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The Angry Brigade

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Quartet, London, 1973
(price: 50p; 186 pages)

dedication: For Peter and Pat

The blurb on the back:

Who are the Angry Brigade? Are they psychopaths? Mindless anarchists? Or are they truly representative of the New Left at its most activist and ruthless? Nobody knows, except the Angry Brigade's members, and they have chosen to remain silent.
But by a deft combination of serious in-depth research and imaginative reconstruction the author has built up an illuminating picture of six people - four men, two women - who were closely involved in various acts of political violence, including the bombing of the Post Office Tower. Tape-recorded interviews present us with a collective biography which explains the backgrounds, radicalization and motives of those involved, and a masterly blend of fact and fiction tells how the Angry Brigade was organized, how its activities were undertaken, and provides some penetrating insights into the mind of the urban guerrilla.
As a novelist, playwright and lawyer, Alan Burns has used all his talents in the research and writing of this remarkable book. He is a barrister, did research in politics at the London School of Economics, and since 1965 has been a full-time writer. He has published six books, five of them novels, and one play.

The Italians had the Red Brigades, the Germans had the Red Army Faction, we had the Angry Brigade. Ever feel you've been cheated? Why weren't they just called the Really Cross Faction and have done with it? Or - if we were going to allude to earlier literary movements - the Kitchen Sink Army?

Anyway, the Angry Brigade were a loose group of anarchists in the early-1970s who planted a few bombs (including, absurdly enough, one in Biba), failed to build any significant levels of support amongst the British working class, and were consequently crushed as soon as the State turned its attention to them. Which it did quite quickly in a major trial of eight people at the Old Bailey: four of the accused were sentenced to ten years each for conspiracy, four were acquitted. (Amongst the latter, incidentally, was Stuart Christie, whose book, The Floodgates of Anarchy - co-written with Albert Meltzer - is one of the few works to come out of British anarchism that's worth reading.)

Having achieved nothing at all, the Angry Brigade soon found that their entire contribution to the fight against international capital was eclipsed by the arrival on the British mainland of Irish terrorism. And that was serious stuff: where the Angry Brigade had exploded over a hundred bombs without killing anyone at all, the IRA took the more direct option of putting a bomb in a Birmingham pub on a Saturday night and murdering lots and lots of people. Which made the anarchist version seem quite quaint really. Consequently, they've been largely largely forgotten. Or else relegated to the fringes of the post-hippie counter-culture.

This book by Alan Burns dates from a time before the Angry Brigade were written out of history and it's an early example of the docu-drama. Unfortunately, that means that it shares all the irritating elements of that bastardized artform: when you want a coherent, structured story, you get episodic realism, and when you want documented fact, you get leaps of imagination.

The story's told in the first person by six characters in search of an action. They're reasonably convincing portrayals of the types found on the left fringes of politics, though there's not much to choose between their narrative tones and the sheer subjectivity soon becomes wearing. You get the impression that Burns has done his research, but it's really no substitute for a decent account of the 'movement' that you could actually rely on to be truthful. As far as I know, such a thing doesn't exist.

not really very angry at all
Angry Brigade supporters
at the Old Bailey trial

PS  There's a lovely note at the beginning: 'The author would like to acknowledge the financial assistance of the Arts Council of Great Britain.' That's your actual anarchy, right there, that is.


bonus cover...

Europe After The Rain

visit an interview with Alan Burns
or a history of the Angry Brigade
Another book on 1970s terrorism? Why not?

Harry Arvay, Blow the Four Winds