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(en) Freedom 6323 Nov 30 2002 - Poetry behind the bars

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 15 Dec 2002 02:10:53 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

John Barker was the man who used the dock at the Angry
Brigade show trial in 1972 to counter-attack the
prosecution case. He was convicted, but got a lot of credit
for the ten year sentences that otherwise would've been
fifteen, or more. These stories go from his first days on
remand in Brixton to finally walking out seven years later.
He says in the introduction that it's impossible to convey
the 'tedious parts' of doing that length of time. This is true.
Unlike the sentence, it's a book you don't want to see the
end of.
The early 1970s were obviously an interesting time, inside
or out. What anarchists like to call 'the spirit of revolt'
(dodgy authoritarians refer to it as 'the insurgent virus')
was definitely on the loose. Outside, the miners and others
were on strike. Inside, there were sitdowns and protests for
better conditions. In circumstances like these, the
perpetual questions - what can be done and who can be
trusted - carry a lot more weight, especially on the inside
of the repression industry.
John doesn't give us a Punch and Judy version, cliches to
show that 'the struggle continues'. He knows the value of
a sense of humour too well for that. Not that a sense of
humour means giving any ground. "The Home Office,
how's that for a laugh. Anywhere else it's the Ministry of
Internal Security. Only the English could be so brazen, the
name suggesting warm fires, slippers and general cosiness
while in fact they're smashing down doors and ripping
homes apart." (At least then, unlike now, they didn't have
a slogan saying they were 'building a safe, just and tolerant
As well as the acts of resistance - from a spectacular
paint-bombing to a work-to-rule in the workshops - we
also see the dynamics of relations between the cons, the
balancing act, "knowing how to live with other people in a
small space, a necessary respect between cons that gave
us the chance of coming out sane" as well as tension and
There's also the crack, banter shooting off at tangents:

"'Sure, detection was never the name of the game, you can
leave that to your man Sherlock Holmes.'
'All Sherlock Holmes would get is a pull for cocaine
possession ...'
'Dr Watson grassed him up', I said. 'He was always trying
to get him to kick the habit'."

It makes a lot of 'gangster nostalgia' look like a lovingly
drawn £6 note.
But what sticks most in my mind is the sheer poetry of
some of the moments. The smell of the night as dark
comes on, or the trees seen from a prison van: "trees
everywhere, fat ones, thin ones, tall and short, all
reassuring with their grounded stillness. Nearly naked too,
just starting to bud, the intricacy of their branches and
twigs sharply focused."
Not like a Wordsworth in Colditz, nose stuck in a bunch of
daffodils, but awake to life as well as fighting. Obviously
poetry, like the struggle for freedom, can take root even in
places designed to eradicate it.
John P.

Bending the Bars by John Barker, Christie Books, £9.95

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