A fact: Withnail and I is a cult film beloved by bohemian students. A darkly-funny jaunt through the misadventures of two shabby London actors as they navigate dreadful weather, pervy uncles and their drug and alcohol abuse.
Or wait. Is it – contrary to everything we assumed about the film, its director and its stars – basically an argument for conservative, traditionalist values?
In May of last year, at central London's Strand Palace Hotel, alt-right vlogger Colin Robertson – AKA "Millennial Woes" – was giving a talk about the movie, suggesting it is a warning against the decadence of the modern world, longing for a purer time for strong, white, male characters such as Withnail. According to Robertson, the film "violates PC at a subliminal level". You "would not be able to make a film about being English today", he suggests.
Robertson – once described by a Scottish tabloid as a "vile vlogger whose racist rants have made him a global internet sensation" – was doing a sort of Slavoj Žižek-style film analysis, but from a far-right perspective, rather than drawing on Marx and Hegel.
This talk was taking place at the London Forum, which brands itself "the home of the UK alt-right" – and is more than just an ethno-nationalist film club. Speaking on an American far-right podcast, Jeremy "Jez" Bedford-Turner explained why he founded the shadowy neo-Nazi meeting network: "We [the far-right] aimed for the football hooligans, for elements who weren't really into intellectual thinking. I realised this was a mistake… There was a definite need for a leadership cadre, for a new intelligentsia, for a new mass media."
In February of last year, a member of Britain's neo-Nazi intellectual cadre was stuck in the glass revolving-door of a high end west London hotel, surrounded by anti-fascist activists. Peter Rushton – a balding, white-haired man with the air of an elderly academic – munched on a shop-bought wrap as he waited for the attending police to unblock the door so he could listen to a series of anti-Semitic speeches. Anti-fascists stood around looking at him, knocking on the glass and laughing at the "Nazi in a box".
The event, which brought together neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, alt-right students and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, was one of a series of meetings organised by the London Forum.
The network has become one of the organising hubs for the British far-right, attracting the types listed above – as well as former British National Party (BNP) activists and the kind of old men who write books advocating pseudo-scientific racism – for lengthy meetings where they listen to speeches, organise far-right protests, sell books and raise money to support neo-Nazis being repressed by the state.
Access to the meetings is restricted to people who have been vetted through a screening process. Potential attendees have to meet with one of the organisers before being added to email and text message lists. The night before the meetings, attendees are texted a redirection point, generally outside a central London train station. When they arrive they are escorted to the nearby secret venue in groups – a bit like an illegal rave, only for racists rather than crusties.
Some of the most controversial far-right speakers from around the world have addressed Forum meetings. Regular speakers include David Irving, the notorious Holocaust denier; veteran British fascist Richard Edmonds of the National Front (NF); and Alex Davies, one of the founders of banned Nazi terror gang National Action (NA). Talks in the past have been on topics such as "National Socialism and the Green Movement", "Straightening out the White Man’s thinking" and "Was Jesus a Nazi?"
Alison Chabloz, a London Forum attendee, is currently going through the courts for a song she allegedly sang about the Holocaust at one of the events. She denies any criminal wrongdoing.
American Nazi Matthew Heimbach, who has been called "the face of a new generation of white nationalists", was forced to address a meeting via a video recorded in Prague after being denied entry to the UK. Finnish nationalist Kai Murros has addressed Forum meetings twice – once using the opportunity to call for a violent revolution in the UK, which would see gangs of masked and black-clad Nazis storming universities and dragging academics out into the streets.
The London Forum meetings act as a bridge between the UK and American alt-right. Colin "Millennial Woes" Robertson spoke in London, having previously addressed the infamous "Hail Trump" meeting of Richard Spencer's National Policy Institute. Some of the key names in the US alt-right have spoken at Forum meetings. Richard Spencer's flatmate, Jason Reza-Jorjani, from alt-right publisher Arktos Media, has attended, as has Greg Johnson, from Arktos' rivals Counter Currents.
Johnson was inspired by the Forum meetings to import the model to the US, holding similar events in New York and Seattle. When Reza-Jorjani spoke in February, Arktos Media had a large stall, selling books and pamphlets. When launching his New York meetings, Johnson described the Forum network as "the most important organisation in the British nationalist scene after the collapse of the British National Party and the subsequent wave of party fatigue".
