Among the circle of anarchist activists who gathered in London around Miguel Garcia in the early days of the Centro Iberico had been Salvador Puig Antich. As a student he had been a Catalan Nationalist and social revolutionary, but the briefest study of Catalan history brings one to anarcho-syndicalism. It is odd to reflect that if he had stayed with his original beliefs, on his death the press would have referred to him as an Anarchist. As it was he was described as a “Catalan Nationalist”.
He accompanied Miguel Garcia and myself on two of our speaking tours, and though when we spoke Spanish Miguel and he soon drifted into Catalan, that did not make either a Nationalist. Many comrades knew and liked Puig Antich, who went back to Spain in September 1973 and was involved in a police ambush in the Calle Gerona, Barcelona. He shot a police inspector and was sentenced to death. At the same time a Polish vagrant, Heinz Chez, killed a Guardia Civil and was also condemned to death, in a case not involved with overthrow of the regime. The authorities originally thought executing them together would take the political edge off the incident, but the reverse happened and it was assumed Chez was also an opponent of the regime.
This led to an enormous clash between protesters and police in Saragossa, as well as fighting in Valencia and Madrid. In Paris, Spanish banks were attacked, and similar activities occurred in Dublin, Toulouse, Perpignan, Lyon, Pau, Bologna, Rome, Milan, Genoa, Brussels, Liege, Luxembourg, Geneva, Liverpool and London. They were not centrally planned. The spontaneous response came from people who had met Puig Antich and were impressed by his sincerity. I got a picture postcard from Dublin saying I was “getting a birthday present in memory of Salvador”. It was not my birthday, but next day I knew what they meant.
It was Puig’s execution that continued the First of May activities through the Dublin struggle to other groupings, some of which I knew, many of which, even outside London in England and Wales, I did not. Over the years, and especially after Franco died, they were directed against many targets, the so-called “Angry Brigade” having made it clear what the agencies of oppression were.
The memory of Puig Antich lived on. It inspired waves of armed struggle not only until Franco’s death but for several years after. He was part of the First of May struggle that encompassed the last phase of the anti-Franco resistance, the new period of which the ‘Angry Brigade’ was part, and the growing feeling of solidarity with all those who were oppressed. Ultimately it was eclipsed by Nationalism and Marxism, with which it was deliberately confused by the media. I hope that this is temporary.
Reams of nonsense were poured out about the Angry Brigade by the police PROs and the journalists, some of whom were identical, and in due course taken up by professional writers and historians. History is notoriously written by the victors so it will sound strange to tell it as it really was.
The Angry Brigade was not a separate group of people at a separate time, a specific conspiracy organised by one political tendency, or a mini-private army. It was a conglomeration of people who were reacting to events, made up of situationists and anarchists, some of whom did not know each other. Sometimes outsiders wrote manifestoes in their name. Many working people saw the trend they were fighting against and thought it a bloody good thing they were doing so. I encountered this all the time, though from people who had no intention of doing anything so drastic to sabotage the system themselves. Some young enthusiasts, though, did. When they did so the establishment chorus was that this was a “new Angry Brigade”, a fresh conspiracy or anarchism rearing its ugly head once more, as if the Angry Brigade had been a real brigade, as solid in its conception as the Brigade of Guards, and not an anarchistic tendency among richly deserved protest.
It took time, and not just a couple of show trials, for the wave of resistance to be broken, after having been demoted by the activities of the IRA equating revolution with nationalist rivalry in the public mind. I will not say I agreed with all actions of activist Anarchists during the period from a tactical point of view. But they heralded a break with reformist intellectuals who had posed as anarchists and come into prominence with the rise of the New Left and went on through flower power to the commercialised music revolt and hippy scene.
The Spanish comrades who had most influence upon the armed groups thought they should organise in the same way. I personally never thought it appropriate in the circumstances in which we found themselves, here or in Spain, but I knew what side I was on. Many workers who otherwise would not have agreed with us at all had a clear idea of the enemy and who their friends were and that the rise of the new capitalist arrogance (it came to be called Thatcherism) would bring the working-class movement to its knees.
