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Author Preti Taneja on realising she had taught the Fishmongers’ Hall attacker: ‘We were all unsafe’

·21 min read
<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian

It wasn’t until the morning after the terror attack at Fishmongers’ Hall, London, in 2019, that Preti Taneja realised she knew the perpetrator. Her partner read out his name from a news report over breakfast: Usman Khan. The 28-year-old had taken the creative writing course she led in HMP Whitemoor, a high-security category A prison, two years earlier. The report said he had been shot dead by police, after stabbing five people, two fatally.

Khan had been an enthusiastic student, keen to show off his literary knowledge as well as his writing. When he was released in December 2018, he was encouraged to continue working with the prison education programme Learning Together, which brings students into prisons to learn alongside people who are incarcerated.

“It was considered a protective factor,” writes Taneja in Aftermath, a new book that attempts to make sense of her personal proximity to the atrocity. “The only thing he had apart from the gym.”

Taneja had been teaching with Learning Together since 2017, attracted by the chance to mix her background in human rights advocacy with her dual career as an academic and fiction writer. Creative writing, she says in the book, “was considered a sign of hope” for Khan, who had been convicted of terrorism offences. He was encouraged to keep writing when he was banned from training as an HGV driver in the outside world. He had been working on a play about a knife attack, his inquest heard, but MI5, “considered it simply rehabilitative”. He was a model student, the poster boy for the programme.

On 29 November 2019, a fortnight before the last general election, Khan was at Fishmongers’ Hall for an event to celebrate five years of Learning Together. He sat quietly through the morning with his coat on. During the lunch break he went to the toilets and put on a fake bomb vest he had made from Xbox cables, empty plastic bottles and a slimming belt, then taped two kitchen knives to his wrists. MI5 knew he was going to London that day, his inquest later heard. As Taneja puts it: “They said they wanted to test his mindset.”

Taneja wasn’t at the event. She had been invited, but stayed at home in Cambridge. She was a research fellow at the university and was preparing for a literary festival. She feels both relieved and guilty to have missed the horror, and has been left wondering how to make sense of her peripheral connection to the atrocity. She tells me she has now come to call it “disenfranchised grief ... for those who had known the perpetrator, it was something unspeakable”. She is now, she notes in Aftermath, writing “in the wreck”.

We meet at Newcastle University just before the second anniversary of the attack. Taneja is nervous, dressed in black with an A4 pad on her lap. Even now, discussing the attacks is hard. She doesn’t want to talk about what Khan was like; she is very conscious of the privacy of the victims’ families. She weighs her words carefully, unafraid to leave long gaps while she finds the right ones. She does the same in her prose, leaving white space in the middle of sentences, requiring the reader to fill in the blanks, to ponder the unsaid, the unsayable.

Floral tributes are left for Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, who were killed in the terror attack.
Floral tributes are left for Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

Taneja grew up in Hertfordshire but moved to the north-east in March 2020 to become a professor of world literature and creative writing; she wrote Aftermath in the isolation of successive lockdowns. She found the “huge pandemic silencing” of Covid helpful to form her thoughts. “Into that silence, there was an opportunity to think very carefully about some of these huge feelings of grief and culpability, of historic mourning, of political rage and social injustice that I suppose were raised from the seabed almost by this event.”

She didn’t just know Khan, but also one of his victims: 25-year-old Jack Merritt, Learning Together’s programme coordinator. “Kind, funny, compassionate, driven, a mentor to many, an excellent trainer of trainers”, is how she describes him in the book. Khan also murdered 23-year-old Saskia Jones, a volunteer at the event, who worked in a rape crisis centre and hoped one day to be a detective specialising in victim support. He injured several others before being tackled by some of the course participants – one, famously, with a narwhal tusk grabbed from the hall’s wall – and was then shot by police 20 times on London Bridge.

Aftermath is Taneja’s second book. Her first, We That Are Young, a retelling of King Lear in contemporary India, won the Desmond Elliott prize in 2018. Exploring the links between empire and what she sees as the “fascism” in the modern Indian state, it was praised in the Guardian as “that rarest of beasts, a page-turner that’s also unabashedly political”. It took her “a very long time” to find a publisher, a fact she partly attributes to her refusal to write “a beautiful immigrant Bildungsroman”, the sort of debut she thinks many minority writers are pushed into producing. “It wasn’t the kind of book I suppose one would expect from a debut writer from my background,” she says. Galley Beggar, the independent press, gave her a £1,000 advance. “People are shocked when they hear what I got, but it was the best grand I’ve ever earned.”

Aftermath blends journalism, memoir, poetry and literary criticism in an attempt to process an event she will never truly understand. It is split into three parts – radical doubt, radicalising thought, and radical hope – and mixes first-, second- and third-person narrative to tell an often painful story.

