Francis Wheen
Strange Days Indeed

In the summer of 1972 the Oval House in London staged Foco Novo, an agitprop drama by Bernard Pomerance celebrating the struggle of Latin American guerrillas against military oppression and US imperialism, which kept its audience in a state of thrilled terror with occasional armed raids through the theatre's street doors. (The Times's critic, spoiling the fun as ever, pointed out that the play was rather
ineffective as agitprop since the only characters to emerge as human beings were the villainous Americans, while the guerrillas remained plaster saints. 'I doubt whether the Tupamaros or any other such group would recognise themselves in these boy scout patriots.') A few months later cinema-goers could enjoy State of Siege, Costa-Gavras's account of the abduction and murder of Dan Mitrione by the Tupamaros, which presented Mitrione as a CIA agent who deserved his fate. 'I went to see that film,' an Argentine guerrilla recalled years later. 'Before entering the cinema I was an imbecile. I left the cinema as a revolutionary.' Its American premiere at the Kennedy center in Washington DC was cancelled by the director of the American Film Institute, George Stevens, on the grounds that Costa-Gavras had 'rationalised an act of political assassination.' In California, members of the Symbionese Liberation Army watched State of Siege like students poring over a crib sheet before an exam, hoping to learn the secret of the Tupamaros' success. The SLA's first widely-publicised action—the assassination of a 'fascist' public official in Oakland, California—was the result, though it seems unlikely that their Latin American tutors would have awarded many marks for the choice of victim: the local schools superintendent, Dr Marcus Foster, whom they shot with hollowpoint bullets dipped in cyanide, was not only popular with liberals and the black community but also happened to be an African-American himself. The Black Panthers denounced the SLA's psychopathic commander, a petty crook named Donald DeFreeze, as a police agent working to discredit the entire underground.

Whlle Tariq Ali and the International Marxist Group drooled over the exploits of Latin American guerrillas or republican fighters in Northern Ireland (one pamphlet advertised by the IMG in 1973 was simply titled Freedom Struggle by the Provisional IRA), they seemed strangely reluctant to take up arms themselves. Ali was once approached by someone claiming to represent the Angry Brigade, London's only home-grown terrorist group, who suggested it might be a good idea to plant a bomb at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. 'I told them it was a terrible idea,' he says. 'They were a distraction. It was difficult enough building an anti-war movement without the press linking this kind of action to the wider Left.' The logic is hard to fathom, given that his newspaper would applaud similar attacks elsewhere in the world.

The Angry Brigade's brief but spectacular war began on 30 August 1970, with a bomb at the house of the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir John Waldron. A week later they targeted the home of Sir Peter Rawlinson, the attorney general. Over the next year there were twenty-three more bombings—against targets as diverse as the Miss World contest, the Home Secretary and the Spanish Embassy—but no fatalities. This was perhaps the only guerrilla band of the early 1970s which never killed anybody—a point of enduring pride for Hilary Creek, one of the surviving Angries. 'Basically, I'm not ashamed of anything I have done,' she said more than thirty years later, breaking her long silence in an interview with the Observer. The only flash of anger occurred when the man from the Observer mentioned bombs:
You use the word 'bomb,' but be careful about using it because nowadays that's such a value-loaded term. You think of Omagh, you are not thinking of half a pound of gelignite that causes small structural damage. It is important to put things in perspective. What nobody picked up on was that it wasn't the bombs themselves that they were worried about. It was the fact that it exposed the vulnerability of the system. How could someone go and do in the back door of a minister? It wasn't so much the criminal damage, it was the fact that it made them look stupid.
Karl Marx said that change comes not from the weakness of the powerful, but from the strength of the powerless. The urban guerrillas in Europe and America sought to exploit both at once—asserting their own strength by demonstrating the impotence of the state—though they were scarcely the people Marx had in mind: like the Tupamaros, most of them were university-educated youths from the middle class. Hilary Creek, whose father worked in the City, attended Watford Grammar School and Essex University. Almost every soldier in the Angry Brigade—and there were probably no more than half a dozen—had studied at either Essex or Cambridge. 'We were not that serious,' says John Barker, who ripped up his Cambridge finals papers as a protest against the Vietnam War. 'Yeah, man, we never took it seriously anyway: what I mean is that like many people then and now we smoked a lot of dope and spent a lot of time having a good time.' The proletarian odd-man-out in this troupe of strolling minstrels and wastrels was Jake Prescott, who had been an orphan at the age of seven and a convicted burglar by the time he entered his teens. While serving a jail sentence for possessing a firearm, in the late 1960s, he read about the Black Panthers and their belief in armed resistance. 'I took it all to heart. I had no objectivity. So when I got out of jail I thought, "London here I come." I wanted to live it.' He fetched up in an Islington commune with several members of the Angry Brigade, who asked him to address three envelopes for them one day in January l972. What he didn't realise, until he heard a news bulletin the next morning, was that the envelopes, sent to national newspapers, contained a communique claiming responsibility for an attack on the house of Robert Cart Ted Heath's secretary of state for employment: 'Robert Carr got it tonight. We're getting closer. The Angry Brigade.'

Hunting down the Angries suddenly became the top priority for the police and security services. Scotland Yard seconded thirty officers from Special Branch and the Flying Squad into a new unit known as the Bomb Squad. The Daily Mirror offered a £10,000 reward for information which led to an arrest. The Times warned that the Angry Brigade 'cannot now be dismissed as a group of cranks. Some senior officers credit the group with a degree of professional skill that has seldom been experienced.' All most flattering for a handful of dropouts whose technical expertise was limited to lighting a fuse on a stick of gelignite, and who used a child's John Bull printing set to typeset their communiqu6s. Naturally, the Angries basked in the flattery, issuing ever more extravagant bulletins about the might of their invisible regiments.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.