Investigation: The Angry Brigade

They were the British Baader Meinhof, 70s icons of the radical left. Thirty years ago, the Angry Brigade launched a string of bombing attacks against the heart of the British Establishment. No one was killed, but after a clampdown on the 'counter culture' and amid accusations of a Bomb Squad 'fix', four radicals were sentenced to 10 years in prison. Now, for the very first time, two of the Angries break their vow of silence

Amhurst Road hasn't changed much in the past 30 years. Rotting chunks of low-rise council blocks break up the long lines of run-down Victorian villas. There are trees, but they don't look at home. There are shops, but no banks, just the odd bureau for cashing cheques. Here and there, towards the top of Amhurst Road, pockets of gentility peek through the desperation. At the farthest point north, as Amhurst Road ends and Stoke Newington begins, there's even a delicatessen. But all-in-all it's pretty low-key and anonymous. You could easily blend into the surroundings if you were a criminal. Or a terrorist.

Number 359, the last building on Amhurst Road, has been spruced up a little, but it hasn't changed much since 20 August 1971, when a police squad raided the upstairs flat and found a small arsenal of weapons and explosives. They belonged to Britain's only homegrown urban terrorist group, the Angry Brigade. In the series of 25 bombings attributed to them no one was killed (one person was slightly injured), but they were a serious embarrassment to Edward Heath's government. For a brief period between August 1970 and August 1971, the authorities were unable to stop a group of left-wing adventurers bombing the homes of Tory politicians, as well as government and corporate offices.

The Bomb Squad, set up in January 1971 with the specific job of catching 'the Angries', had received a tip-off that the flat had been rented by four university dropouts wanted in connection with the bombs. When they smashed through the door at four o'clock that Friday afternoon, the squad couldn't believe its luck. There, according to the police account of events, they found more than 60 rounds of ammunition, a Browning revolver, a sten gun, and a Beretta said to have been used in an attack on the US embassy in 1967. In a cabinet in the hallway was a polythene bag stuffed with 33 sticks of gelignite and more ammunition. They also found detonators, a knife, a hand-operated duplicating machine used for the production of 'communiqués', and a John Bull children's printing set used to authenticate Angry Brigade releases to the press. Bags of documents removed from the flat included lists of names and addresses of prominent Tories: employment secretary Robert Carr, whose home had been bombed in January 1971, Attorney-General Sir Peter Rawlinson who had been targeted the previous September and John Davies, the secretary of state for Trade and Industry, whose heavily guarded town house in Chelsea had been bombed three weeks before the raid. Also included was the man who would later become the chief ideologue of Thatcherism, Keith Joseph, and the future chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, then an obscure junior minister.

The police hid out in the house and the next day arrested two more suspects: Chris Bott, who had been an activist at Essex University, and Stuart Christie, an anarchist, known for his opposition to General Franco. A series of round-ups and raids in the months that followed led to the arrest of dozens of Angry Brigade suspects, but only two were linked to the six arrested in Amhurst Road: art student Kate McLean, and telephonist Angela Weir, now better known as Angela Mason OBE, director of Stonewall, the gay equality group. They became known as the Stoke Newington Eight.

The people they arrested that August day on Amhurst Road fitted perfectly the Establishment's picture of dissolute middle-class revolutionaries plotting to undermine civilised values. James Greenfield and John Barker had both been at Cambridge before they ripped up their finals papers in 1968 as a political protest and joined the growing underground that had sprung up around opposition to the Vietnam war. Anna Mendleson and Hilary Creek had started at Essex University in 1967, but after their second year likewise gravitated to the alternative political scene in London's communes and squats. Bott had been involved in the student riots in Paris in 1968 before enrolling as a post-graduate student at Essex, and Christie was already wanted for a series of attacks on Spanish targets in London.

It didn't take long for a mythology of hippie outlaws and their molls to develop around the two couples from Amhurst Road. This was helped in no small degree by the Angry Brigade's own ironic propaganda: one early communiqué was signed 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' and another 'The Wild Bunch'. The prurient drooling began even before the four had been identified. 'Girl slept with bedside arsenal' claimed one tabloid, while another screamed, 'Dropouts with brains tried to launch bloody revolution.' Meanwhile, a Sun reporter produced a bizarre story headlined 'Sex Orgies at the Cottage of Blood' about a house where the four were once said to have stayed. Here they were said to have ritually sacrificed a turkey while indulging in the nightmare revolutionary cocktail of 'bizarre sexual activities' and 'anarchist-type meetings.' Even the broadsheets couldn't resist. On the weekend after their trial was over, The Observer used the by-now iconic pictures of the two 22-year-olds as an eye-catching addition to its table of contents. What the press didn't know was that every time they used the images, they were contributing to a defence group fund. In a move that demonstrated a canny understanding of the media's thirst for images of pretty girls, Creek and Mendleson had a set of photographs secretly taken during the trial and gave the copyright to friends to manage.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the Angry Brigade trial, which lasted from May to December in 1972. Barker, Greenfield, Creek and Mendleson all received 10-year sentences, reduced from 15 after pleas of clemency from the jury, for 'conspiring to cause explosions likely to endanger life or cause serious injury to property'. The other four defendants were acquitted. Jake Prescott, a burglar and heroin addict from Fife, who got mixed up in the politics of the Angry Brigade, had already been sentenced to 15 years in November 1971, although this was later reduced to 10.

