Anarchist hero

Stuart Christie Granny made me an anarchist: general Franco, the Angry Brigade and me Scriber, 2004, pp423, £10.99

Excitement at opening a present on Christmas morning is a rare thing for me these days, but I honestly couldn't have been more bushy-tailed and bright-eyed as a kid when I discovered the daughter had bought me Christie's autobiography. I read it with equal excitement. Me and Stuart's paths have crossed on a number of occasions during our political lives, although I am almost certain we have never actually met. As a 15-year-old member of the Tyneside Anarchist Federation, we made the Free Stuart Christie Campaign a popular focus of youth protest. The Spanish embassy was a frequent recipient of our outrage with sabotage and graffiti - our fellow anarchist, Stuart, had been so clearly framed by Franco's agents. Here he was, hitch-hiking to an anarchist camp in France, when suddenly he is found on the other side of the border carrying explosives with which to kill the famous fascist dictator. A Scottish anarchist, wearing his kilt, and a baggy gansie, hitch-hiking with a rucksack full of explosives, over the border into fascist Spain where they are known to love that political current so much? Whey, lad, it was clearly obvious the whole tale was nonsense. Well, that is until he was released, and the true story emerged: all bar the kilt bit had been true, and even then he was carrying the kilt sticking out of his rucksack, so folk would know he was Scottish. Stuart tells us some hilarious details of this adventure, although - let's face it - at the time this was almost a suicide mission. He had in fact been given the money for his rail journey into Spain, but thought he would be much more likely to attract attention and be searched than as a shaggy-haired tourist hitch-hiker. He did, however, reason that some customs man on the border would doubtless search his rucksack, so he came up with the idea of actually sticking the explosives around his body. "In Perpignan I found the public baths and paid for a cubicle. After a hot soak and still naked I unpacked the slab of plastique and taped them to my chest and stomach with elastoplast and adhesive tape. The detonators I wrapped in cotton wool and hid inside the lining of my jacket. The bag of potassium chlorate, the base of the chemical trigger, was too bulky to hide on my body, so I emptied it into a packet of sugar with a layer of sugar on top, and left it in the rucksack. "There was one tense moment when the lady attendant came in unannounced with clean towels, opening the cubicle door with her keys. She appeared surprisingly nonplussed by the sight of a naked, skinny young man from whose chest and stomach were protruding what appeared to be either full colostomy bags or brown paper poultices. Not realising she was in the presence of a Glaswegian kamikaze, she muttered something in French, presumably apologising for intruding on someone so modest and afflicted, and quickly backed out, closing the door behind her. "With the plastic explosive strapped to me, my body was improbably misshapen. The only way to disguise myself was with the baggy woollen jumper my granny had knitted to protect me against the biting Clydebank winds. At the risk of understatement, I looked out of place on the Mediterranean coast in August" (p140). There is a hilarious sequence where he gets picked up by an eccentric British person driving an eccentric car - the quid quo pro for the lift is that he is expected every time it stops to jump out and push it. Which is fine on country lanes, but when it happens in a heaving Spanish city centre, in the rush hour under the blazing sun, while all the explosives start to slip and the sticky wraps come undone, he thinks, not surprisingly, his number is up. When the poor bugger actually gets to Spain and books into a rat trap of a room he is so exhausted he falls onto the bed and, fully dressed and wrapped in explosives, he goes to sleep. Of course he is caught. He goes down for a long sentence, but escapes the death penalty - mainly because Spain at the time is trying to clean up its image in order to join what was then the European Economic Community. The story relates the campaign to free him, his relationships in prison and his reflections on whether his part in the plan had been morally correct. The idea, after all, had been to kill Franco as he was presenting the cup at a football tournament. It would doubtless have killed the captain and maybe other players and people in the crowd too. He rationalised at the time that the football team was almost as much a part of the problem as the dictator himself, since it collaborated in being the human face of the regime, and was the fiddler while so many others burned, sometimes literally. Stuart is saved this time round by the petitions of his ma and granny to Franco, a great lover of both in his catholic paternalism; despite having been the target, he grants an early release. Which