Post 58 – Islamic Activists at a London College – excerpt from DARK CLOUDS

Chapter 11

Marvin Malugo is fading fast at St Thomas’ Hospital in South London. His family have arrived from Trinidad and there are reports of shops and houses being boarded up in Brixton. ‘If he die,’ a Farrakhan Muslim says. ‘We set dis place alight …you hear me, boy?’ he tells a nervous TV interviewer. ‘Cos de police dey murder ‘im – right?’

I haven’t covered any riots for a while, but my commissioning editors in New York are keen for copy. ‘So is there something wrong with the Brits, Rudi? I mean – riots for Christ’s sake, involving blacks and the police … hey, that’s so last century, man!

They’re right of course. Race relations are generally pretty good in the UK. Although some people feel it was excessive for the cops to shoot Marvin, even if he was defending himself with an AK 47. He’s a bit of an icon figure in South London. At least that’s how he’s coming across on media shots with his tweed cap, grey beard and a winning, folksy smile. He could be Bob Marley as a pensioner. The fact that he dealt in weed, smack and coke is seen by many as a side issue. ‘Him was a good man, you hear! He got a wife an’ family to support …an’ the police …well – they should no ‘ave shoot ‘im you know. Is wicked!’

If I had a choice, I’d stick with Marvin. He’s got a nice down home feel about him. Strong human interest for the readers, and there are a lot of people batting for him. Carla Hirsch however, is insistent. ‘You will check out this guy, Wagstaff, at the King’s Cross Academy,’ she commands. ‘And that’s your priority.’

Not long afterwards, I get a call from Grant Stevenson, an executive editor on the New York Courier. ‘Rudi – hi …we haven’t met, but I gather you’re going to interview this guy Wagstaff for us at the King’s College in London.’

Not quite, my man. The King’s Cross Academy isn’t really in the same league as His Majesty’s College, which is part of London University.

‘My impression,’ Grant says, ‘is that Wagstaff is a mentor for radical elements, most of whom seem to be Muslim immigrants.’

‘Don’t worry,’ I tell him, it’s all in hand. My Controller, Carla Hirsch, has arranged the interview. Only she’s not expecting me to write the story. Grant and the Courier are, I assume, in league with Homeland Security in Washington. They do whatever my President feels is appropriate. I’m almost there, but I call Fiona in the morning.

‘I’ve got to go to the King’s Cross Academy,’ I tell her.

‘Oh gawd,’ she sighs.

‘You’re not impressed?’

‘No – it’s a frightful aberration, Rudi: A ridiculous waste of taxpayers’ money. It produces an endless stream of agitators – most of whom are probably illiterate and innumerate.’

Gosh – it sounds like an interesting place. I could almost walk there, but Fiona suggests I take a cab.

‘And try to disguise your accent.’

‘Why?’

‘Because if any of the students discover that you’re American, they might want to put you on trial.’

This is serious. I didn’t support my President’s occupation or his surge in Iraq. I’ve always been a pacifist, but Fiona’s got to go.

‘I’ll see you later in Claridges,’ she trills. ‘Your friend Carla’s coming and Ingrid would be welcome if you two are still an item.’

‘Right – ‘

I get a Greek at the cab office on the Upper Street. ‘I lova England,’ he tells me, ‘an’ especially the rain. ‘You know it ees so good jus to stan’ outside here an’ get wet.’

I think the whole world’s losing it, and my man’s tapping his fingers to Zorba dance tunes when we get around to the back of the Euro Star terminal at King’s Cross. ‘This is academy,’ he says. ‘They all crazy here!’

It’s a modern building that looks unfinished.

‘They run outa money,’ my driver says. ‘An’ if a you ask me, I think a it best if they close it down.’

It’s busy outside and all around a vast internal foyer. I think most of the students are from overseas, but a porter at the kiosk inside the main door is an obese, white Londoner, and he’s been drinking.

‘I’m here to see Mr Wagstaff,’ I tell him, holding up my press card.

‘Oh yeah – all right.’

I’m early, but everyone seems to be heading down towards a basement area, so I follow the crowd to a student canteen. There are posters all over the walls protesting about corrupt governments in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The emphasis seems to be on Muslim affairs, with particular reference to the way the West is propping up puppet tyrants in most of the Islamic world. The students are waiting for a radical Iranian Imam, whose photograph is hanging behind an improvised stage.