It is a confronting, sometimes angry read about racism in society and the criminal justice system, taking in everything from the Kashmir conflict to the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy (which, she writes, “makes civil society into border police”), “joint enterprise” murders and being a person of colour “passing” in majority white Britain. It should shame many readers, particularly those in the worlds of journalism, education, publishing, prisons and police.

For a long time, Taneja couldn’t talk about what happened. First, she writes, her Cambridge college advised her to stay silent, less to protect her than itself – “call it fear of tarnishing a world-leading reputation, offending donors, the Daily Mail”. She was given media training by the university, where she was presented with a list of possible questions journalists might ask. Several revolved around the possibility that they might suggest her first book, which she had given to students in prison, could possibly have radicalised Khan. “There was a serious suggestion that it could be interpreted that way by elements of the media,” Taneja says.

She went along with it at the time. “Shock of that magnitude almost makes you cling to things you think you know, even harder. So if you think that someone is there to keep you safe, you’ll go with that.”

She taught Khan for only 20 hours over one term but wonders what could have been done to stop him. “I think I had a perspective on what was going on, that if anyone had asked … I would have been able to say, at the time: how can you release this person? How can you think that they’re going to be fine? Going from category A, right into the world? Who is taking charge of this process? It was a technicality that he was released on.”

She feels the inquest process “revealed how unsafe we as course leaders and students actually were while … we did this work inside; and in fact it revealed we were all unsafe on the outside, too, all the way up to MI5 – which is what the coroner’s report finally concluded. Prevent, police, the Home Office: nothing kept this from happening … And no one at any level wanted to take final responsibility for what happened.” She says that “the realisations and responses of the inquest process deeply added to my grief and shock”.

No one has ever really taken responsibility for Khan’s early release. He was let out automatically on licence after serving half of his 16-year term without going in front of the parole board, despite intelligence held by the Prison Service warning that Khan was going to “go back to his old ways”.

He had been convicted aged just 19 of being part of a terror cell that was plotting an attack on the London Stock Exchange and planning a jihadi training camp. As Taneja details in Aftermath, he was not a model prisoner, though she had no idea of this when she was his teacher. In 2013, he was found in prison stockpiling chemicals for a bomb. A loose razor blade was discovered taped to the underside of his locker in 2017, as well as the address of a prison governor. He took part in the government’s Healthy Identity Intervention deradicalisation scheme, while influencing inmates to kill and harm others. There were suspicions he was playing the system and showing “false compliance”. Taneja didn’t know this when she welcomed him into her classroom.

Did she see the real Khan, or was the face he presented to her and others an elaborate fiction? Though never excusing his bloodshed, she sees him as a victim of a racist society that has never atoned for the sins of colonialism; a society in which young Black adults are, she writes, “twice as likely to receive a caution, 8.4 times more likely to receive a conviction, 1.5 times more likely to be sent to prison, and given prison sentences that are 80% longer than those given to white young adults who commit similar offences”.

Taneja, photographed earlier this month.
Taneja, photographed earlier this month. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian

How was he allowed to disappear from school in Stoke-on-Trent at 14 without anyone asking questions, she writes. How did he go to prison and come out more high risk than when he went in? The Britain he was released into was “more bitter, more scared, more split, more racist since his incarceration”, she writes.

Though the attack provides the narrative structure for Aftermath, it is just as much a furious reflection on her 44 years as a British-born woman of Indian origin. It reappraises a childhood growing up in a white community with “angel-haired friends”, being cast as “poor girl” in successive nativities. It recalls a work experience stint on a national newspaper shortly after 9/11 where, the only Asian in the newsroom, she was dispatched to Brick Lane, in the East End of London, to coax Bangladeshi men into appraising the attacks. She did it and felt “sick with my own duplicity”.

In Aftermath’s afterword, Taneja writes a long list of what she thinks the book is about: personal identity, risk, safety, generational trauma, racial grief and more. But ultimately, she says when we meet, it’s a book about trust. How to step out of the house each morning and trust in a society you can’t control. “The fluid, shining faith not in a God or in the edicts of any organised religion or institution but in the necessary fiction we rest our contingent lives on, which in English we call trust,” she writes.

This event felt so extreme and complex that I couldn’t find anywhere in literature that knew how to process it

Even before the attack, Taneja says she had never felt safe. “I don’t think as a woman of colour I’d be alone in saying that. There was always a sense of vigilance around me, like in my peripheral vision, an acknowledgment of my own physical size, my body, what it can do.”

No one with a connection to the Fishmongers’ Hall attack, whether they were staffing the cloakroom that day, or worked in the jobcentre and tried to help Khan find employment, will be the same again, Taneja says. “All these people will always have this question in their minds about who they can trust.”

