The Bomb at Harrods

December 14, 2023   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

It occurred to me suddenly when I was thinking about strange Christmas stories, that I never told you this one. I did run through my list of this column’s titles and, sure enough, I have not shared with you this moment in British history and how I was very nearly in the centre of it. So, here we go.

It was mid-December, 1983. I was living in London, England, in a dear little house deep in the centre of Chelsea. It was almost a village where my home was placed. Around the corner was a fish monger who delivered to friends of Queen Elisabeth II, a butcher who assured me he would deliver a pork chop if that was all I needed and a green grocer who gave my dog a biscuit if he had a mind to visit.

Adjacent to Knightsbridge, the fabulous neighbourhood of some of the richest shopping centres in the world, I lived about a 15-minute walk from Harrods, the famous and extraordinary department store with some 300 departments and many restaurants, on Brompton Road.

On the Saturday in this story, I was to meet a Lebanese friend of mine to help him decide on some of the presents he was planning to take back to Lebanon for Christmas. We met as planned, and he told me, “I need to buy some gifts for my friends’ children, and I want to buy a suit in the men’s department. Which shall we do first?”

Since we were standing at the escalator on that side of Harrods, which led to the children’s department, I said, “Let’s go up to the children’s department first.”

And so, we did.

There were plenty of things from which to choose by way of charming toys and lovely clothing, and we did not hurry in our browsing of comparing colours of shirts and dresses, hard toys and teddy bears, but in due course, he was ready to pay for his collection.

As we brought the load to the cashiers, there was a worrying and very heavy “thud” coming from a distant corner of the building; not a bang as such, something more dense, more threatening.

From Lebanon, my friend knew: “That was a bomb,” he stated flatly.

“We’re here, you might as well pay for your things.”

The cashiers were alarmed but not yet frightened. So, they accommodated him by taking his cash, putting his purchases together and without further ado, we went back down the escalator and out of the building.

Outside, down the side of the Harrods’ building, there were considerable crowds, police cars, ambulances and consternation. Certainly, nothing was to be gained nor offered by our going closer to look, and he took me by the arm and, in some haste, steered me across the road to a hotel in which there was a good restaurant.

Suddenly, I thought of my friend, John Higgs, who I knew would have heard the news about the bomb, and I had told him of my plans to go to Harrods.

There was a pay phone in the lobby, but his line was busy.

We went up to the restaurant, a relative haven of calm and were seated comfortably at a table next to which, by coincidence, sat a person of my friend’s acquaintance. We began to discuss the situation at Harrods, and he had already heard the news: that the IRA (the Irish Republican Army) had set the bomb.

What was there to do but to order our meal and call John from time to time? I finally got through to him and reassured him I was unharmed and, in fact, that we were simply having lunch.

Returning to my table, we chatted on amongst the three of us about other matters, I guess, but the disaster just across the street loomed big, even though we still had little idea of the extent and harm the bomb had caused.

“No, no,” said our companion as my friend was about to pay for our lunch, “I will buy your lunch in honour of you coming out of Harrods unharmed.”

It was time to go, I, back to my little house, just a walk away and my friend to his flat in Nottinghill. The noise and hustle and worry on the street outside Harrods was a storm under the cloudless sky. Traffic was diverted, and there was still every evidence that things were far from settled, hours into the evening yet to come before the count of damage would be known.

Not until the later evening news did I know the depth of it: three Metropolitan police officers, ages 22 to 34, were killed; an American and two British men, all in their twenties, died in the explosion, which also maimed another policeman and killed his police dog. Many were injured.

No one was ever arrested for the bombing, but the following day, the IRA Army Council published a statement saying they planted the bomb but had not authorized the attack. They claimed a warning had been issued 40 minutes before the explosion but had not been heeded.

The bomb had exploded in the men’s department.

What did I get for Christmas that year? My life.

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