‘We have a similar speaker every week now,’ Assad tells me.

He’s a shy but friendly guy from Lebanon. We sit together, and while he’s filling me in on life in Beirut, I’m checking out the students. Many have revolutionary guard type headbands with Arabic letters, but I’m more interested in what the girls are wearing. A few have the full burqa that covers everything except the eyes. Others have chadors or niqabs that cover the nose, mouth and hair. There are also some body cloak jilbabs that leave the face free. But mostly, the females are wearing hijabs that simply cover the hair and ears. I’m intrigued by the furtive glances from the eye slits on the burqas, chadors and niqabs, and I’m fantasising about covert emotions in deserts when a young woman with Armani jeans and a black hijab veil climbs onto the makeshift stage. She’s grinning down at us while testing the microphone.

‘We are privileged today,’ she says, ‘to have as our guest speaker the honourable Mustapha from Tehran. I think what he has to say is particularly relevant for the Islamic world. But I’m sure it will be of interest also for our visitors … all of whom are most welcome.’

She’s grinning respectfully towards a group of older, mainly white guys in a corner of the cafeteria.

‘They are members of staff,’ Assad whispers.

Of course. And I think I recognise my target, Jeremy Wagstaff, from a photograph Carla e-mailed me earlier. He has bad acne and an unpleasant tendency to pick at his nose and then rub the contents off on the sleeve of his jacket. He’s presently acknowledging the hijab woman’s welcome like he’s the local caliph and the people he’s sitting with are his lower-ranked assistants.

The young woman in the hijab veil is reversing off the stage, and as a curtain opens beside her, there are whoops of welcome and energetic hand-clapping. The honourable Mustapha from Tehran makes a dramatic entrance in flowing white robes and a turban type Osama headdress with gold braid embroidered around the edges. His beard goes down to his chest, and when the applause trails off, he opens his arms to embrace the audience.

‘It is good to see so many devout brothers and sisters here today,’ he says from the diaphragm. ‘Our cause is just, but we will only ever claim what is rightfully ours if we have the support of good people like yourselves …you are here now today in England, but tomorrow the cause of Islam may require your presence in other parts of the world. The prophet may ask you to lay down your life … but let me assure you that this would be the ultimate privilege. For in the process of dying for Allah, you would acquire eternal salvation.’

I’m thinking of virgins waiting on clouds. But there are tears in the eyes of the audience, who shout out that ‘god is good!’ I’m clapping along with everyone else while exchanging fraternal grins with Assad. It is a little worrying though, for the honourable Mustapha is quite provocative, and a judge might argue that he was inciting criminal behaviour. But the audience loves him and they want more.

‘You must express your feelings on the streets here when there are injustices,’ he cries. ‘And this applies particularly when our brothers and sisters are the victims.’

‘I think he means the Muslims in Oldham,’ Assad explains after a burst of clapping. ‘Many of these people were arrested last week after clashes with British Nationalists.’

There is no direct reference to Osama or al-Qaeda, but the message from Mustapha is pretty clear. ‘We’re relying on you guys to go out there and engage with the infidel,’ he’s saying. ‘In particular, we want you to destabilise those tyrants and puppets who are doing the devil’s work in the Middle East and Africa, and in those parts of Asia where Allah is worshipped by the people.’ There isn’t anything specifically about blowing up the Brits or nuking the White House, but it’s all there by implication. We’re the bad guys and the prophet requires that we should be punished, and some.

The honourable Mustapha gets a standing ovation when he’s finished, and after I’ve shaken hands with Assad, I edge over towards my target.

‘Doctor Wagstaff …’

‘Yes?’

‘You’ve kindly agreed to see me, sir – ‘

‘Flynn – is it?’

‘That’s right … Rudi – ‘

‘I’m busy now,’ he says dismissively. ‘I need to speak with the Imam.’

‘But – ‘

‘Perhaps you could find your way up to the third floor and wait outside my office.’

