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The Angry Brigade.The Cause and the Case: A History of Britain’s First Urban Guerilla Group by Gordon Carr

“They were strictly home-grown subversives, owing allegiance to no one but themselves.”

Some time ago, I read Tom Vague’s book about the Angry Brigade, so it was with great delight that I finally got my hands on a copy of The Angry Brigade. The Cause and the Case: A History of Britain’s First Urban Guerilla Group by Gordon Carr. Carr produced a BBC documentary on the subject of the Angry Brigade, and although Tom Vague’s book is easier to find, Carr’s book is far superior, and includes a great deal more comprehensive analysis.

The book begins with an explosion at the home of Britain’s Secretary of State for Employment, Robert Carr. It’s January 1971, and there’s a great deal of labour unrest in Britain. Bombs were not an unknown phenomenon in Britain at this time, and there had been numerous explosions attributed to various groups–including The First of May Group. Up until this point, Britain’s Special Branch had been aware of the existence of a group calling themselves The Angry Brigade, but they weren’t given much attention. The bombing of Carr’s home changed all that, and from that point on considerable resources were applied towards the capture and conviction of those who called themselves The Angry Brigade.

Special Branch detectives soon made connections between Angry Brigade Communiques and Guy Debord’s book Society of the Spectacle. Carr provides a marvelous background portrait of the times, and includes a splendid analysis of Debord’s fascinating, but somewhat impenetrable and didactic theories of consumer society. Carr also examines the ties between the First of May Group and the Angry Brigade, and states that the First of May Group were the first to use communiques “to explain the reasons for a particular act of violence.”

Carr examines the evolution of The Angry Brigade–its actions (including the bombing of the Miss World contest), and the communiques–as well as the political and social lives of those who were finally convicted of involvement–John Barker, Hilary Creek, Jim Greenfield and Anna Mendelson. These four dropped out of university, moved to London, established a commune, became involved in the Squatting movement, formed a Claimant’s Union, and eventually moved away from activism and protest to Direct Action acts of violence against property and the State. Carr details the police investigation, and the final cracking of the case. A considerable amount of the book examines the trial of the “Stoke Newington Eight” (this refers to the eight people who were eventually tried for conspiracy and weapons possession). Large portions of speeches given at the trial are included–as well as evidence, police procedure, forensic connections between The Angry Brigade and The First of May Group, portions of the cross-examinations etc. The trial stands as a landmark in the judicial system for many reasons–and ultimately the guilty verdict comes down to whether or not those accused were aware of a plot to bomb–even if they did not directly participate.

One of the most fascinating things about the book is the way in which it’s quite evident that the police finally made their arrests through the investigations of ‘normal’ crimes (check forgery and credit card theft)–an arena that proved much easier to penetrate. By far the most surprising element of the police investigation is the way in which subversives/agitators are only seen in a one-size-fits-all category. Therefore, to the Special Branch investigators, there is no distinction made between a communist, a Situationist, an anarchist, or a neo-Marxist, etc. The book includes a great postscript–a retrospective–by John Barker, an introduction by Stuart Christie, as well as a chronology and index.

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Anarchy in the UK by Tom Vague

“That well-known group of demolition experts.”

The Vietnam War is raging in Southeast Asia, Carlos the Jackal is on the loose, the Red Army Faction rampages through Germany, and in Britain, the Angry Brigade becomes a household name. These were “angry times”–a time of social unrest, hijacking of planes, and then when bombs started going on in Britain, at first, it wasn’t clear who was responsible ….

It’s 1970, and the first “Communique” from the Angry Brigade is received by “The International Times.” Communique 1 claimed responsibility for machine-gunning the Spanish embassy to protest the sentencing of Basque nationalists. Then with the advent of the new Industrial Relations bill in Jan 1971, the home of employment minister, Robert Carr is bombed, and the Angry Brigade send communique 4 claiming responsibility. Following the bombing of Carr’s house, 6 Conservative party offices are firebombed, and there’s another communique. At this point, no-one had heard of the Angry Brigade, but they can no longer be ignored. As a result, the Special Branch formed a unit to work on cracking the case.