The Dublin Anarchists, the Lewisham Three and the “Persons Unknown” were all in general sympathy with “Black Flag” but there were several other activist groups in England and Wales during the 60s and 70s on much the same lines. Some of them attracted a great deal of attention and might, had things gone another way have heralded a wave of fighting back. Others fell at the first hurdle, partly because of their inexperience. It happens time and again that when a political activist takes on activities usually undertaken by professional criminals for individual profit, they have not the ruthlessness that goes with capitalist enterprise (legal or illegal). The only “victims” they seek out are the guilty forces of the State. Successful professional criminals are more anti-social and therefore have no scruples to hold them back. This was seen in the armed urban guerrilla groups in Europe where the Marxist-Leninist groups, trained by Stalinists or “Third World” Nationalists, took over the resistance and forced the Anarchists out. It was seen also in the Irish Anarchists and in the talented young trio, actually from Birmingham, who were arrested in October 1977 in the course of raiding a betting shop in Lewisham.
One of the three was Phil Ruff, whose biting cartoons and searching commentaries in “Black Flag” could have graced any paper. I first met Phil in 1973 when he became involved in the campaign of solidarity with Puig and the activities of the MIL (the armed resistance in Spain). Not long afterwards he moved to London and joined us on the “Flag”. When I moved from Upper Tollington Park to a council flat in Tottenham, Miguel stayed and Phil moved in. Through Miguel and the Centre, Phil naturally met many people active in the international movement, increasingly turning to illegal struggles against capitalist institutions. Solidarity is one thing, but I had no cause to suspect Phil entertained thoughts of engaging in it actively.
Arrested with him were Brian Gibbens and Dave Campbell, from a family of socialist singers, who has been my favourite singer ever since he announced at a concert for Spanish prisoners in 1976 that he was singing “They Called Me Al” (to the tune of “Buddy Can You Spare a Dime”) as a tribute to me, one of the highest I received. In court there were some sarcastic remarks about their amateurism. It seems lawyers prefer criminals to be professionals. Even the judge commented that it was worse when people of previous good character did that sort of thing, though I am sure somewhere I read — it cannot have been Blackstone — that first offences were considered more leniently whereas criminal records were held against one.
On this occasion the police were not able to make a political issue out of it, although they dropped asides around court about their links with the Murray Defence Campaign and hinted before the trial about the accused “preparing to finance a new Angry Brigade”, as the prisoners pleaded guilty. Whether the judge had been specifically told of their sympathies, or just learned from their papers, I do not know but they got seven years, quite out of the normal proportion, especially for first offenders.
When I came to pick up Phil’s belongings at Lewisham Station at the weekend before a bank holiday, the detective in charge, about to go off for golf, commiserated about their fate, pointing out that the most cash they could have got at that time of the day would have been nothing to what I was probably earning over the weekend.
The sham-ans in the peace-and-flowers movement were indignant with “Black Flag”. The funniest comment passed on to me was that our collective was trying to start, in imitation of the Campaign for Real Ale, a Campaign for Real War, and that Phil Ruff was in jail for armed robbery “and he’s only the cartoonist”. Presumably the lay-out team laid out the corpses.
There were many affinity groups of this nature here and overseas as late as the 70s, before resistance to capitalism got swamped by nationalism and militant liberalism: called liberation. Iris Mills, for instance, was living in Huddersfield. She was in correspondence with political prisoners in the UK, of whom the majority were connected with the Irish Republican movement. One who wrote in to “Black Flag” was Ronan Bennett, and they engaged in an interesting correspondence. He had thought of anarchism only as a joke — having been brought up in the nationalist tradition that sees practicality only in changing the race of the oppressors.
