Just over 40 years ago, John Barker appeared in the dock at the Old Bailey charged, as a member of the Angry Brigade, with conspiracy to cause explosions. He was jailed for 10 years at the end of what was then Britain’s longest trial. Now he has written a novel, Futures, a tale about crime, the financial markets and cocaine dealing, set in 1987 amid the first signs of the City mayhem that would bring such chaos in its wake.
The Angry Brigade carried out a series of bomb attacks in the early 70s, aimed at the embassies of far-right regimes, the homes of cabinet ministers in Edward Heath’s Conservative government, the army, the police, property speculators, the Miss World competition. Each attack was followed by a communique written on a John Bull printing set in which the motivation was explained, whether it was internment in Northern Ireland, the Vietnam war, the government’s industrial-relations policies or sexism.
The explosions led to the formation of the bomb squad – now the anti-terrorist branch – and the eventual arrest of a dozen leftwing activists, of whom Barker, then aged 23, was one. He stood trial in 1972 with seven others: the Stoke Newington Eight, as they were called, because of the location of their flat.
Four of the defendants were acquitted but Barker, along with Hilary Creek, Anna Mendelssohn and Jim Greenfield, were convicted on majority verdicts. While some of the evidence against them was dubious, Barker acknowledges that “they framed a guilty man”. The jury asked the judge for leniency and Mr Justice James, having told the defendants that they suffered from “a warped understanding of sociology”, duly gave them 10 years rather than a possible 15.
Barker defended himself in the trial. “At least one person in a political trial should always do so,” he says when we meet in his small flat, not far from where he was arrested all those years ago.
Some of the lawyers in court said he could have made a successful barrister and the Observer likened his closing speech to that of “a Non-Conformist minister trying to put over the Message”.