cw: domestic violence
This isn’t something I say without extreme hesitation, but The Angry Brigade by Alan Burns may well be my favourite novel.
The Angry Brigade – for those of you who don’t know – were a British anarchist terrorist group predominantly active in the years around 1970, similar to America’s more famous Weather Underground.
Although the Angry Brigade were responsible (or at least claimed responsibility) for several violent acts, and many of its initiates spent many years in prison for their involvement with this organisation, it isn’t a group that has retained space in the popular imagination… unless, that is, my ignorance of this group until very recently – I first read about them in Joe Darlington’s The Experimentalists – is a real outlier.
I suppose it’s a happy coincidence that my awareness of this group happens to line up with the time in my life when I’ve been engaging with anarchist thought and ideologies on a more serious level, and as the climate and sociopolitical landscapes continue to fracture, irrevocably, an accelerationist position is something I see as quite attractive.
Obviously, I’m not going to do terrorism, and of course I don’t condone acts of violence that cause injury to bystanders and “innocent” people, but I definitely feel some camaraderie with those who accept and demonstrably rebel against the damaging and undeniable overreach of the state establishment and its protection of capitalist society.
So, it’s something I’m interested in at this time, and Alan Burns is a writer whose work I like, with Europe After The Rain being a particular highlight of my recent reading. The Angry Brigade, though, is nothing like the other Alan Burns novels I’ve read. In fact, rather than his own earlier, experimental, texts, The Angry Brigade reads far more like Svetlana Alexievich.
The Angry Brigade is subtitled “a documentary novel” and Burns writes in a brief introduction that the text is based on actual interviews he did with multiple people involved in the Angry Brigade.
The text flows chronologically through five chapters, exploring the radicalisation, the organisation, the acts of protest and then the shift into acts of terrorism, with Burns’ six narrators offering their perspectives and histories in first person passages. The reader thus reads multiple parallel journeys that go from – and beyond – radicalisation, leading these voices to the point where they are guiltlessly organising bombings of civilian locations.
The six voices Burns includes offer (reasonably) diverse perspectives. There are two childhood friends from Sheffield who have moved to London and one of them, Barry, is seen as a novelty in the capital due to being a working class northerner and an out homosexual.
There is a middle class poshboy called Ivor, there is a middle class Indian lad, Mehta, who has just moved to the UK and is astounded by the reality of racism in the supposedly civilised west, and there are two women, Suzanne (who is from a similarly privileged background to Ivor and seems to be responsible for several of the escalations (as if she has “more to prove” than the rest)) and Jean (a working class woman who seems the most comfortable in the squats, meetings, sit-ins, protests and organisation spaces where these six people find themselves, and ends up doing far more than her fair share of manual labour).
Dave, Barry’s childhood friend, is the real moral centre of the text, having clear intentions for all he’s doing, and a pretty rigid understanding of his personal ethical limits. He is also the individual who ends up spending the longest amount of time in prison as a result of the group’s actions.
Burns writes (or collates) and (loosely or not) fictionalises six voices into a cohesive, polyphonic and super engaging narrative.
Through disagreements between the people in this group, Burns is able to raise a huge amount of interesting and confrontational topics, including at one point the rather harrowing idea that several of the anarchists would prefer to believe their friend (Ivor) is a domestic abuser, rather than – as the reader is aware actually happened – he refused to even try to protect his partner (Suzanne) from a physical attack from a police informer who briefly infiltrated the group.
As a novel, as a piece of writing, The Angry Brigade is thought-provoking and emotive.
A lot of the problems that the Angry Brigade were fighting against persist today, and in many ways, situations are worse now than they were then. It is no longer possible to find comfortable, central London housing to squat in for free, just as one example…
I think it is not an accident that this group does not hold a significant place in the national imagination, because – with some limits, of course, of course, of course – there is lots about their brief time in the public eye that elicits sympathy.
If Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich had written a book about “homegrown” British terrorists, then this would be it.
The Angry Brigade is an absolute fucking triumph, and may well be my favourite ever book.
I can’t recommend this highly enough: if you have interest in any of the ideas, moments, or realities raised by the text, then getting hold of a battered secondhand paperback is an absolute must.
Someone get this back in print!!
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Fantastic to see this group brought up though I wasn’t aware of this novel’s existence until now. I did namecheck them in one of my early novels.
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Well, this is only post one of three this week on the angry brigade, so get ready for more more more! This novel is the best of the three books I read about them tho tbh
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