The network also acts as a hub for neo-Nazi and far-right street activity in the UK, particularly in London and the South East. Eddy Morrison, the veteran British Nazi who was involved in the founding of the Rock Against Communism scene, has described the Forum meetings as "a great place for cross fertilisation of our shared ideology".
Nearly every neo-Nazi protest in London over the past few years, like the anti-Shomrim protest in 2015 or the Golden Dawn solidarity protests in 2013, can be linked back to Forum meetings. Either the organisers have been regular attendees, speakers at protests have also spoken at Forum meetings, or the majority of attendees have been to Forums.
If someone on the far-right is trying to organise a protest, the Forum meetings give them a networking event they can use to find potential speakers, and an opportunity to drum up interest among potential attendees. One of the organisers of the violent anti-immigration protests in Dover, Paul Prodromou, appears in a video addressing a Forum meeting to explain how he had organised those protests. After Prodromou’s speech, £300 was raised by Forum attendees for the more than 60 far-right activists who were in jail at the time for their involvement in the violence.
There have also been a handful of protests organised directly by Bedford-Turner or other Forum organisers. One was a remembrance event, held in July of 2016, for the victims of a terror attack carried out by Jews who were fighting to create the state of Israel. Another was held outside the German embassy in February of 2017, expressing solidarity with the German far-right NPD party, which was facing a ban.
Bedford-Turner has said his involvement in British nationalism began with the National Front in the 1980s. In 1992, he stood as an NF candidate in a council election in Twickenham, picking up 40 votes. Like many British fascists, he then moved to the BNP. Bedford-Turner himself is currently being prosecuted for the speech he gave at the anti-Shomrim protest in Whitehall. The Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA) reported Bedford-Turner's speech to the police, but the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided not to prosecute, so the CAA launched a judicial review which forced the CPS to reconsider their decision not to prosecute.
Anti-fascists have been targeting the Forum network for years. In January of 2017 a South West Forum meeting near Bristol was attacked by around 40 anti-fascists who smashed windows with rocks and fought with attendees. A meeting in February of 2017 in London was opposed by anti-fascists, who surrounded the entrance and set off smoke bombs. Forum meetings have been cancelled after their venues have been leaked in advance, and are regularly infiltrated by journalists and anti-fascist researchers. Those efforts have kept the meetings underground, but they haven't been able to stop the Forum network from expanding.
There is now a South West Forum, headed up by former BNP organiser and current senior NF activist Julie Lake; a Welsh Forum organised by former postman Milton Ellis; a Yorkshire Forum organised by former BNP activist Liam Kernaghan, now of the British Democratic Party; and a Scottish Forum.
These groups are intending to help create a new set of leaders for British fascism. Bedford-Turner has said the meetings exist to provide British fascists some face-to-face interaction; a space where fascists can "come together, socialise, network, knock ideas around, hear some good speeches, buy some hard-to-find literature and go away inspired and motivated", because "all the great leaders in history have always been close to, or met with, or been inspired by other great leaders".
Anti-racist charity Hope Not Hate has reported that senior individuals in the Forum network are attempting to launch a new fascist political party. And as many of the Forum attendees are former BNP activists, candidates and organisers, it wouldn't be a surprise if they were able to pull this off at some point. Former BNP youth leader Mark Collett, who is now attempting to re-market himself as an alt-right YouTuber, has been earmarked as the future leader of such a party. If any section of the UK far-right is able to create a new fascist party, it's the Forum network.
That's significant, given where it came from. The London Forum emerged as a split from something called New Right – a set of far-right meetings in London which took place in the 2000s. One of the leaders of National Action, Benjamin Raymond, told me a rumour he'd heard about that split. Apparently the founder "invited a gay national-anarchist from Germany to deliver a talk on 'alternative communities', which he did in green spandex. You can imagine the impression this left on a room full of ageing neo-Nazis and posh gits. Attendance went from 70 to seven, and that is why there is now London Forum." When I put this rumour to New Right organiser Troy Southgate, he told me it was "hilarious" and "completely untrue".
True or not, the Forum network has gone from existing on the most bizarre, extreme fringe of British far-right politics to something that has genuine organisational capacity, and which hosts relatively popular YouTubers who understand how to communicate their hateful ideas in terms that look out towards the mainstream.