He was suddenly released from Long Kesh, having been acquitted on appeal after a year or so inside, but with being harassed by the police and both the Loyalist and Nationalist paramilitaries, (he had been a member of the IRSP which had broken from the Official IRA), he decided to move to the mainland, and came to Huddersfield. One of the professional conspiracy theorists had stated that the Provisional IRA (to which Ronan had never belonged) wanted to penetrate “terrorist cells” all over Europe, and a BBC programme later suggested his coming to Huddersfield might have been part of an IRA plot to penetrate the Anarchist Black Cross.
The IRA might have decided to chance forfeiting the support of the Americans, the Russians, the Catholic Church and their Right and Left sympathisers, as well as antagonising any support they might have had in Ireland, if only they could get hold of a network at that time worked on by me, but I am modest enough to doubt it. It would seem that any story will do to throw at the Anarchists. Either they are individual loonies or a great mass movement, or they are eccentric pacifists or murderers, or else they are small enough to be ignored or yet again a vast permeative force.
Iris had contacts with international anarchist circles, which shocked Scotland Yard, thinking this was a marriage of Sinn Fein and Anarchy. Ronan and Iris were speedily taken incommunicado into police custody where he was served with a notice of deportation. He could have been quietly taken away from the land where he was born, which was England not Ireland, but fortunately word of their being kidnapped — what other word can one use? — reached us through a friendly neighbour, and solicitors got the case heard. There was absolutely nothing against either except the belief that the elephant was trying to nestle on the flea. If someone had not been there who knew the procedure they would both have been exiled. As it was they were released, but lost their jobs and domicile. They moved, first to Paris and then to London.
This was the beginning of what was dubbed the “Persons Unknown” case. I did not know anything about the background until one day, at work, the crime correspondent TA Sandrock — more a police PRO than a journalist, who had his office at Scotland Yard — telephoned in a story that two nameless Anarchists had been arrested at an address in West Kensington, suspected of dark and nameless doings. The story was vague enough but, as West Kensington was not exactly an area where Anarchists were thick on the ground, and I knew where Ronan and Iris were living, I guessed it might be a replay of what went on at Huddersfield, and phoned up a mutual friend to ask him to check. He wisely telephoned first and, hearing they were on “holiday”, asked the respondent if they had remembered the cat, and she said she was looking after it. As they had no cat, he guessed it was a policewoman playing cat-and-mouse. However, it was not a deportation order, so the swiftness in getting a lawyer along was unnecessary.
At the committal proceedings the charges read out made one wonder if the Witchcraft Act had really been repealed thirty years before, when we thought the Middle Ages officially closed. The main item solemnly read out by prosecuting counsel was “wanting to overthrow society”. It was a wonder he didn’t say they wanted to turn the world upside down. The charges were so ludicrous there were fits of laughter from the well of the court, so that when it came to “conspiring with persons unknown”, though not unusual phraseology, it caused such merriment the magistrate had to threaten to clear the court. From then on it was known as the “Persons Unknown” case.
The charges related to preparing explosions, though none had actually happened, but fitted into the Tory thinking about Anarchism. This was later dropped in favour of armed robbery, in places unknown. Judge Alan King Hamilton conducted a prosecution from the judicial bench. He was indignant at my saying in the witness box that this was a political trial and if the defendants were convicted it would be described as an “Anarchist trial”. There was no such thing as a political trial, he insisted, though he brought up loaded political questions (such as what the CNT had to do with ETA) but told the jury to ignore references to it being an “Anarchist trial”. In his memoirs he himself refers to it as the “Anarchist trial” but the reader should ignore that, and indeed the book.
Amongst the learned judge’s remarks were comments on witnesses taking the required oath as to whether they believed in the Bible. I had an answer ready if they asked me, so I took the oath on the Bible too. I would have said that it if they read it instead of using it as a magic talisman, the Attorney General would have bunged it in with the subversive exhibits, but the prosecutor shied off engaging me in that discussion. The old-established legalistic Catch-22 is to suggest you are frightened to swear upon it if you don’t take the oath, whereas all it does is to render you liable to the Perjury Act. If you do take it, they query your sincerity if you don’t believe in its authenticity. Underlying this is belief in the Bible as a magic talisman or the (illegal) assumption that a non-believer cannot tell the truth.
