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Bending The Bars

Susan Tomaselli reviews John Barker’s Bending The Bars.

In 1972 British urban guerrilla group The Angry Brigade, also referred to as the Stoke Newington Eight, was accused of 25 attacks on government buildings, embassies, corporations and the homes of Tory MPs between the years of 1967 and 1971. After what was to be the longest criminal trial in English history — lasting 111 days — John Barker, along with Jim Greenfield, Hilary Creek and Anna Mendleson were sent down for 10 years imprisonment. The other defendants (including Stuart Christie) were found not guilty. By his own admission, Bending the Bars is John Barker’s selective account of those seven prison years he served.

Held in Brixton during the trial versed Barker and Jim Greenfield in a “crash course in certain realities of Life,” as well as fast-learnedinter-personal skills. But for new kids on the block, they were not totally green: “We gained some respect early on for being so tight-lipped about the case, admitting nothing.” (In fact, Barker still remains schtum on the case, saying only that in this case the cops had “framed a guilty man”). Comparatively speaking, those early days in Brixton were almost a relief from the “tour of misery” that was the police holding cells, yet “at night it was eerie in the halflight. Screams and moans, shadow faces at the open grilles in the celldoors, whispers for snout and the sound of sobbing.”

Receiving his sentence and being classified as a Category A (and issued with a Danger To The State certificate, later revoked) to be incarcerated in a long-term prison, Barker forces himself to look out the window on the drive there, taking in familiar London sights: “My childhood, its streets and parks that’s where I’d spent them and I’d never imagined this in those days. Not in the plot, I’d barely known the existence of prison.” From Brixton his sent first to Wormwood Scrubs — a prison “like a behaviourist experiment. It could be rats, ants or cons, only the scale was different” and “more like a battered old submarine in a World War II movie with a crisis every five minutes” — and then to a Long Lartin cell ’til to finish his sentence. “L-L,” he writes, “closer to science fiction with its flashing lights and electric locks,” his cell “a bland cube painted in grey and brown speckle… the light was too dull, boxed away in a frosty partially transparent casing screwed to the ceiling. I got the shivers again, it was in asylum mode.”

The grind and ennui of inside life is written about in an honest fashion: the boredom of an all-day shut-in; the smallest gestures, like reading a letter, are amplified (“I read the first two paragraphs and stop. I hate rushing a letter, it’s something to take slowly and stretch out like a bath”); Association/End of Association; the bullshit (“the stuff Oscars are made of”); the depression; and dropping acid, smoking pot and watching TV sometimes the only cultural highlights. Barker explains to a fellow inmate that you have to try to “live out the contradictions. You’ve got to make some kind of life here cos you’re not dead, but you never forget you’re in jail and that it’s totally abnormal and anti-life.”

Bending the Bars is not like Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, not an account of a life filled with regret, nor, despite mentioning him a couple of times, is it as heavy as the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. It is very much a literary endeavour, written in the form of stories rather than straight memoir or diaries. In his introduction, John Barker notes: “The impetus for writing came from the stories of’ Brownie’ that had started to appear in Republican News. Written from inside Long Kesh prison, they had a humanist, political wit to them. Now it is known that Brownie was the pen name of Gerry Adams, and int hat retrospect these stories were part of the long haul by Gerry and other Kesh graduates like Gerry Kelly [who makes an appearance in this book] to pull the Irish Republican movement out of the rut of a military-only Catholic nationalism.”

As the Irish prisoners filter through, Barker forges certain relationships and, as a libertarian communist, feels an affinity to their political struggle, even spending time in the ‘chokey’ for a sit-down protest in their support — “all good socialists together” someone jokes at one point. In the post-9/11 world, where the term ‘terrorist’ does not sit comfortably, this may be jarring to some readers; yet to the state, at least, that is what these men were considered to be. As mentioned before, at no time does John Barker protest his innocence, yet his thoughts on his time with The Angry Brigade can be read in his review of Tom Vague’s Anarchy in the UK (AK Press). In that, he wrote:

“Personally I’ve found it painful thinking about this past, doing it for the first time in a very long time. I don’t regret what I did, as I said to the only person who ever asked me, a screw soon after my conviction, but the ‘me’ of then seems very distant and, though I respect what I did, I have felt critical and not wholly sympathetic. Some of the rhetoric and righteousness of AB communiques now makes me cringe. [..] Romanticisation requires a timeless context, as if undertaking a rebellious act is heroic whatever the circumstances. I respect my past because the anger and commitment felt were real enough but it was not heroic. I was very young, hadn’t experienced serious repression, and the AB actions were all before the IRA made bombing a serious business.”

Barker had “come out of the swinging sixties and now it was the severe late-seventies.” In no way does Bending the Bars glamorise his activity or the “golden age” of the British prison system. Instead it serves as a harsh reminder of the fact that, Jeffrey Archer and co. aside, the majority of prisoners are working class. In his own words, “this book is an unsentimental celebration of the class spirit and solidarity of many cons… fighting the right fights with cunning and solidarity, and winning, that possibly has not been finished off in these repressive times.”

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika. Read an interview with her here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 11th, 2007.