It’s nearly 40 years since the Angry Brigade were setting off explosives outside army recruitment centres, corporate offices and Tory ministers’ homes. But paradoxically this was at a time of massive industrial unrest, civil rights marches in Northern Ireland and international protests against the war in Vietnam.
In 1971 the Angry Brigade were responsible for 25 bombings but no one was killed. Arrested at their house in Hackney after a tip-off, amid accusations of a bomb squad fix, four of them were sent down for ten years.
This scenario is the background to Pauline Melville’s book – a fairly comic romp peopled by a hotchpotch of characters which make up her version of the Angry Brigade.
Melville sets her house in East London, rented by Mark, the dropout son of famous actress Vera Scobie who bears more than a passing resemblance to Vanessa Redgrave.
Invited to stay is the beautiful Ella, a ballerina, apolitical and in thrall to Donny, a Scottish working class builder who becomes increasingly tedious with his declamations of independence: “I am a gallivanter… I don’t believe in any cause.” But for fun he supplies gelignite off his building site and robs jewellers.
Visiting Ella is her best friend Hetty. Vindictive and a compulsive liar, Hetty is on the lookout for a sugar daddy. And there is Hector who has trained with the fedayeen and subsequently been imprisoned in Milan having been implicated in a kidnapping and murder.
Mark keeps them on course. As the group watch Jimmy Reid on TV leading the Upper Clyde shipbuilders’ work-in, Mark declares, “We can do things on their behalf. Fire bombing is just one way of serving the community.”
This book is sort of enjoyable. Most of Melville’s characters (and they pile in one after the other) are oddballs but credible. She draws very funny and pointed pictures but it doesn’t hang together – she puts them into such extraordinary situations and the coincidences come so thick and fast that in the end when she brings the group’s activity into the present day it descends into farce.
Maybe the original Angry Brigade were as mixed, mixed up and vulnerable to infiltration as Melville’s “clandestine” cell. One of the Angry Brigade, John Barker, has since quipped about himself that “the police framed a guilty man”. He also touches on their recklessness: “For one thing we were libertarian communists believing in the mass movement and for another we were not that serious. Like many people then and now we smoked a lot of dope and spent a lot of time having a good time.”
That’s how I feel about reading this book: quite a laugh but it doesn’t pull it off.
When we opposed the National Front
An imagined revolt in Port Talbot