Last month, I travelled to the Harlow in Essex, to see the town beyond the headlines on hate crimes in the wake of the murder of a Polish man. To get some background on the area's perceived history of racism and xenophobia, I spoke to journalist Nick Ryan, who spent time with Combat 18, a neo-Nazi group that originated in the town.
It turns out that one of the central figures in Combat 18 was a former Benedictine monk who had previously dabbled in Satanism, and wanted to establish a kind of white-only farming commune in rural Essex. Another was a football hooligan who Nick says sounded keen on transforming a Chelmsford council estate into a separatist state. He was inspired by Northern Irish paramilitaries who'd managed to gain effective control of areas of Belfast. I was intrigued by the concept of Britain's most prominent neo-Nazi group planning to turn sections of Essex into an Aryan homeland, and got back in touch with Nick for a more in-depth interview.
VICE: Hi Nick, how did you end up getting in with Combat 18 in the first place?
Nick Ryan: Back in 1996, I was trying to write a book about the growth of subcultures. I was looking for something right at the edge of society that seemed to reject widely-accepted social norms - maybe biker gangs, or similar. Wandering into my local independent bookstore, I spotted a copy of an anti-fascist magazine, which I picked up at random. It contained an article about racist football hooligans connected to Chelsea football club.
When I got home, I got in touch with the research head of the magazine Nick Lowles, who said that Combat 18 had never openly spoken to a journalist before, but might do so now. Somewhat naively and not really understanding what I was getting into, I used Nick's help with a few addresses and PO boxes to approach members of the gang and ask if they'd be interviewed, initially for a magazine piece and then later for my book. Surprisingly, one said "yes". Mark Atkinson, who has since done jail time for activities connected to racial hatred, was my initial point of contact.
What was the deal with their plan for an Aryan homeland?
C18 had established itself as a stewarding force to the BNP, but after violence against many other far-right activists, it had been proscribed by the BNP leadership. The gang ran a music business, Blood & Honour, which was controlled by Paul "Charlie" Sargent, a thug with a history of football hooliganism. C18 was telling supporters, both here and abroad, that it was going to create an Aryan homeland out in Essex, a place where "our people" could follow their racial dreams.
Those dreams seemed to vary wildly depending on who you talked to, despite the fact that C18 was attempting to raise money for this homeland from all and sundry. Charlie and his brother Steve talked about some sort of paramilitary-style, street-based system, taking over various estates in parts of the county. They often referred to Northern Ireland as their inspiration, and there have been many links revealed over the years between far-right and Loyalist movements. Meanwhile, their ideological backer, David Myatt, an ex-Benedictine monk with a long-involvement in far-right movements who was alleged to have been a Satanist and later converted to Islam, talked in fantastical terms about a communal back-to-the-land existence, replete with "racial warriors", slaves, and other elements.
That sounds pretty intense.
Myatt and the brothers talked pretty frankly about their beliefs. What I didn't realise was that the gang was about to erupt into open warfare. The number two figure, Will Browning, challenged Charlie for the leadership, and during a meeting between Charlie and one of Browning's supporters, the latter was stabbed and died. I attended the subsequent murder trial, and witnessed the dead man's partner screaming – something I'll never forget. Charlie and another man were sent away for murder.
I heard Myatt was very into medieval England, and challenged you to a duel after you wrote some things about him that he didn't like.
I had met Myatt at a tea shop in Malvern, where our encounter had verged on the surreal with his talk of race warriors, etc. I was later told that he'd sent me the challenge to a duel after my book Homeland was published, but never actually saw the challenge itself [Homeland chronicled Nick's experiences with the far-right, including Myatt].
You also spent some time with extremists in the US. How did they compare with the ones at home?
Through my initial connections, I encountered members of the BNP – then Britain's largest far-right political party – and met Nick Griffin, who helped me to travel into the States and spend time with his networks there. I stayed with his head of American fundraising, a Loyalist supporter. My journeys in the States were something else. They took me from revisionist Holocaust-denying networks in DC to the KKK in the south, from neo-Nazi networks and murder cases in Illinois down to the Ozark Mountains, of Deliverance fame.
How did the far-right groups that you spent time with back then compare to the groups that are about today?
Today, the organised far-right in Britain is weak. It's disorganised, plagued by internecine feuds and splits, and dogged by financial scandals. The EDL has come and gone, PEGIDA UK is nowhere, Nick Griffin was cast out of the BNP, which has split and split again, and UKIP is struggling. But on the continent, the rise of populist right-wing politicians and anti-immigrant sentiment has rocked many societies, reflecting deep-seated tensions. The rise of "strongmen" figures such as Victor Orban in Hungary have, in some ways, circumvented far-right movements altogether.
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