On 20 August 1971, John Barker was arrested during a police raid on number 359 Amhurst Road. He was detained by a specialist unit, the Bomb Squad, which had been set up at the start of the year with the express purpose of laying hands on him and the organisation he was part of, the Angry Brigade, which was linked to 25 bombings of MPs’ homes, government buildings and company offices between August 1970 and August 1971.
One person was slightly injured by an Angry Brigade bomb, but no one was killed. According to police reports, there was a fair-sized arsenal in the Amhurst Road flat, including three guns, ammunition, sticks of gelignite and detonators to set them off. Barker was put on trial with seven associates – ‘the Stoke Newington Eight’ – at which it was argued that the group had conspired to cause explosions only for publicity purposes, not to harm anyone.
Supported by the Stoke Newington Eight Defence Committee (“a widely-based, politically creative organisation of very different people,” several of whom had legal expertise), Barker, like fellow-accused Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson, opted to defend himself. He says he was better at fighting his corner in the courtroom than he ever was at being an urban guerrilla, and going to Cambridge possibly helped.
Barker studied English at Clare College, Cambridge, and his old supervisor, John Newton, spoke up for him at the trial. Barker never sat his finals exams, however: along with six other students, he tore up the paper in a “quixotic protest” against elitism. “It was because – and I still think this is the case – that the education system, increasingly so, is one basically that excludes. And the function of exams, in the class system, is one of exclusion. And I don’t regret it.”
He doesn’t regret the Angry Brigade’s use of violence, either. “It’s not a moral question is it? It’s, you know, did it do anything strategic? Obviously you don’t want to hurt people. In the Angry Brigade trial it was proven over and over again that we wanted to cause damage to property but not to people.
“I’m totally against terrorism as I understand it which is indiscriminate killing.”
Nowadays, Barker works as a book-indexer and writer. His new novel, Futures, follows ‘City gents’ Phil and Jack as they plot to set up a cocaine futures market, pitting their analytical skills against understated psychopathic gang-master Gordon Murray, who has a line in Commercial Road wine-bars and softish-core Iranian porn.
Set in 1987, one year after Thatcher government deregulation unleashed the ‘Big Bang’ on the City of London, the book experiments with the kind of levelling attitude a life spent around money can engender, one which takes a wide view of the world but reduces events to a single point of significance. Its analyst characters, according to Barker, “are in a very ruthless way looking at what changes the price of things, and it makes no difference to them whether that’s people getting killed in a mine in South Africa or some shift in American monetary policy – they look at it all in the same way.”
Barker classifies Futures as a “dark comedy”, stripping the glamour off money and drugs. The story alternates between a third-person narration and a first-person view from behind Murray’s eyes. “I wanted his voice in particular because I think he’s a bore,” says Barker. ‘He’s really boring, not only unromantic but the way he kind of mimics neo-liberal language.” Murray is professional, self-controlled, but “in the end, a bit of a panicker”, a sort of gangland mirror of financiers in 1987, which included, in October, the panicked crash Black Monday.
Barker followed such events devotedly in the Financial Times, whenever he was able to persuade the group of ‘nutcases and gangsters’ he shared a prison wing with to vote to have it as their paper of the month.
As well as writing, Barker is also collaborating with the Austrian artist Ines Doujakon on art and performance work Loomshuttles/Warpaths, telling the story of textiles and colonialism over the last 1000 years, and showing this summer at the Sao Paulo Biennale.
He looks back on the Angry Brigade years with “critical respect”: “My respect about it is the commitment and the anger, that I still feel and probably even more so.
“Critical in that we didn’t change anything much. And I suppose it wasn’t very democratic politics.”
The current political situation is, he says, “horrible”. “At a subliminal level, there’s this whole thing, all across Europe, that the poor have had it too good. Elites are always going on about ‘yes, you know welfare’s too soft,’ or this and that are too soft.” He’s critical too of the accompanying idea that ‘the Chinese are coming’: “There’s always this implication that there is a threat from Asia, so we need to adopt Asian values, Asian wage-levels, and we’re too soft and we can’t compete; which I think is by and large a nonsense because they’re not looking at what’s going on in Asia, where you have huge levels of class-struggle going on.”
The fight today is about the particular, the unfungible: “The people I admire now are people who at an everyday level are fighting to keep nurseries open, or actually, you know, battling against real substantial cuts – that very unglamorous political work is the most important.”
This is the small scale, un-regarded work which world-bestriding views tend not to notice, be they global capitalist or those of classical Marxism.
John Barker will be speaking at The White Hart, Stoke Newington High Street on Sunday 8 June at 2pm, as part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival.
Win two free tickets to the event by answering correctly the following question:
In the 1970s, the Angry Brigade firebombed a building where Stoke Newington Bookshop now stands. What was there before it was bombed?
A – a launderette B – Barclays Bank C – James Preston Butcher D – a church