, it’s not something you can instantly define.

His crinkled, wavy hair is slicked back and plastered onto his skull. I detect streaks of blonde, deep beneath the gel. A thin mask of acne cream vainly hides swelling spots. From the smell of cheap soap and aftershave, along with crumpled dark trousers – dog’s hairs forming tiny lines of grey over the creases – and polished black shoes, I’d say he’s made an effort to dress up for my arrival. Pity I didn’t do the same.

We settle onto his tattered leather sofa in one corner of the room. A photocopier squats nearby. Net curtains hide all from casual view. I nearly trip over a box file as I sit down. His back remains ramrod straight. Clearly, he’s ill at ease.

I should take him seriously, though. In his native Northend, a little suburb up the road, the BNP gained over 26 percent of the vote in local elections last year. It was a warning shot for the powers that be. A couple more percent, and the party would have been in. Paul’s too young to stand for election yet, but with his conviction and intelligence, he might prove attractive to the voters. I can see his eyes light up when he talks about it. Clearly, it’s going to be an aim of his.

“So, tell me about the problems we’re facing, then, Paul,” I start. “Round here, maybe,” I indicate with a nod of my head. I probably sound patronising and formal. I start to untangle the cord of my recorder. His mouth gapes for a second, momentarily hesitant, then the flow begins.

“I’d say one of the main problems round ‘ere was the asylum seekers. Since the last few years, I’d say. The council’s trying to stick them in, while we’ve still got problems for housing for our own people.” He proudly tells me about a campaign that he helped lead, against converting a disused pub into a temporary hostel. “That was where we really showed how the BNP’s community politics worked, like,” he beams.

References to “the asylum seekers” pepper his conversation. How the government, through the local council, is trying to force hundreds of these people onto the streets of his little homeland. “Our people are just becoming a minority,” he says, in all earnestness. I can see little sign of it when I walk around the area myself.

“The fing about asylum seekers, though, is that they’re not our problem. We shouldn’t ‘ave to deal with it. It’s Tony Blair, and before that the Tories, who did this to us.” It’s interesting, how he reserves his greatest venom for the Conservative Party. “They just talk tough, people like [then-Tory leader William] Hague, in order to get votes. Our people are in danger of becoming a minority,” he repeats, staring straight ahead. I notice a sheen to his skin; grease or sweat.

“So, should we encourage others to go back home?”

“Yeah, but the real issue is to stop them comin’ in, in the first place.”

“Everyone?”

“Well, we could still allow other Europeans in.”

“Why?”

“European culture is the same, basically.”

“Come on, that’s not true,” I answer. “I’ve lived over there. Try telling a Frenchman he’s like a German.” Perhaps I sound too dismissive. His body language shifts; I can sense the barriers coming up.

“It’s true. I’ve been over to France recently, they say the same fing. It don’t matter whether you believe it or not. We do, and I know it’s goin’ on. So do all the people round ‘ere.” His gaze never leaves my face. I keep trying to think of how to make him smile, crack the ice and get to the real bloke beneath.

“What do you believe in, then?” I think quickly. “Am I British, with an Irish dad?”

“Yeah,” he answers, pulling at the collar of his white shirt, which looks newly pressed into service. “Some of my ancestors at some point came from elsewhere, too.” But this was part of the British Isles, he maintains. It reminds me of the Conservative politician Norman Tebbit, telling the well-known black interviewer Darcus Howe that Howe was “British”, not “English”. Even though Howe was raised in a British colony, under an English education system, and – as an English Literature degree holder – was more educated than most white Brits. It didn’t make any difference, said Tebbit. Howe could never be English.

“What about Frank Bruno?” I say, meaning the famous black boxer. “Would he be considered British?”

“Naw,” he replies, steadily.

He talks of “differences”, then mentions “God”. I feel myself freeze inside. I’ve met so many nuts and fanatics who hide behind that name. Perhaps he doesn’t know about or share Nick Griffin’s pagan beliefs. “God made us like we are,” says Paul.

What I realise later, after all my travels, is that I’m dealing with Belief. It doesn’t matter if I can disprove what he’s saying; he still believes it. It’s like religious conviction, or like a Maoist during the Cultural Revolution. Until something comes crashing into that world, or causes the walls to fall down, the converts don’t want to change. The complex and confusing, sometimes tortured personal realities are now slotted into a neat structure.

Paul’s gone to the extremes of that belief. Many of us around him, though, are also taken in, swallowing simplistic platitudes about crime and refugees, or a lack of discipline in kids. That’s what worries me more, as I listen to this young man talk. He really believes what he’s saying.