Today, the cases have all but faded from the collective memory, but for those still nostalgic for a time before irony had replaced political commitment, the 'Angries' retain a cult status. For the most part, however, if they register at all now it is only as a quaint Pythonesque version of their more murderous continental counterparts, Germany's Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades in Italy.

But at the time, the Conservative government took the Angry Brigade very seriously indeed. By June 1971, when the home of William Batty, a director of the Ford plant at Dagenham, was damaged by an Angry Brigade bomb, The Telegraph reported that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Waldron had been instructed to 'smash the Angry Brigade'. The raids on squats, communes and bookshops that followed, represented an unprecedented crackdown on the counter-culture culminating in the raid on Amhurst Road. The police strategy, which coincided with the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland, had the desired effect: the Angry Brigade was snuffed out before it had a chance to gather momentum.

The reason the story of the Angry Brigade has never fully been told is that none of the main protagonists have ever spoken about what really happened all those years ago. A collective vow of silence was taken by those involved in the trial. That same agreement was also honoured by the defendants that were acquitted and the substantial network of friends that made up the Stoke Newington Eight defence committee. Now, for the first time, one of them has broken that wall of silence. Hilary Creek, who was 22 at the time of her arrest, believes the time has come to scotch some of the more lurid myths that surrounded them.

'I was sick of sitting by and waiting passively for the next slap in the face from the mass media, who rarely reported anything but the prosecution case,' she says. 'But I thought I didn't really have the right to grumble if I didn't try to do something to rectify the situation myself.'

The Angry Brigade was no joke for Creek, the youngest of the defendants, who like Anna Mendleson and her partner John Barker, came from a solidly middle-class background. Her father worked in the City and she attended Watford Grammar School where she discovered a talent for economics. At Essex University she became involved in the revolutionary politics that dominated the life of the campus and eventually drew her into open conflict with the British state. She is central to the story of the Angry Brigade. In the week before her arrest, she travelled to Paris where she met representatives of the French underground movement in the Latin Quarter. The police alleged she also collected the 33 sticks of gelignite found in the flat at Amhurst Road.

I have met Creek on two occasions and what is most remarkable about her is that her politics have remained largely unchanged over 30 years. She supports the anti-globalisation protesters, but stays away from demonstrations, knowing it would do the cause no good if it was associated with a convicted terrorist. She is almost unrecognisable from the old photographs and she likes it that way. Her hair is shorter now and a lifetime's smoking has taken its toll. On top of that, the lights of her isolation cell in Holloway caused permanent damage to her eyes. She has now recovered from the anorexia she developed in prison, but still talks passionately about the damage the experience inflicted.

'Anyone who says that prison rehabilitates people is insane,' she says. 'A long prison sentence completely stops you being able to lead a normal life. When I first came out I had to teach myself to do the most ordinary things, like going to the shops.' She believes she was lucky to survive the prison experience at all. She was threatened with being sent to a secure hospital and was only saved by the intervention of a psychologist. 'They said they could fix it so I would be detained "at Her Majesty's pleasure",' she says. 'That was terrifying. I would still have been inside now.'

While in Holloway, she was often kept in isolation, or in a wing with other long-term prisoners, including Myra Hindley, who became a good friend. When she developed anorexia nervosa she was finally released for hospital treatment. But the press wouldn't leave her alone. The Mail splashed the scandal of the 'bomb girl' who had been released into the community across its front page.

MPs demanded an immediate inquiry, but Home Secretary Robert Carr, whose house had been bombed by the Angry Brigade, refused to bow to pressure and allowed her to continue treatment. When she was let out on parole in 1977, her conditions included a ban on leaving the town where she lived for any reason, having anyone to stay in her house or any political activity of any kind. When she first came out, she and her family received anonymous death threats and after completing a degree at Swansea University she began to do research which took her abroad, where she finally settled.

After months of negotiation, she agreed to speak on the record to The Observer , but only if we agreed not to reveal her whereabouts, her professional activities, or publish a contemporary photograph.

Speaking now about the Angry Brigade bombing campaign, she says it was a distraction from the main political thrust of the movement. But the bombs are a difficult issue to avoid and it is the only moment during our discussions that she comes close to losing her temper: '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 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.'