in some respects was embarrassing for Stuart, given the continued custody of his comrades in crime and so many others who were still banged up without sight of daylight. This isn't the end of the story, though, and before too long, with the development of the Angry Brigade, the press have him down as public enemy No1. Papers announce in banner headlines that the police are looking for a Scottish anarchist who has recently done time on explosives charges in Spain! Stuart wonders just who they could be talking about, as he carries on going into work every day. There is an interesting description of the political and military thoughts of the Angry Brigade comrades and the state assault on those picked out as being the men and women behind the resistance. Stuart is roped in alongside the others, but the charges fail to stick and he is released. Meantime the others - James Greenfield, Anna Mendelson, John Barker and Hilary Creek - all go down for conspiracy to cause explosions. The case against all of them is highly circumstantial, based upon the notion that these are the kind of people with motive enough, who are angry enough to have carried out the offences and cannot prove they didn't do. I among hundreds of others volunteered to go to court and give evidence to say I too am the kind of person with motive enough, angry enough to have carried out the offences, but I didn't. The idea was to take young workers, unemployed, homeless, disabled, blacks, gays and women and say, 'We too: it could just as well be us.' There were millions of us, but the judges wouldn't wear a non-stop procession of young workers, suffering the many facets of social and industrial, sexual and racial repression in Britain. But, in many ways, the state could have picked up many more people on very little evidence other than motive and a lack of an alibi. Meantime, anyway, the Angry Brigade continued to send out communiqués and take actions. Stuart discusses in detail some of the politics and strategy of the brigade and its eventual rationale for winding up. I think the people who eventually took the decision to end the campaign were probably not the people who started it, but that is my opinion. Looking back, and indeed at the present, I think the Angry Brigade were right - not each and every sentence they wrote (the communiqués are probably the worst thing of their entire campaign, at times being pidgin-politics) or every tactic they employed, but overall. I think they were wrong to draw the conclusion that the campaign couldn't continue, but they would probably ask why I and others in that case are not continuing it. That's a good question. Suffice it to say, I think the class needs the means to respond to the state's violence and oppression. Not as a substitute of the class, but as part of the class response. Our ability to wage armed struggle on the state, on its own as a sole tactic, will never match their ability to wage it on us - perhaps the Provos drew that conclusion. Armed struggle must be linked to mass action and mass response by the people, but that doesn't mean all the people have to be engaged in armed struggle in order for it to be legitimate (take the example of our 'hit squads' during the 1984-85 miners' strike), but it must have their general approval. I believe any left or working class organisation which takes itself seriously enough to challenge any aspect of the state's assault on us, and who wishes the workers to take them seriously, must in some form or another at least prepare for the task of responding to those assaults. If you can't e ven defend yourself, let alone give them one back, you're not exactly scaring the pants off them. The Angry Brigade disbanded because of the other bomb attacks and shootings taking place at the time, and their wish not to be confused with 'outrage' and anti-working class actions. Today is a bad time for that type of armed response for even more of the same reasons - after 9/11 the general punter has been led to believe all armed resistance and all armed response is 'terrorism'. That probably wasn't the case in the heyday of the brigade. The book is very thoughtful, very funny, and Christie's tale is one which fellow working class folk will identify with - 'there but for the grace of god ...' There are many, many interesting sections in the beginning of the book about Stuart's early working class childhood in Glasgow and in particular that curious combination of militant trade unionism and political loyalism. He toyed with the Orange Order in his early youth, as did many of his peers. This book is greatly inspirational, not least in that it gave me a kick up the arse to start writing my own encounters with life in an overlapping period of great revolutionary upsurge and militancy across the world. A fascinating book about a working class hero, whatever his retrospections are now and - christ knows - he is entitled to these after what he has been through and what he risked. David Douglass