Sunday, 29 September 2013


I was ten, when in September 1973 two stations in central London were targeted by terrorist bombers, injuring 13 people and bringing chaos and fear to the capital. I lived with my parents and two small sisters in a leafy South West London suburb  - an idyllic and privileged location and upbringing.  My father was a talented lawyer and recently appointed Recorder (meaning that he was expected to sit as a judge for 3-6 weeks of the year).  It was in his legal capacity that he found himself overseeing trials of terrorist suspects and as a consequence his name was placed on that of potential targets.

On a balmy autumn evening in September ’73 my parents and I were sitting having supper with our recently arrived au pair.  My mother had suffered a very difficult birth (requiring significant surgery) for the arrival of my youngest sister, born in March, and hence an extra pair of hands were useful in looking after the family and home.  We talked about the horrors that were besetting London and other parts of the UK and Ireland and, almost as an aside, my father told us to be careful.  Little did we know how prophetic his words would be...

The following day, when he had gone to work and my mother was out shopping the telephone rang.  As the au pair’s English was still embryonic, I answered it.

“There’s a bomb in your house, you’ve five minutes to get out.”

The words chilled me and I tried to get the caller to explain, but they simply repeated the statement and then hung up.  I ran up the stairs shouting a warning and lifted my 6 month old sister from her cot.  With her in my arms and tears streaming down my cheeks I ran to the sitting room, where my three your old sister and the au pair were watching Play School on TV.

BBC's Play School
My middle sister's favourite
“Get out of the house, get out of the house, there’s a bomb.” I kept crying.

The au pair thought I was joking - a game prompted by the supper-time discussion with my parents the previous evening. It was only when I stood screaming at her to leave the house, while I cried uncontrollably, the baby in my arms, outside on the lawn, that she realised I was serious.  I lead her and my sister to my aunt’s house and it was from there that the police were called.  My mother returned to find the abandoned house being examined by bomb disposal experts.  I was never informed as to what happened thereafter.  I can only presume that the call was a hoax.  How cruel to terrorise a ten year old with such a horrific statement - my voice was clearly that of a child.

The experience had a fundamental impact on me.  I learned from that day that people are not always precious nor respected by others and that age is not a factor in how others will behave.  An adult can be less responsible than a ten year old and certainly more unkind.

I mentor a wonderful schoolgirl in Kenya called Catherine.  She goes to school in Nairobi and, since the storming of the Westgate shopping centre a week ago, with the resultant devastating deaths and destruction, my heart has gone out to her and the people of Kenya.  I do not claim to be a theologist, but I have read the Quran and I cannot find passages within it that condone indiscriminate slaughter, especially the killing of children.  It was an undeniable fact that the shopping mall on a Saturday would be full of children out with their parents and friends - there aren’t many other family-friendly and universally enticing places to go.  Over the past twenty years Kenya has progressed from a place where only basic goods were available to a consumer’s delight, but this development is limited and so people tend to congregate in certain locations at the weekends.  In the malls it is possible to buy the latest products that you would expect to find in America, Europe or affluent Asia and therein lies part of the problem.  I suspect the real issue is a clash of cultures and a reaction against rapid change and the imbalances between communities across the continent.  Kenya is one of Africa’s fastest developing economies with a burgeoning middle class.  Much of Sub-Saharan Africa is still almost medieval in the way its societies are structured and people behave - feudal tribes and groups compete for power and territory, with local rather than central control.  Countries such as the Congo, Somalia and South Sudan are dominated by men with guns who extort, rape and terrorise with little to stop them.   I have been told that after nearly 20 years of fighting to run Somalia, the Shabab had finally decided that their dream was impossible and hence were turning to more extremist measures.   What is perhaps most alarming is the manner in which the attack was carried out - not a simple, single bomb but a ruthless group of individuals determined to kill, who actually seemed to target the young and most defenceless. 

Parallels can be drawn to bullying within workplaces and organisations.  Once co-ordinated groups start operating together, to hurt and marginalise a particular individual or set of people, the impact can be devastating.  Cyber bullying has been in the headlines for much of the past few months - the focused, ruthless action of a few destroying the lives of their victims, but similar behaviour can also occur in the physical environment at work.  I have in the past joined organisations where a long-standing group of employees, who were close friends and who had been in their roles for many years, turned on the new hires who were bringing fresh ideas and enhanced approaches - partially because they were afraid of change and a destruction of the status quo.  Often there is a ring-leader who is able to encourage others into behaving in an unsuitable manner.  They know where their victims are to be found and will usually try to hurt and deter them without drawing attention to themselves.  Clearly, these people are not armed with guns and resorting to indiscriminate killing, but even so their behaviour can destroy others’ lives. It is up to all of us to remain watchful and to react when something does not look or feel quite right.  Much better to raise the alarm, even if later to discover that it is a false concern, than not to react at all and for something awful to occur.

Walking out of my house, forty years ago, with my infant sister in my arms and tears running down my face, helped to set my moral compass.  I will always stand against terror in its many forms - life’s too precious not to.  Please join me. 


  1. Kate, thank you for sharing your story, drawing such a vivid picture of how you felt at that moment, on that day, and as always, you are so eloquent in weaving your story together with the bigger political picture and then bringing it into the workplace. This was a good way to start my week.

  2. Powerful stuff, Kate, and a prompt for many thoughts. Coincidentally, my mother had a difficult birth with my youngest brother in 1970, we had au pair girls for a couple of years in leafy SE London and my father was a QC (later Recorder for London) involved in Irish terrorist cases. We also had a panic line to the police and only rang it once when strangers were spotted observing our house for an unusually long time. Turned out they were casing us for a burglary. These things stay with you.