By August 1971, several people were arrested for conspiracy in what became known as the trial of the Stoke Newington 8, and what followed was “Britain’s biggest conspiracy trial.” With 1000 plus pages of evidence, over 800 exhibits, and more than 200 prosecution witnesses, the prosecution sought to prove that the 8 accused were involved in a conspiracy with “the intention of disrupting and attacking” society. The evidence came down to the possession of gelignite and handwritten envelopes which included some of the communiques to the newspapers. The big questions during the trial included whether or not the gelignite had been planted. The prosecution’s case essentially boiled down to the elements of “conspiracy”–the accused did not actually have to plant the bombs (a total of 25) to be guilty of conspiracy–they just had to “know what the agreement” about bombing was.

Anarchy in the UK: The Angry Brigade begins with a decent explanation and overview of Situationist theory–including a glossary. There’s some detail here regarding the unrest amongst French students, the 1968 student riots, the Society of the Spectacle, etc. The author, Tom Vague’s style is relaxed (if you’ve ever read any of Vague’s books, you know what I mean), and he follows the events in typical chronological, very brief style. Vague includes all of the communiques from the Angry Brigade and heavy emphasis is on the trial. There are black and white photos of those involved in the case, and since there’s an extensive cast of characters here, be prepared to take notes.

For those interested reading more on the Angry Brigade, Gordon Carr’s book: The Angry Brigade: The Cause and the Case is the best source I’ve found on the subject, but it’s not easy to find a copy. Vague’s book is not as through source but it’s easier to find.

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Bending the Bars by John Barker

“News came through that a con on C wing had been murdered by screws in the block beaten to pulped pulp then hanged to cover it up, a suicide story. It seemed too cynical to be true. I knew screws could be brutal but this was too much, all my deepest fears congealed.”

In the 1970s, a group called the Angry Brigade claimed responsibility for a number of actions in Britain–including the bombing of the home of employment minister Robert Carr. After other bombings, arrests took place followed by the longest conspiracy trial in the history of the British legal system. At the conclusion of the trial of the Stoke Newington Eight (this refers to the eight people eventually tried for conspiracy and weapons possession) twenty-three-year-old John Barker received a ten-year sentence for his role in the Angry Brigade. Deemed a Category A prisoner–A Danger to the State, Barker was locked up and rotated through several British prisons. After completion of seven years of this sentence (1971-1978), Barker was released. Bending the Bars is a collection of essays covering those seven years inside.

The book is not a memoir in the strictest sense. This is not a chronological account of day one forward until release–although the book does end with Barker walking out of prison. Instead this is a collection of essays highlighting some of Barker’s experiences in prison. Barker states that “the cops had framed an guilty man,” so there’s no self-pity–but there is a strong analysis of exactly what it’s like to be caught in the net and tossed into a system that attempts to manage and control Barker and his fellow cons. In spite of some very hard times, in the foreword, Barker states that his “time inside was the golden age of such prisons…. Since that time we have endured Mrs. Thatcher, Michael Howard and Tony Blair, all keen on punishing people who are not ‘Hard-working families who play by the rules’ as Blair put it. Prison is almost exclusively for working class people who do not ‘play by the rules’.”

Barker argues that prison is “like an experiment in social control” with a purpose under New Labour “to destroy what remains of collective solidarity amongst cons.” Indeed Barker cites many examples of protest solidarity amongst prison inmates, and it’s clear that to the Barker and his fellow cons, they had to stick together. The sense of unity amongst cons prevails–from Barker’s contacts with the Irish prisoners to the odd con rumble, but the cons attempt, for the most part, to retain the sense that their collective situation and condition warrants solidarity. Indeed it’s quite clear that when the cons stand together, they are at their strongest. In-fighting and the odd snitch weaken their solidarity, and tension and frustration erode friendships at times.