Fuck you, professor. You’re an arrogant bastard. In other circumstances, I’d be baiting honey traps and luring you into an ignominious descent. Now, however, I’ve got Carla Hirsch waiting off stage. ‘I want you to check this out, Rudi,’ she’s saying. ‘And whatever happens, don’t antagonise him.’

        ‘Very good, sir … I’ll see you when you’re ready.’

The lifts are out of action, but when I get to the third floor, I can hear what assume are Islamic prayer chants. The door is open outside a large lecture theatre and there are neat rows of male shoes in the corridor. I pass by respectfully as Muslim students bow towards the floor to follow the spiritual invocations of a bearded elder.

Outside Wagstaff’s office, a large window overlooks waste ground that was to have been the site for some luxury hotels. According to Fiona, the developers pulled out as the UK economy faltered, and there are now travellers’ caravans clustered around rusting gas storage tanks. I’m clicking my heels impatiently on the shiny floor covering when my target appears.

‘Ah – Flynn … sorry about the delay,’ he says with an annoying leer.

His office door is secured with two locks, but once we’re inside I’m aware of large

photographs of Thailand all around the walls. In a couple of them, there’s a rather knowing Thai boy, who seems to be challenging the photographer.

‘So … you’re interested in our institution,’ my guy says. He’s sitting behind a cluttered

desk and he rolls his thumbs around each other as I pull up a chair opposite him.

‘Yes, sir – you seem to have a very cosmopolitan group of students.’

‘You mean, I take it, that many come from foreign countries and that they’re mostly Muslims.’

‘Eh, yes – ‘

‘And I suppose your newspaper thinks that we are a hotbed for Islamic activists.’

‘Well … ‘

He’s looking out on the travellers’ campsite, where scruffy boys and a few girls are kicking a ball around sacks of garbage.

‘I don’t know how close you are to the realities of life in Britain just now, Flynn.’

I suppose that Crowndale Square in Islington isn’t exactly at the sharp end of life in the UK, and most of my neighbours seem to be quite well protected from economic hardship.

‘You are, I assume, a wine-drinking member of the privileged class?’

I’m half expecting him to pull out a picture of Lenin or Stalin, but he just smiles and reveals several blackened teeth.

‘Our society is disintegrating,’ he tells me and I’d appreciate it if you would please switch off your tape recorder.’

I’ve got a microphone strapped to my chest, but a part of the wire has edged out through a gap between my shirt buttons. It’s embarrassing to be fingered so early on in an interview. I’m flushing with embarrassment while disconnecting my covert tool.

‘I’d just like to see where you’re coming from, sir,’ I say apologetically. ‘And maybe you could give me some indication about where you think it’s all going.’

He’s sitting back with his legs apart and he pushes out each cheek with his tongue before running it along the top of his lower lip.

‘I suppose your intention in coming here today is to concoct some sort of exposé for your paymasters in the United States.’

Not quite – but close, sir. I’m checking you out for my President.

‘I would rather like to get your view on our current situation, Mr Wagstaff.’

‘And why not? I’m a socialist, Flynn, and proud of it. I think our society here is decadent and destined to collapse.

Right – so what I want to know is the purpose of the King’s Cross Academy. And why does it have so many Muslim students?

‘Guilt and greed,’ he tells me. ‘The Academy provides cheap education. We’re technically a university, but we don’t get the same funding as some of the more established institutions. Also, we provide more vocational qualifications.’

‘And the students?’

He’s scratching his crotch and grinning.

‘That’s down to greed,’ he says. ‘We needed immigrant labour for our cotton mills after the war. Most of the workers came from Pakistan and Bangladesh. They were docile and obedient slaves. Their children and grandchildren, however, were not quite so malleable. The first generation born here had an education of sorts, but their youngsters have for the most part been drawn to places like our Academy, where they feel secure with the company of their co-religionists.’

‘And the future, sir?’ Where is it all going, I’m wondering?

‘Revolution,’ he says, rubbing his tongue under his upper lip. ‘What happened in New York and Washington on 9/11 was the beginning. It radicalised young Muslims. I don’t think they’ll stop now until they’ve won.’

There’s a bit more crotch scratching until he gets up and goes to switch on a kettle.

‘Tea?’

‘Yes – please … but you see a conflict developing here in England?’

