Tonight, the new play about 1970s anarchist bombers The Angry Brigade is being premiered at the Bush Theatre in London.
I have always thought it odd that The Angry Brigade are seldom mentioned in social histories of the 1960s and 1970s. They were active around 1969-1972 and the Bomb Squad (now called SO13) was specifically formed to track down The Angry Brigade.
Their targets included banks, embassies, factories, the 1970 Miss World contest (a BBC Outside Broadcast van was bombed) and the homes of judges, police chiefs and government MPs. In 1971, a bomb exploded in the Post Office Tower (now renamed the BT Tower) and two bombs exploded outside Employment Secretary Robert Carr’s house.
I have a friend called Sam Taylor. Well, no, I don’t. I have no friend called Sam Taylor. But let us pretend that is his real name. It is not.
When I mentioned the new play at the Bush Theatre to Sam Taylor, he told me he did not think the play should have been written.
“Why?” I asked him.
“Because,” he told me, “I thought the Angry Brigade were meaningless. I thought they were just a sad little collection of young people who were doing something which was very wrong. They were making the facts fit the plot. They wanted to do something. They were caught up in their own propaganda. These days, the propaganda is political correctness. Back then, it was anarchism. I can only remember being in the same room as them once.”
“With who?” I asked.
“With the four who were convicted. The men I can’t remember at all. I remember one of the girls. They were very unprepossessing young people. I only remember them being in the corner of a room, probably at some meeting about what time we were going to arrive at Covent Garden Market in the morning to pick up the fruit and veg.
“London had had the Vietnam protests and there were a lot of Americans in London at the time. So, from that protest movement grew this anarchist movement and it had its roots in things which are quite acceptable now.”
“You were living in a squat at that time?” I asked.
“No,” said Sam. “The squatting movement was pretty much starting up around then, but we are not squatting. We were renting. We were a collective. It was a very loose group of anarchists, all having different aims. The other collectives were quite well-off. We were probably the poorest. The other collectives were not short of money. We were the only working class people I ever met. In one collective, one of the members was very much into women’s refuges. I remember there was a Food Co-op but also there was an Adventure Playground group. Adventure Playgrounds were thought to be quite revolutionary in their day.
“These were not mainstream things in those times and that was the link. That was how I got to be on the fringes of these collectives. We only ever knew them as the name of where they lived. It was a very small, loosely-connected group of collectives and one of them was the Amhurst Road Collective.”
“Which,” I said, “was partly the Angry Brigade.”
“Yes,” said Sam. “But I didn’t know that at the time. The extraordinary thing about the whole of that anarchist movement is how nobody has spoken about it. The big story is the extraordinary loyalty. As far as I know, I never heard that anyone had shopped anyone else. Everyone was being arrested, followed, searched, intimidated, beaten-up…”
“I think,” I said, “that beating-up suspects was standard practice at the time.”
“Yes,” Sam agreed. “The words you did not want to hear were: Come along with me to Barnet police station.”
“Barnet?” I asked.
“For some reason it was always Barnet police station. We were just hearing: Such-and-such a collective were all taken to Barnet. They were trying to say these people were loosely affiliated but, after people were arrested and released and their names were in the frame, the bombings were still continuing. As far as I know, nobody has ever come clean about what was actually going on and who was running it.
“There was clearly, from what I could see, a lot of coming-and-going between France, Germany and London and the people I met had clearly been very involved in the student revolt in Paris in 1968. I never knew the back story except I knew there were foreign links. The people in these other collectives had links with foreigners and they were going off abroad.
“The other thing I remember is someone called Petra turning up and I was told I had to leave the house I was staying in because Petra was arriving. When I asked about her, everyone closed down and I was even told there were two Petras. I wondered if that was to throw me off the scent. I always wondered if was Petra from the Baader-Meinhof group.”
(In May 1970, Petra Schelm travelled with other members of Baader-Meinhof to Jordan where they were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organisation in urban guerrilla warfare. On 15 July 1971, after a car chase in Hamburg, Petra fired a handgun at police. The police returned fire, allegedly with a submachine gun. However, a closeup photograph of her body taken at the scene immediately after her death shows a single gunshot wound through the eye.)
“I don’t know if there was a link with the Baader-Meinhof group,” Sam told me, “because nobody has ever come out and spoken about any links between all those groups. There were lots and lots of raids going on and the one thing they were always after was address books.
“At the time, my collective were simply paranoid about smoking dope. We knew we were being watched, but we thought it was the Drugs Squad. I took it all with a pinch of salt. But then we heard Amhurst Road mentioned in the news and we saw the names and we realised it was that collective. And all these people were being arrested and taken to Barnet police station. We were surprised and shocked and moved out very quickly.
“I went to stay on people’s floors within London. They were regarded as safe houses; I don’t know why. I don’t know why they were safe when everyone else was being picked up. Then I worked under another name in London and then I left London to work in the West Country.
“It seemed to me from what I read and heard that they were framed by the police, that the evidence was planted on them. Clearly they were involved in it – but it may simply have been that they were the printing press.”
“Supposedly,” I said, “the Rolling Stones’ arrest involved drugs being planted on them. They were guilty as hell, but the police planted the drugs to get an arrest.”
“Exactly,” said Sam. “That seemed to be accepted at the time. What came out at the trial was that they seemed to have believed the… I don’t know much about the others. I only know about the four. I didn’t really follow it at the time… But, as far as I know, no-one was ever arrested successfully for placing the bombs. They were charged with conspiracy. No people – because it seemed there were many more than just one person – were actually successfully arrested or prosecuted for planting the bombs.”
“There were an awful lot of bombs going off,” I said to Sam.
“Yes,” he agreed. “And the press were not printing them all. There were a great many more bombs than were publicised. I found that out retrospectively. And what happened has stayed with me. Even now, I instinctively don’t like having my picture taken.”
There is a trailer on YouTube for the Bush Theatre play.