“What else do we need to put right, then?”

“Crime’s out of control in this present system. We need to bring back capital punishment. The judges are just too soft today. And there should be less degeneracy on TV, too.”

Zeal burns in his comments. At only 19, he’s already concerned about sex and violence – even though, as I point out to him, he’s got several Hollywood action blockbusters lining his video shelf. “Er, yeah, hah…well, apart from them…But ya see what I mean, though, in a general sense, don’tcha?”

“Oh, yes.”

We start talking about the concept of identity. To me this is key, but not just on a national level. When Paul starts saying, “We’ve got to bring back our national identity,” I think he’s missing the point. Perhaps he’s well-intentioned. I’d be wrong if I said he was simply a race hater. There’s a more complex, subtle mix going on here. But identity keeps surfacing in my mind. As he talks deferentially to his girlfriend from a mobile phone, seemingly under-the-thumb to her insistent chatter, I’m reminded how curiously old-fashioned he seems.

He flips open the CD player and pops in the music from the film Gladiator. Russell Crowe’s face sends up a cloud of dust from the top of the machine. Crowe played a violent skinhead in the raw, Aussie film Romper Stomper.  Pointing toward the bookshelves in the far corner of the room, I ask how he feels about National Socialism.

The sheen on his forehead glistens, his eyes remain locked to mine, his temple pulses. “Nah, we’re not National Socialist,” he quips, the deep accent bouncing through his words. “What I am, and you can quote this if you like, is a Patriot. That’s ‘ow I’d describe m’self.”

“What does that mean, exactly?”

“I’m patriotic. I love my country, my people.” He snorts, trying to clear a blocked nose. Taking out a handkerchief, he carefully wipes the side of his nostril, then folds and places the cloth back in a pocket. My foot is drumming up and down. I feel penned in. I wish I had a camera. You should see this, you my friends who laugh so much.

“Yeah, but I’ve seen that kind of patriotism before,” I tell him. “At the hands of Charlie Sargent and the bombs from C18.”

He has an answer for that one, too. “C18,” he says – the “eighteen” becoming “ate’een” – “was set up by the State to destroy the credibility of nationalism.”

“Set up by who?”

“The security services.”

I pause to draw breath, to ask another question, but he slams right on: “It’s like there’re these lobbies, right, that are workin’ to destroy Britain. Right naa, it’s Liberalism. Before that, it was Communism.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, that and global capitalism. Immigration serves those economic interests. The British people di’nt vote for immigration; it was done by The Establishment.” The words, parrot-like from his youthful lips, sound just like Nick Griffin.

He shifts, standing up and walking to the bay windows. “We can see what’s being destroyed. White countries.”

I offer to take him for a fry up and coffee. It’s the least I can do, to thank him for talking to me. As we walk into the clinical little room smelling of cleaning fluid and chips, Paul’s nose wrinkles at the drifting cigarette smoke. He refuses anything but a couple of slices of toast and some baked beans, though I’ve offered to buy him more. I almost feel sorry for him. He seems slightly lost. Not a bad sort really. But then, I reflect, that’s the danger: if I react like this, how will some housewife respond? Probably by voting for him.

I watch him shovel in the beans, slowly, carefully, precise. He’s a curious chap. I kind of like him. Or respect the energy he’s throwing into all this. He tells me about his family in Brixton, his school years, his fiancée. She calls him frequently during our conversation, and he goes all quiet and embarrassed and tries to get rid of her.

“M’granddad was a Communist.” My eyebrows raise. Two ladies chat, oblivious, a constant monotone through which I snatch half-heard pieces of conversation – ”So Dave says ‘e wasn’t seeing ‘er, if that were so, ‘ow come I found this number?” Paul tucks into his beans, studiously picking his way through the sauce, cutting the crusts from pieces of milk-white bread.

There’s a suppressed nervous energy about this young man, an old-fashioned kind of seriousness. Something evident in a fierce, fiery stare he’s locked onto me since I first walked into his house. If I weren’t used to extremists, I’d find it unnerving.

Still, I’m not sure yet what to make of him. His accent reminds me of Steve Sargent. But when I mention C18 he says, vehemently, “We don’t need scum like them.” He’s adamant about that. No, he doesn’t seem the football type, then.

We walk back to his house. I keep swallowing a recurrent piece of phlegm down into my throat. I hack, cough, and excuse myself to go into the bathroom and spit out the detritus. It’s a short walk across the landing, the threadbare, greying carpet scuffing under my feet. The place needs a vacuum. The bathroom itself is another clue: a tip, stinking of piss, foul, wiry hairs stuck to the rim of the toilet and onto the remnants of a bar of soap. A sad, elderly, male atmosphere pervades this place. I know someone else is downstairs, and I can hear a large dog bashing itself against a door.