‘Absolutely. It’s already under way. You’ve got plenty of fascists out there on the streets, but the young Islamists are more driven. They feel they have a god on their side and they will do whatever it takes to win … sugar?’

‘No thanks – and just a little milk … but when you say whatever it takes?’

The mug’s chipped and I’m not sure if it’s been washed, or even rinsed. I’m also disconcerted by the way Wagstaff rests his hand on my shoulder. It lingers and brushes down along my arm as he returns to the battered chair behind his desk.

‘I suppose you were pretty shaken by what happened on 9/11,’ he says and I agree. I still choke occasionally on the dust that seeped in through my apartment windows on the Lower East Side in New York. It’s the stuff of nightmares and madness.

‘If I were a younger man now,’ he says, ‘in North Africa or the Middle East. Or indeed if I were a Muslim anywhere, I’d be watching out for cracks in the West’s edifice.’

‘Really – ‘

‘Yes – and as the splits get bigger, I’d become very excited.’

Holy Jesus! Maybe I should just hit him over the head with his corroded kettle. I could then call Earl Connors and tell him I was making a citizen’s arrest, initially for Her Majesty, but ultimately for my President.

‘Do you see a repeat of 9/11 in other parts of the world?’ I ask when I’ve sipped the tea and brushed away some powdered milk from my chin.

‘Of course, Rudi … that is your forename?’

‘Yes … and I guess London could be a target?’

He’s confident, but he’s not going to implicate himself unnecessarily. There’s a message in the crotch scratching however, and I’m sensing a cruder sexual advance with maybe a stained member when there’s a tentative knock on the office door.

‘Who is it?’ my target asks.

There’s silence as the door opens. A bald-headed guy in his late twenties appears. He’s got studs in his lips, ears and nose and I can see a tattooed image of another bald guy on his neck.

‘Marvin’s dead, sir,’ he tells Wagstaff.

‘Ah – ‘

‘Yeah, it’s just bin announced on the BBC, an’ they reckon tha’ it’ll be mayhem an’ murder down in Brixton an’ beyond.’

‘Excellent, Hugh. Thank you,’ the tutor answers formally. The bald-headed apparition grins and then withdraws. It’s like he’s just delivered a crucial message about how the good guys have had a breakthrough.

‘This will be an important battle against the establishment,’ Wagstaff tells me. ‘And in answer to your earlier point, I think London could indeed be a target for a bigger bang in the ongoing hostilities.’

I’m holding back on the N word while banking on my target’s hubris to all but incriminate him, albeit without any record of evidence.

‘What the revolutionaries need,’ he says confidently, ‘is a powerful blow: Something that will completely knock out the jaded oppressors. And once they’re down, there will be spontaneous uprisings around the world.’

‘Right – ‘

‘And if I were you, Rudi, I’d get a copy of the Koran. Because I think we’ll all be expected to support the revolution.’

I want to nail this guy and I suspect his weak spot is probably between the legs of his doubtless soiled pants.

‘These pictures of Thailand,’ I say, pointing up at the enlarged photographs covering his office walls. ‘They’re great … did you take them yourself?’

‘Oh yes, and lots of others,’ Wagstaff says with an unashamed longing in his voice. He’s also clearly pleased that I should be showing appreciation for his artistic side.

‘I particularly like those ones with the kid. He seems a real handful … quite an individual, I’d say.’

‘Oh, he was such a cheeky fellow,’ my target concedes wistfully. ‘They all were … but at the end of the day, we’re human, Rudi. That’s a fact of life, isn’t it?’

I’m pushing dangerously close to the wire here. My man is, I think, getting excited. He’s rubbing his crotch again, and his trousers are bulging out noticeably when he gets up and comes around from behind his desk.

I’m saved from any untoward predatory gropings by another knock on the door. This time, it’s a longhaired white student type with a socialist society banner.

‘It’s Dr Rodwell, the principal, sir. He’s just closed the main lecture theatre. He says it’s not appropriate to have Muslim prayers there.’

Wagstaff’s licking his lips and clenching his fists. There’s clearly a contest in the offing. ‘We should get together again in a more relaxed social setting, Rudi,’ he says, clutching at my hand.

I’m nodding, but getting ready to back out into the corridor.

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