My Brush with Terrorism and Thatcher


Or, how I came to be in the wrong place at the right time.

This isn’t a funny or peculiar story, but the assassination attempt of Margaret Thatcher is the closest I’ve come to a live historical event.  I’ve retold it countless times, but never written it down, until now.  In 1984, when I was 18, I spent a second summer season working in the hotels of the Isle of Man.  As this was long before the days of cheap flights, it was still a very popular holiday destination for thousands of British and Irish families.  At the end of the season, I had been talked into buying a friend’s Lambretta, and a group of us decided to go on a road trip around England and Wales.  For the enthusiasts, it was a GP180, registration B21MAN.

The night before we left, our hotel held an “end of season” party, where we all got pretty smashed.  Getting up early for the ferry to Liverpool was not easy, and 4 hours of the Irish Sea didn’t help.  From there we rode to Blackpool for some scooter TLC at a specialist garage (accidentally dropping bottles of champagne, nicked from the hotel, along the motorway from poorly packed rucksacks). Then South, across the treacherous Snake Pass, from Manchester to Sheffield, and on to Skegness.  Skeggy was to hold the biggest scooter rally on the calendar that year, with over 10,000 scooterists in attendance.  Contrary to the stereotype, the 100 or so Mods there got a really hard time, for giving scooters a bad name.  The Northern Soul scene was much more identified with, as was evident by the appearance Edwin Starr at the sold out all-nighter.  Thence onward to Bedford and London, and the decision to head for Brighton (setting for the seminal film, Quadrophenia, starring a very young Phil Daniels and Sting).

Once there, we toured the town, visiting the locations of various film scenes; the alleyway where Phil Daniels finally gets a bunk up with Leslie Ash, the precinct, the beach, and The Grand Hotel, where we jumped the barrier and ran in shouting “Bellboy!”, just as Jimmy had done to Sting’s character in the movie, before riding his scooter off a cliff.  I say jumped the barrier, because the Tory Party conference was in town, and the Conservative grandees were staying at this very hotel.  Needless to say we were chased by a lone security guard.  Curiously, one talking point that year, was that the Tories were planning to introduce VAT to Fish & Chips for the first time. As we were ordering our lunch, a local TV crew asked if they could film us eating the iconic meal, whilst sitting on the scooters outside a seafront chippy.  We didn’t have to be asked twice, as they were paying for the fish.  We watched our TV debut from a local pub later that day.

That night, we slept in the shelters facing out to sea, about 300 yards along from The Grand.  Shortly before 3AM there was an almighty explosion.  After the weirdest silent pause, it was followed by a melee of emergency services and every reporter and camera in town.  Police and Ambulance sirens and Fire Brigade bells rang out, and we were hastily moved along from our makeshift camp.  The 12th October will live long the memory of everyone who was in Brighton that day.

We hung around a bit more that day, but as we were almost completely broke, had no choice but to move on. My friend Sean had a sister in Wales who might give him some money, so we set off.  This trip wasn’t without incident either.  We found ourselves driving around the unfinished south west part of the M25, got lost near Leatherhead, before camping on the side of the M4 (parked on the hard shoulder).  The cops who kicked us awake the next morning weren’t as polite as I felt they could have been.  A newspaper report that day said police were looking for a “scruffily dressed man, with a green rucksack”, matching my description from when we had entered the hotel the previous day.  I still have the clipping. Once in Wales I was involved in a crash on the back of Sean’s Vespa, breaking my wrists in the process.


Back in Scotland, I soon met my now wife, Luciana, and we got a flat in Glasgow’s South –Side.  At Easter we went away for a weekend, and upon our return, found that the Brighton bombers had been arrested whilst living in the flat directly below. In retrospect, I had always wondered why they had never complained about my drums.

PS. My good friend Ken Fletcher, who had been with us, mysteriously disappeared a couple of years later, and is presumed to have been a victim of a serial killer who operated in the Isle of Man, and was later caught in Blackpool.

Stephen O'Donnell is a lifelong recruiter, internet enthusiast, fadgadget and peripatetic writer.

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