Basically, I'm not ashamed of anything I have done.' she says. 'Going from the student protests at Essex to the organisation for the Vietnam war demonstrations, squatting and the early women's movement. Some of the things we did I am proud of and we still see the effects now.' She argues that most of the work of the movement that was linked to the Angry Brigade went largely unseen. Creek and her friends were involved in campaigns that were considered subversive three decades ago, but now sound entirely mainstream: winter-heating campaigns for the elderly, schemes to set up adventure playgrounds in inner cities, and shelters for the victims of domestic violence. 'There was a lot going on and each of us had our own particular area. But there was no organisation that you could in any way coerce. It was just people helping and supporting each other. There was discipline, there had to be, but they didn't know where to attack us. I think that's why their action against us was so extreme. Because what we were doing was a new form of politics and anything new is frightening for the state.'

Creek refuses to be drawn on precisely what her involvement was with the bombing campaign and it is important to remember that none of the defendants were ever convicted of planting explosives. But she is right when she says that the Angry Brigade bombs made the Heath government look 'stupid'. By hitting targets connected with the hated Industrial Relations Bill they also attracted a limited amount of support from workers against the proposed dismantling of the power of the trade unions. During the trial, thousands of badges were sold with 'I'm in the Angry Brigade'.

It is difficult now to imagine the intensity of the times. Edward Heath was locked into a lengthy dispute with workers who occupied the Clydeside shipyards in Glasgow, which would eventually end with a humiliating climbdown for the government. Internment was introduced in Northern Ireland and the Bloody Sunday massacre of civil-rights marchers in January 1972 happened while the Angry Brigade suspects were awaiting trial. One document found in the raids across London that weekend brought the three causes together in a mini-manifesto: 'Put the boot in - Bogside, Clydeside - Support the Angry side'.

Creek also believes lessons should be drawn from the trial itself, a unique moment in judicial history. Barker, Mendleson and Creek, all under the age of 24, chose to conduct their own defences with a young barrister, Ian McDonald, acting for Greenfield. Much to the irritation of the police, they also chose to exercise their right to interview every juror about his or her background and political allegiances, to weed out anyone connected with groups that had been targeted by the Angry Brigade. In addition, the youthful defendants also introduced the concept of 'Mackenzies', named after a case in the divorce courts. These were assistants -in this case friends from the Stoke Newington Eight Defence Committee - who sat in the well of the court and were allowed to help and advise the accused. 'The hardest thing was that we were running a political defence in a country where there are, officially, no political trials,' Creek explains. 'John, Anna and I defended ourselves as a political decision. We decided the only way to counter the conspiracy charge was to make the jury understand what our real political activity was, who we were and where we were coming from.'

Between them, the defence was highly effective, successfully casting serious doubt on most police evidence against them, including the arsenal found at Amhurst Road, which they claimed was planted on them. Government forensics and fingerprinting experts found their professional credibility brought seriously into doubt. The four also took advantage of the moments when detectives over-reached themselves in the desire to produce evidence. For instance, Creek questioned how the police could have found a pair of gloves impregnated with explosives in the pockets of a pair of her trousers when the trousers concerned were proven to have no pockets.

'The only concrete evidence they had, we quickly disposed of,' she says. 'All they were left with was the conspiracy charges.'

'We will never know all the answers,' says Ian McDonald QC, now one of the country's most respected human rights lawyers. 'But there's no doubt about it, forensically you could sustain a defence that those weapons and explosives were planted.'

Commander Ernest Bond, the first head of the Bomb Squad, doesn't see it that way, although he admits that when he first started investigating the Angry Brigade in January 1971, the only explosives he knew about were used for blowing safes. Now in his eighties, Bond still talks like a character from Z Cars , the popular cop show of the period. 'They were a cunning lot the Angry Brigade, well wrapped up in that anarchist movement. They were belligerent and very "anti" and there was no sense that they were sorry for what they had done. Right from the start, there were allegations that we'd planted this and planted that. It was the most disgraceful trial I've ever seen in my experience.'

It is tempting to look upon the Angry Brigade convictions as miscarriages of justice, because we know what happened shortly afterwards in the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six cases. What can be said is that the police's ham-fisted investigation made it look like they were fitting people up. Thankfully, the matter is clarified in a review by John Barker of a book about the Angry Brigade: 'In 1971-72, I was convicted in the Angry Brigade trial and spent seven years in jail. In my case, the police framed a guilty man.' Barker also articulates the criminal naivete of the Angry Brigade's actions. 'For one thing we were libertarian communists believing in the mass movement and for another we were not that serious. Put baldly like this it sounds especially arrogant. 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.'

