Drinking haunt where life imitated TV art: Christian Wolmar and Simon Midgley, on the trail of the paymasters behind the M11 attacks, visit a private club in Southend

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a joke that backfired. Alan Crook and his partner Peter Dixon now probably regret that when they opened their drinking club in Southend 18 months ago they called it the Winchester after Arthur Daley's hangout in Minder.

On Monday one of their members, John Roe, 44, an unemployed lorry driver, was jailed for two- and-a-half years for taking part in an early morning attack last December on protesters fighting the construction of the M11 link road in Wanstead, east London.

The Old Bailey jury was told that the other eight or nine members of the gang were recruited at the Winchester by a couple of men offering pounds 50 or pounds 100 for the night's work. Only one other, Martin Courtney, 38, was caught and given three-and-a-half years because, unlike Roe who was just the driver, he took part in the attack.

There was, according to Steve Johnson, who was in the tree on George Green that night, absolute mayhem when the attackers arrived. They set fire to the chestnut tree that had become the focus of the demonstrators campaign and several tents - benders as they are known - were burnt down. Another protester, Steve King, described in court how he was lucky to escape with only minor burns.

The judge lamented the fact that the paymasters and real culprits had not been found.

The obvious place to start looking was the Winchester. The police warned the Independent to be 'very careful' when visiting the club at lunchtime on Thursday. Peroxide blondes sat chatting on the red plush seats while a three- year-old gambolled around on the vast dance floor. A very tall and heavily tattoed barman, wearing a hat and sporting one dangling silver earring, served drinks alongside a barmaid who cajoled a member to sign us in. Above the bar is a political flier for Charles Malyon, a local solicitor and Tory councillor who has visited the club.

Mr Dixon, 53, who worked in the motor trade for 25 years, and Mr Crook, 44, a redundant printer, opened the club in early 1993. Thanks to the publicity created by the name, they took pounds 1,600 on their opening night.

Mr Dixon says that reports that the men were recruited in the club are plain 'wrong', while the 'stuff about the Winchester being full of villains was bollocks'. He is not afraid of standing up to troublemakers and shows the door to hard men: 'There's no trouble in this club.'

Yes, John Roe was a member. But he was 'a real gentleman' - a gentle man, not the sort of chap to get involved in rough stuff. He liked taking photographs - his snaps of the club's clientele in party mood adorn the bar.

On the Sunday evening before being convicted at the Old Bailey, Roe also got very drunk in the club. He told Dixon that 'they' had promised to see him alright - to look after him. Roe had lost his job as a lorry driver with a cement firm as a result of the case. He and his wife could now lose their house, Mr Dixon said, unless someone gave him 'a belt'.

Mr Dixon says he knows who recruited the men who took part in the attack but is staying mum.

On Tuesday, the demonstrators celebrate a year of direct action against the road but battles have been taking place for much longer. Colin Bex, an architect who has been evicted from several houses in the area and has been involved in the campaign since 1991, says: 'There have been a number of mysterious fires in empty houses and there has been evidence of arson.' In September 1992, he says, an Edwardian former furniture factory in Fillebrook Road, Leyton, next to two houses being demolished by the Department of Transport's main demolition contractors, Squibb and Davies of Bow, burnt down in mysterious circumstances.

The demonstrators are as mystified as the police about the identity of the attackers. Four days after the attack, the green was evicted by hundreds of police. The protesters are now concentrated in Claremont Road, Leyton, where they have blocked off the street with sculptures.

Top of the demonstrators' hate list is Squibb and Davies but the firm, which is based in a yard that is protected by huge rolls of razor wire, had no direct interest in the early eviction of the demonstrators in the tree. Squibb and Davies have contracts with both the Department of the Environment and with the main contractors for the Wanstead part of the road, Norwest Holst, to demolish property but they do not face any penalties for failing to carry out the work in time, if the delay is due to the site not being handed over on schedule.

The firm refused to speak to the Independent, referring the paper to W S Atkins, the consulting engineers. Its spokesman in the Link Road Office, Bob Brazier, said: 'At the time, the site was the responsibility of the bailiffs.'

Mr Brazier added that he understood the tree was actually demolished by Norwest Holst after the fire. The company's PR consultant, William Grovesnor of, Grovesnor Communications, denied this and hung up after saying: 'It was in the hands of the court and it was the bailiffs who demolished the tree. Goodbye.'

The paymasters may well never be known. The police are pursuing their inquiries but are being met with a wall of silence and none of the demonstrators' suspicions is backed by a shred of evidence.

Outside the Old Bailey last Monday, the tearful wife of Martin Courtney came up to Mr Johnson and shook his hand. 'Thanks for your support,' she said, an acknowlegement that it was the darker forces behind Courtney and Roe who bear the responsibility for the attack.

(Photograph omitted)