The first essay Early Days: Brixton covers Barker’s “comprehensive tour of misery”–his initial adjustment, his boredom, and the realization that in prison you can’t control even a tiniest detail of your own life. Everything is subject to routine–when you get up, when you go to bed, and Barker describes the feeling of power prisoners experience when they execute a seemingly minor act of independence. On the receiving end of the system, Barker recognized that “a sadist in the Home Office” dreamed up many of the conditions inside the prison (Derrick Jensen’s book Welcome to the Machine goes into the subject of prison design in some length). Barker’s argument that some sicko had to have had a hand in designing the prison and its systems of control is a point made repeatedly throughout the book–from the petty humiliations, the “shit parcels,” and the sweat box. On one occasion, the prisoners are ordered to make a large number of prison beds for Saudi Arabia, and on another occasion, the cons gather to watch a film that just happens to have a death row, execution sequence. “Asylum mode” cube shaped cells at Long Lartin Prison seem designed with a clinical interest in isolation in mind, and Barker wryly notes that he “could do without the deluxe shitting service but did not want to live in a box.” In this regimented, depersonalized and isolated world, with privacy stripped away, small kindnesses carry great weight.

The thing I found most surprising about the book is that Barker’s sense of humour prevails. In spite of confinement, in spite of losing someone he loved, he conveys moments of joy, and relates many amusing conversations amongst the prisoners. For example, in the chapter Manoeuvres, Barker recalls a conversation about Pavlov–a touchy subject given the situation. One con enrolled in an Open University course on behavior proceeds to defend Pavlov as a man who “was just describing the facts.” Barker answers: “But the facts as you call them came out of a set-up. The dog didn’t need the fucking bell to eat his dinner.” In another chapter, a con “had this thing about spaceships.”

Bending the Bars comes across as a remarkably honest, direct and unpretentious record of some of Barker’s experiences. This is not an account written by a cynical, hardened, angry individual. Instead, Barker comes across as an accepting individual who learns to cope with imprisonment, who fights depression and despair. He notes guards who seem to have some sort of standard of behavior and guards who are just sadistic and have an unhealthy enjoyment of their jobs. Included are some fascinating observations about the Irish prisoners, and this brings up the issue of hunger strikes. Barker includes his thoughts on the hunger strike as a tactic and notes that while he was willing to join such a motion in solidarity, “we didn’t believe in it as a tactic because it seemed to assume that the other side were ultimately humane people.” I’d never thought of it in those terms before.

The book makes it clear that the notion that prison is supposed to ‘rehabilitate’ inmates is ludicrous. It’s all about punishment, power, and control–although Barker did get to make a few pillowcases. On another note, I wish the book included some sort of glossary. I was able to infer meaning into some terms used, but in other cases, I had no clue what some words meant.

On an aside note, and to reiterate Barker’s observation that “prison is almost exclusively for working class people who do not “play by the rules” Z Magazine January 2008 pp. 23-24 included the “Prison Challenge Quiz.” If you haven’t seen this and are interested in the subject, get your hands on a copy. Anyway, question 12 asks: Which crime will get a stuffer sentence?

a. embezzling $5,000,000
b. stealing a doughnut.

In case you made the mistake of using common sense to gauge your answer, I’ll include the answer; it’s b: stealing a doughnut. A man pinched a doughnut. This was shoplifting, but pushing a shop worker in the process turned the incident into armed robbery. That would normally have netted a 5-15 year sentence, but a prior record could bring a sentence of 30 years to life.

The million-dollar embezzler, on the other hand, an Enron conspirator pled guilty to helping himself to more than 5 million. This landed a 6-year sentence but good behavior could shave off 2 years.

If you are interested in reading more about The Angry Brigade, I recommend Anarchy in the UK: The Angry Brigade by Tom Vague and The Angry Brigade: The Cause and The Case. Britain’s First Urban Guerilla Group by Gordon Carr.

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