Back in 2003 I was completing publication of an exhaustive six-year journey inside neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements. The results of that journey were contained in HOMELAND: Into a World of Hate, a book that nearly broke me financially and emotionally. Shortly thereafter a BBC drama film, England Expects, based on my book's researches, also came out - and I wanted shot of anything to do with extremists (instead I threw myself into a many-year voyage into the heart of London's infamous East End).
But as HOMELAND was appearing and I was boring friends and relatives alike with news of seeing it in the front windows of Waterstones, another young man was returning to the grim and cold shores of Blighty from the rather sunnier climes of Melbourne, Australia. That man was Matthew Collins and a most extraordinary, and brave, individual he turned out to be.
Ten years earlier and a more slender version of Collins had fled the UK on the advice of Special Branch (police), his cover close to being blown as an informant inside Britain's once-notorious National Front (NF) party and its emerging rival, the British National Party (BNP). What Collins - a former teen rebel with anger and violence locked in his heart - had stumbled into during his lost teen years was a shambolic, cluttered, weird world of middle-aged neo-Nazi fantasists wedded to very real danger of violence and strong links between several of their members and Northern Irish Loyalist paramilitaries.
In his memoirs, HATE: My Life In The British Far Right (Biteback), Collins recounts his upbringing on a south-east London council estate, his absent (alcoholic) Irish father, his mother doing her best to control wayward sons, oddball sibilings and a slow drift into an identity vacuum into which stepped the National Front. Collins was living in a twilight world: cut off, removed, and full of dull anger. In short, he proved perfect recruitment material for extremists. From his early leafleting on behalf of the NF in his school, to meetings in (many) pubs and eventual full recruitment, it's a sad and depressing picture he paints of life on the political margins - a world where the Millwall football club anthem "No-one likes us, and we don't care" plays well.
The men he met (and they were almost always men, as I too discovered during HOMELAND) were not exactly inspirational: the strange Oxford drop out Ian Anderson, ruling the NF and for whom Collins became a glorified personal assistant. The unrepentant fascist, Richard Edmonds, ruling all from the BNP bookshop in south London. Or the apparently pedestrian Tony Lecomber who was in fact a failed bomber and had convictions for violence. As you wade through the masturbation jokes and self-deprecating humour, which is probably part of Collins' armour against his past, it's clear he comes to detest and pity these men as he lives within their world. It is to the 'men of action' that he seems most close - Terry Blackham, the Irish-hating NF builder and Eddie Whicker, also closely-linked to Loyalists in Northern Ireland - who were prepared to give the 'Reds' a slap. But even there their random, psychopathic violence becomes deeply disturbing. Collins is no longer able to laugh it off over drinks and a curry as he was wont to do in his early fascist days.
One of the incidents which sticks out in his memory, and in a memorable passage in the book, is the attack he helped lead on defenseless old women gathered at an anti-racist meeting in Welling Library, in south London, in 1991.
"I thought I was having a psychedelic moment because the room was spinning but everything was actually being turned upside down, one man after another laying into a small group of women, hitting them with chairs and hurling tables at them. It was a bloody massacre. People were lying on the floor, helpless, being stamped on, kicked and hit with objects picked off the walls and floor. A pregnant woman was locked in the toilet and the BNP were trying to kick their way in to get at her and her unborn baby."
The seeds of Collins' conversion from zero-to-hero were planted in that moment. Slowly, but surely, he drew closer to the men and women of Searchlight, Britain's premier anti-fascist monitoring organisation which has stymied the Far Right's attempts to gain influence for nigh on 40+ years now. During colon-squeezing moments of terror, the young Collins meets with Searchlight's boss, Gerry Gable (a figure who evokes strong opinions, even to this day, and for those who have met him a larger-than-life character) and eventually turns 'mole' inside the organisations he is supposed to be helping bring to a National Socialist revolution.
At turns funny, revolting, visceral and mundane-meets-suburban-horror, HATE charts Collins' conversion and eventual flight from England, as his former compatriots are sent to jail and the Far Right languishes for many years thanks, in part, to the efforts of informants like himself (though it turns out there are many others under Searchlight's payroll, too).
In his time, Collins would witness the rise of Combat 18, the neo-Nazi gang led by Charlie Sargent, whom I would meet and track in my own investigations a few years later (I witnessed Sargent being sent to jail for murder and more recently was threatened and had my photo placed on the hate hit-list site, Redwatch, by one of his former henchmen). Today Collins works for Searchlight and the HOPE not hate campaign, fighting against the very people he once supported.
Perhaps the irony is that those people revealed as the most extreme during Collins' time - Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP today - are now passing themselves off as elected members of European assemblies, with large budgets and apparent auras of respectability. Their obsession with issues such as the Holocaust (about which Griffin has written and spoken several times) is picked up in Collins' book and marks them out as the potential conveyor belt towards violent extremism that most pundits usually claim is the hallmark of political Muslim groups: I would argue that the Far Right is equal if not more pronounced in this trend than any Islamist organisation. (The London nailbomber, David Copeland, was an ex-BNP and C18 offshoot member; the Norway killer Anders Breivik was close to many English Defence League members and relied heavily on anti-jihadist right-wing movements in the USA). It is perhaps even more ironic that the Jew-hating anti-Semites of Collins' past find more in common with certain extremists within the fringes of the Muslim community (who also hold strong anti-Semitic views) despite their apparent loathing of each other.
HATE is a memorable work that deserves to be read by student and politician alike, particularly in these post-Norway days, when all of us took our eye off the ball and only concentrated on the so-called Islamist threat. The BNP may be in the doldrums, temporarily, but support for the Far Right lurks close to the surface in many communities. Matthew Collins' coruscating account is a warning for us all that this remains the case.
HATE: My Life In The British Far Right is published by Biteback (£14.99)
Follow Nick Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ryanscribe