Jake Prescott knows a lot about having a good time, as only someone who has had some genuinely bad times can. He is sitting in his Hackney home, just a few minutes, walk from Amhurst Road, every bit the working-class ghost at the Angry Brigade's bourgeois feast. Put into an orphanage at seven, convicted of his first crime at 11 (stealing a box of paints), and a drug addict and burglar by the time he was in his teens, Prescott didn't stand a chance. But in the mid-60s, when he was sent to Albany Prison for possession of a firearm, he discovered the revolutionary politics of the black civil rights movement. '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.'

In prison, he'd met Ian Purdie, a young revolutionary who was serving nine months for throwing a petrol bomb at an army recruitment office. Through Purdie he was introduced to a commune in Grosvenor Avenue, Islington, with close links to the Angry Brigade. But Prescott got in too deep with the revolutionaries and one day in January 1972 found himself in a house in Notting Hill agreeing to address three envelopes for Angry Brigade communiqués. Prescott says he had no idea the contents of the envelopes were claims of responsibility for an attack on the Barnet home of Robert Carr that night.

Prescott read about the bombing in the papers the following morning and says that from that moment he knew the game was up. 'I literally walked into a wall when I read it,' he says. Later, when he left prison, Prescott wrote to Carr apologising for his involvement, an apology the minister gracefully accepted over tea at the House of Lords. Prescott still feels resentment towards the people who asked him to write out the envelopes. None of them were ever convicted and Prescott refused to name them under interrogation. But he now says that the apology to Carr represents a turning-point in his life. He found a job at a citizens' advice bureau in Sheffield and began to train in employment law. He is now married with two young children, whom he cares for while his wife goes out to work.

'As the only working-class member, I was not surprised to be the first in and last out of prison. When I look back on it, I was the one who was angry and the people I met were more like the Slightly Cross Brigade.'

The Trotskyist groups of the period always viewed the Angry Brigade with suspicion and the hostility among veterans is as strong as ever. Tariq Ali remembers being approached by someone claiming to represent the Angry Brigade, suggesting it might be an idea to plant a bomb at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. 'I told them it was a terrible idea. 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.'

Nigel Fountain, who wrote the definitive history of the alternative media during the period, Underground , said that many people on the Left were forced to support the Stoke Newington Eight out of a sense of solidarity. 'We saw them as a bunch of libertarian adventurists. But as soon as they went on trial you couldn't condemn them and we were dragged through it with gritted teeth.'

Creek and Prescott have taken different paths since leaving prison, but both emerged from their Angry Brigade past with their sanity and their principles intact. In a sense, the Angry Brigade was the making of Prescott. He believes he would still be a criminal and drug addict if he hadn't come into contact with the middle-class revolutionaries he met at the time. Meanwhile, ironically, his old comrades Barker and Greenfield have since both have served time for major drugs offences. Creek completed a degree and rebuilt her life. Mendleson, also went back to university and did an English degree at Cambridge in the mid-80s. She writes poetry under a different name and friends have asked me not to approach her or reveal her new identity. As for those who were acquitted, apart from Mason, only Bott has had any public profile - he was marketing manager of the ill-fated left-wing newspaper, News on Sunday . He is now thought to live in France.

As the anniversary of the trial approaches, interest in the case has started to grow. There are already plans for an Angry Brigade documentary and a radio docu-drama has been written based on the trial transcripts. There are still many unanswered questions. How much lasting damage did the Angry Brigade do to the radical Left in Britain, or did they have no real political significance at all? Did the police really plant the arsenal at Amhurst Road and did their success in getting a conviction mean they did it again? And were the young radicals really terrorists or would it be more accurate to describe them as political saboteurs? Thirty years on, the jury is still out on the Angry Brigade.

The Stoke Newington Eight

John Barker was involved in 1988 with Jim Greenfield and a group of Israelis and Lebanese in a massive £5m cannabis smuggling operation. Originally escaped to Greece, but arrested in 1990 when returning to Britain on a false passport.

Jim Greenfield (pictured right) was given six years for his part in the smuggling operation and gave a full confession to the police when he was arrested, putting himself in considerable danger. Served his sentence in solitary confinement and has not been heard of since.

Anna Mendleson went back to full-time education in the mid-80s and studied English at Cambridge under an assumed name. Publishes poetry under her new name to considerable acclaim.

Chris Bott helped found the ill-fated left-wing Sunday paper News on Sunday in the mid-1980s, but is since thought to have moved to France.

Angela Weir as Angela Mason worked as a lawyer for Camden Council in London before becoming director of the gay rights group Stonewall. She was awarded an OBE for services to homosexual rights.

Kate McLean married her solicitor from the Angry Brigade trial and is believed to now work herself in the legal field.

Stuart Christie lived for many years in the Orkneys, where he set up an anarchist publishing house. He is since believed to have moved to England and is now living in the Home Counties.

Related article

03.02.2002: Angry Brigade's bomb plot apology


Martin Bright

The GuardianTramp

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