She adds: “For me, the trust was broken to the extent that I lost my faith in language, the things I read, the places I would go for comfort – the poets who usually provide such comfort in times like this. This event felt so extreme and so difficult and complex and unusual, that I couldn’t find anywhere in literature that knew anything about how to manage and process it. So, for me, it’s about the difficulties of that moment, but also about how, as a writer, to make any kind of future out of it. And I’m determined to do that, and make it a better one than the one that caused it.”

This isn’t about “prison expansion or more surveillance – though the question of the most damaged violent people is one I’ve had to reckon with – it’s how do we work towards making a safer world without those things, which aren’t working to keep us safe anyway”.

She is extremely nervous about how the book will be received, and the potential for it to be misinterpreted. Why write it? “Sometimes stories choose us,” she says. “And, there was no other way through this time than to try to work out in my own mind how I sat inside the story, and where I could say something about what I saw and what I know about this event, and the structural harms and systemic failures that contributed to it.”

This book is a lament. It is a labour of love

She wrote a few pages of notes in the immediate aftermath to record the way she was feeling. A month later, in January 2020, she received an email from an editor in the US at a small publisher, Transit Books, who was starting an essay series called Undelivered Lectures: would she consider contributing? There was no rush to publish. She wanted the bereaved relatives to have their say first, and for the inquests to be held. The journalistic aspects of Aftermath, which tell the story of attacks she did not witness, are all taken from the inquest transcripts. Any proceeds will be given to charity. “There’s no money being made here,” she says. “This book is a lament. It is a labour of love.”

It feels a very contemporary book, drawing links between media coverage of the death of a schoolgirl who drowned in a river after another child encouraged her into the water, and so-called Isis brides. She writes that there is “a deep, mythologically driven Islamophobia, embraced through class harms: digital platforms, voter ID cards and immigration rules that will spare no one, from 12-year-old Shukri Abdi standing on a river bank, to Shamima Begum, groomed into Isis then consigned to statelessness, and the men who buy into an alternative promise of power, the violent ideology, extreme drug, who will use this as their rationale”.

She berates the British education system for failing school pupils in colonial history, teaching instead “that Black and brown youth have no history but are lucky to be born in England. That a Muslim boy or a girl is a body of terror. That a Black man must be waiting to attack: must be subject on the street. That a brown girl mute is the best she can be. That a Black girl drowning is a tragic accident.”

She calls out the media for giving white, privileged terrorists an easier ride. She reminds her readers of Harry Vaughan, a teenage satanist who was arrested in 2019 after posting offensive material online under numerous aliases, boasting about school shootings, sharing explosives manuals and neo-Nazi propaganda. Journalists tended to describe him not simply as a terrorist, but “as neo-Nazi terrorist, far-right terrorist as if the terrorist is not normally those things”. This, she reminds us, happened “in a country where the fastest-growing terrorist threat is from the far right”.

Reports of Vaughan’s crimes – 14 terror offences plus possession of indecent images of children – are always mentioned alongside his straight As, his autism and a reference to his father’s job, a clerk in the House of Lords. The judge gave him a two-year suspended sentence.

There are moments of macabre humour, particularly in the postcolonial glossary she provides for readers. Sample entry: “Funny tinge – As in, it is not just about being black or a funny tinge ... you know, different ... B, err, from the BME community.” It is a reference to former Labour MP Angela Smith, who used this phrase on live TV when talking about the intersection between class and race.

The book now finished, she is focused on solutions to the problems she set out. She wants to use her writing to push for a better society than the one that let Khan drop out of school at 14. She wants all schoolchildren to read books by British people of colour, rather than just having one Toni Morrison text on the curriculum. “It is wonderful to have access to literature and poetics and a knowledge base about America. But it isn’t the same. It’s like the difference between hip-hop and grime. We need our own stories. We need our own ways of talking about what happened to our ancestors and why we’re here. All of us, my white students, my brown students, Black students,” she says.

“There are amazing British voices coming up. And they’re so necessary – but what is needed is that the widest systems of power open the gates to hear them, really listen to them.”

Taneja hasn’t been back inside a prison since 28 November 2019, the day before the Fishmongers’ Hall attack. She hasn’t ruled out a return, incensed at how prisoners were treated during Covid, with even children confined to their cells for 23 hours of a day.

When it comes to that fateful day, two years ago, she will never stop wondering if anybody could have done more. “How can you not? It’s just part of grieving and the reality of being mortal.”