The prosecutor (echoed by his colleague the learned judge) suggested that I might have inserted the reference in the Telegraph to “warn the conspirators”. Apparently they thought it was an ingenious way to warn them rather than use the telephone. They never took the obvious steps of asking Mr Sandrock if it was his copy, or the sub-editors if they put in any old copy that was passed over, but hoped the innuendo might stick. King Hamilton, in his summing-up, referred to the Telegraph as “Meltzer’s paper” and agreed with counsel’s suggestion that using its austere front page as a postbox to warn people might explain the lack of evidence.
With a couple like that conducting the prosecution, I had a field day in the witness box and the more irritated King-Hamilton became, the more the jurors loved it. Gareth Peirce, solicitor for the defence, whispered to Ronan that I reminded her in my white suit and nonchalant manner of Alec Guinness, to which he gave the unkind response, “Give or take a stone or two”.
Though there is “no such thing as a political trial”, I was asked questions like the other old Catch-22 about “belief in violence”, as if I were the forensic and character witness on anarchism. Did I (and they, insofar as evidence related to them) “believe in violence”? I knew from of old that if you say yes, you’re labelled as a mad axeman, if you say no you’re pretending to be a pacifist (something subversive in other circumstances) and anything they can show to prove you have the same views on violence as 90 percent of people generally proves you’re a liar. When asked if Anarchists believed in “law and order” I explained that was a political catch-phrase implying “hang ‘em, flog ‘em, jail ‘em” and if I might choose my own cliché, it was “peace and tranquillity”, which floored the opposition but they came back with asking if my wife believed in violence.
The twists and turns of the prosecution obviously had to result in an acquittal, so the press pretended it was a freak verdict. Amongst the several defendants accused in the Persons Unknown case was Dafydd Ladd. He had already been in prison, and was influenced by Red Army Fraction interpretations of German resistance. Having had experience of prison, and not appreciating that the British jury system, however imperfect, had been totally altered by its extension to the whole population and not just a few property owners, he skipped bail.
Previously in prison he had befriended a man named Stewart Carr, in jail for criminal activities. Carr had been interested in the idea of resistance and half-politicised, but when arrested by the police broke down and confessed to everything they asked him, giving him who knows what inducement to do so. Hence neither was tried with the others.
Mr King Hamilton was so indignant that the jury rejected his advice to convict the remaining four that he called the twelve jurors back for a further day (at public expense — who cares about money when not paying oneself?) to listen to his lecture to them for ignoring his advice, and listen to Carr’s “confession” which included the kidnapping of members of the Royal Family (none of whom, unlike Ronan and Iris, had been kidnapped). The evidence for this was that Iris had a woman’s magazine in her possession showing readers details of the royal apartments, and what would she be doing with such a magazine other than learning the lay-out of palaces for kidnap purposes? For the knitting patterns, perhaps?
Anyone who thinks I am going over the top in suggesting the Bible, had they read it, might be used to prove the defendants were going to put millstones round the necks of capitalist exploiters of child labour and drop them in the sea, might pause to contemplate on the use made of a copy of “Woman’s Own”, with nothing more subversive than instructions on how to knit pullovers lying round a flat. No wonder the commercially-produced comic “Anarchist Cookbook”, with its (deliberately inaccurate) instructions on how to make bombs, was made such a meal of by prosecution and judge!
As a result of the case, Carr went to jail on his own “confession” getting the sentence King Hamilton was dying to give the others. The judge berated the jury for not giving him the opportunity to do the like with them. The media suggested they were guilty and they went free because of a skillful defence, an over-indulgent jury, an ill-informed prosecutor, or a capricious judge. Nobody attributed it to their possible innocence of the charges made, from overthrowing society to capturing a princess and her babies from a royal palace.