I return to Paul’s room, where I’ve left my stuff as a sign of trust. He can look into my notes for all I care. I’m making it clear I have nothing to hide, or any undercover intentions. I’m about to ask him a question, but as it frames in my mind, I pause for a split second, struck suddenly by the images on the faded walls around me.

This is Griffin’s new man, who clearly hero-worships his leader. Yet this tumbling, ramshackle, dirty old house seems more like Steve Sargent’s place all the time. Inside this stale, stuffy box, flags smother the walls: a Cross of St George, the dragon of Wales, the Union Jack. Some sort of Viking princess above the bed. Books on the Third Reich and Hitler crowd cheap, whitewashed shelves. David Duke’s work is up there, too. It speaks volumes about identity. Which is ironic, given the name of the magazine Paul helps Griffin edit.

This is a depressing little place. I think of my father, over from Ireland and growing up, three families to one terraced house, in the early Forties. It was never like this.

Paul’s brows draw together, his expression earnest, nervous yet determined. I ask my question: How many members have they got around here? “About 300 sowf-east London,” he answers. He’s a full-time worker for the BNP, he announces, proudly, as if daring me to contradict him. No dole scrounger this one, at least. He has pride. But does it beat too strong in his breast?

By the end of three hours, we’re warming to each other. I’ve a job to do, though, so I push another button. I know where to look now, for these code words. Global capitalism has already been broached: read, moneyed interests, the Jews. “What about old George Bush’s phrase, the New World Order? What does that mean to you?”

“There is a New Wald Order,” he replies. “It’s a developing battle between nationalism on the one ‘and, and internationalism on the uvver.”

“Are you talking about the Jews?” My voice is level, blunt.

“There’s extreme Jews, the Zionists, but I don’t know how much they influence things day to day.” He doesn’t want to talk about it any more. The phone suddenly rings, cutting across the conversation. He chats away for a moment, then turns back to me, a half-smile tentatively forming on his lips.

“ ‘ere, you’ll never guess – you’ll probably think this is a setup – but that was a black bloke, West Indian, said ‘e’d read something about us, and wanted to know if he could join. Did you know we ‘ad an ethnic liaison unit, naa?”

“Get a lot of calls?”

“Quite a few, yeah. You’d be surprised ‘ow many actually. There’s a Turkish bloke, well, ‘alf-Turkish, we’ve already got signed up.” He pauses for a second, thinking how to make this sound good. “I’d say we get two to three calls a week with enquiries like that.”

The conversation peters on for a couple more minutes, then he checks the time and says he has to get back to his work. I ask for one final favour.

“You know Tony Lecomber, your deputy leader guy?”

“Yeah?” he replies.

“Erm, well, I’ve been trying to reach him, and he hasn’t replied to any of my requests for an interview.”

“Oh, I’ll call him now for you, if you like. Do you want me to?”

I lick my lips. “Okay, yeah, thanks.”

Golding cradles the phone against his neck and punches a swift flurry of numbers. After a second, he starts speaking, “Yeah, Tony, it’s Paul. I’ve got someone ‘ere wants to speak wiv you.”

He hands me the receiver.

“Hi, Tony?”

Silence.

“Er, this is Nick Ryan, the journalist doing the book about the extreme right.” I hear an intake of breath. “I’ve interviewed Nick Griffin and quite a few of the others now. Perhaps you’ve heard my name?”

“I don’t talk to journalists.” The voice is flat, a monotone. I imagine some petty bureaucrat sitting at the other end.

“Well, I have got permission from Nick Griffin, and it would be really interesting–”

“I’m busy.”

“Okay, but we don’t have to meet right now. What about in a couple of weeks’ time?”

“I’m always busy.”

“Always?”

“Always.”

My entreaties fall on deaf ears. I gingerly pass the receiver back to Paul and hear an angry bark of words. Paul looks flumoxed.

“Sorry about that,” I say.

“Oh, don’t worry.”

We shake hands and, to my surprise, he agrees to meet again.

The setting sun leaves me in a pensive mood. I’m starting to travel inside the political right. It’s different to everything that’s gone before, at least in my experience. What I don’t realise is just how similar it will become.

[extracted from HOMELAND: Into a World of Hate by Nick Ryan, available on Amazon Kindle]

***

For those interested, here is HOPE not hate's description of Britain First today.

(To report anti-Muslim hatred, please visit @TellMamaUK; to understand the Far Right, @hopenothate is the best source in the UK)

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