‘I remember it as ice, splintering’: an exclusive extract from Aftermath

A police officer on London Bridge, two days after the attack.
A police officer on London Bridge, two days after the attack. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

In the days of the immediate aftermath, I could not sleep. All I wanted was to go back to the day before. If nothing else, to tell Jack do not go to London tomorrow. And further back – who knows how far?

Thursday, 28 November, 2019: A full, busy day. You and Jack are working together inside the prison. Jack is hosting a workshop on the life and teachings of Malcolm X, led by visiting UCLA professor Bryonn Bain. Your writing students join in with a larger group. You remember it as a day of laughter, shared stories: electric with effort. There is a reunion of sorts. For you with men you haven’t seen for a year, two years: you are glad to meet again. Their children have grown older, they say.

In the late afternoon, your small group of writers from university and prison leaves the larger space for their final seminar of 2019. You end the day on a bittersweet note: finalising the drafts of pieces they have been working on through the semester. You leave full of plans for the next meeting, which will take place in January 2020, after the winter break. It is hard to leave. Yes, when we share stories with those who must stay, prison is hard to leave.

Friday, 29 November, 2019: You do not go to the gathering at Fishmongers’ Hall, though you have been invited. You stay at home and prepare notes to chair an admired writer at a literary festival event, taking place in two days’ time. In this life, your other, public, literary life, fictions of self are heavily curated. In some ways this splitting is an act of protection for those who spend more time alone creating others’ speech. But perhaps it asks something specific also of writers with immigrant histories, who – though skilled in navigating and code switching in mainstream life – might have so much further to travel, when focus on our work puts us in the public gaze. Perhaps it can feel like a performance of the oldest pattern repeating, as a trigger, as it is called

Saturday, 30 November: The bright day. You are at home. Objective correlative: Hot coffee and fresh pastries. Breakfast with a friend; your partner in the other room, winter sun coming in through the skylight, the door is open, the coloured glass reflects and refracts, and you see him scrolling, reading something on his phone. He says, Learning Together. He says the perpetrator’s name

A sensation – like floating – while feeling the hardness of the chair you are sitting on digging into your back. Your phone is next to you: you text Please let me know you and the team are physically OK when you can. You remember stepping outside to the sharp incongruity of a world gone white for the first time that year. Trying to de-ice your car: it was parked in the looping street near your house, it would not start.

It is a perfect blue-sky Cambridge day. A frozen day.

When the call came, I remember it as ice, splintering. The shards held in place by the space in between as cold dark matter, as if the world has become all the absurd facts of an exploded shed by the artist Cornelia Parker, as if even now, metaphor will not be stopped. Even while I write, I am enraged by language, can only turn once again to lament

Who will gather and hold these fragments? Who will, O who will?

[ . . . ]

When I think of that time, I think of a fingerprint, lines tracing around each other outwards from the small, intimate core. At heart the family, lovers, the friends and colleagues, spiral outwards, back inwards as you try to catch yourself in freefall

There is a hierarchy to grief. It is profound and right to observe it, especially when deaths happen publicly and violently, when such people as Jack and Saskia, who were just beginning their work and lived with the brightest hope, are killed. Especially then. The beloved young belong to the ones who hold them closest. First and foremost to the intimacy of deep feeling, scent of childhood, growing up, sun holiday. Sound of their footfall, their phrases, the taste of their jokes, trick senses of smell and sight.

Those who are left now must transmute their loss into objects suddenly so precious: necklaces, sunglasses, which yield to the way they laughed: light on water, a certain song. These dear fragments synecdoches of the left-behind. Then they become words, spoken, relayed, written down. A collage of a life. When they open their mourning to the world, it is by kind invitation.

But if grief is a spiral so is guilt. Now for some they bond as double helix in the cells

Survivor’s guilt is felt by those who were invited but did not go to the event, or were not in the same room as where the attack took place; or did not fight the attacker; or were standing near but could not help those hurt; or even those close enough to look into the attacker’s eyes, and speak to him, and say stop. Because we did not die, we can suffer that sense that we have less legitimacy to grieve it seems without end

Some write and apologise for not responding to the invitation to Fishmongers’ Hall, as if they now feel they should have been there, if only to have put their own lives at risk alongside those whose were. Perhaps wanting to have been closer to the feeling that it could have – or should have – been them. Through all of the long months that come, for many that feeling sustains. There should be many words for these kinds of sorrow, these kindred feelings, for us as kin.

[ . . . ]

Those of us carrying the other cannot find comfort or rest. We cannot speak of the disappeared, the dead, who is horror, who has inflicted terror and horror. There is only this: the parabolic descent. Dive into the wreck of what was still a life, and what ruins of life it left. The possibility of a whole life after that

Aftermath by Preti Taneja is published by Transit Books at £11.99. To support the Guardian, order your copy from

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