The commonsense jury understood (as did many of the AB jurors) what they were on about, and just in their decision that opinion and even possible future intent were not yet illegal. What the prosecution was really about was that they were Anarchists, and wanted to target certain State institutions as the AB had done. They commanded some but not the same amount of popular sympathy, though once again the Trotsky-influenced student-orientated Left tried to cash in on their activity and denounce them at the same time.
The media attention given to Christie made it plain that, as he had indeed been told by a senior police officer, they would have got him on this too had he not meanwhile moved to the Orkneys. I don’t know on what charge. Though the islands originally came into Scottish possession by non-payment of a queen’s dowry, not even the press could be led to believe there is accommodation there today for holding a captive princess, with or without her children.
There were many related cases that grew out of the protest movement — Daffyd Ladd, who did not give up easily, was in yet another. There was also Malcolm Simpkins, of whom we had not heard, convicted for an attack on the police in 1973. He was acting with one other friend, not even knowing about the existence of many Anarchists thinking and acting the same way, and repelled by what he did see of the capitalist press and Freedom Press version. He contacted me when he was in prison, after he had met John Barker and Jake Prescott, and subsequently became friendly with Phil Ruff, with whom he was singled out by the authorities in 1978 as among the “ringleaders” of the Gartree prison riot. We corresponded in a friendly way for years, but though he was anxious to come and “do his bit for the cause again”, things turned out differently.
Almost at the end of his sentence, after long periods of solitary confinement, he started reading up on always seductive Buddhism. He explained to me that it was an atheistic creed anyway and compatible with Anarchism since it denied any church or any hierarchy. He would come out and before resuming paid work use his carpentry skills to build a decent club where we could meet and I could learn from him proper eating habits, which was basically what Buddhism was all about, at any rate before you get into its non-violent totalitarian clutches.
Alas for good intentions. I never had the chance even to meet him let alone eat grated carrots in the non-club. On the eve of his long-delayed release he wrote apologetically he had decided to become a monk under some exotic name, enter an ashram, mortify himself and beg his way through Sri Lanka. This is how the Christian prison system reforms the most industrious and idealist members of society. I hope if Buddhism gives him another life, he gets a better deal next time.
There were many others, some of whom I met, some of whom I did not, in this protean hyde-headed movement they called the Angry Brigade or some other name. I was amused once when a group we did not know but which was obviously part of our movement, carried out some attacks on State targets under the name of Makhno’s Anarchist Army. The press and police could not understand what it had to do with the Ukraine, but suggested the involvement of Ukrainian nationalists, whose representatives here protested they had nothing whatever to do with such actions. They issued a statement that Bolsheviks must be trying to frame them! At least Rhenish separatists, if there are such, never had occasion to dissociate from everyone who took Karl Marx’s name to describe themselves, or they’d never have been able to wind up their watch on the Rhineland.
To make a roll call of all the people with whom I struck up a friendship through the Black Flag years would take several books, We carried out a long struggle for several prisoners, some of whom I met afterwards, such as Goliardo Fiaschi. He served a 20 year sentence under Franco for his part in the post-war Spanish Resistance, only to be re-arrested when he returned to Italy, to serve the completion of a sentence passed under the Mussolini regime. We had documented proof of his boyhood war-time resistance activities which had caused that sentence, which somewhat abashed the Italian Embassy in London when I went with Stuart on a deputation. We told them we would organise a massive demonstration of Army veterans to the Embassy, which was a bluff they fortunately never called. They asked us to be patient and we would get a reply from Rome. We did. Goliardo was freed and returned to his native Carrara. What a wonderful welcome we got when years later Christie and I visited Carrara.
© Copyright: 1996 Albert Meltzer
Published by AK Press Book details and the Kate Sharpley Library.
Marked up by Chuck0 in 1996, originally posted at http://www.spunk.org/library/writers/meltzer/sp001591/angeltoc.html
(Reproofed by KSL May 2010).