Crisis? What Crisis?

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from Chapter 4 - VIOLENCE:
'It's the only thing that'll make you see sense'

The Angry Brigade vs Biba

If the skinheads were one violent manifestation of the splintering of 1960s youth culture, then another was the Angry Brigade. A London-based anarchist organization of limited but uncertain strength, the Angry Brigade engaged in a series of bomb attacks in 1970–72, a campaign that resulted in a five-month trial at the Old Bailey, with four defendants convicted and another four acquitted.

The targets of their actions were for the most part related, at least tangentially, to the political mainstream of the times – two bombs exploded at the house of employment secretary Robert Carr on the day of a mass demonstration against the Industrial Relations Bill, another at a Territorial Army recruitment centre following the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland – but the agenda was not always so clear. There was, for example, the strange case of the attack on the Biba shop in Kensington on 1 May 1971.

Biba had been present at the birth of swinging London – indeed the Daily Telegraph article by John Crosby that launched that phrase had named Biba’s founder, Barbara Hulanicki, as one of the ‘people who make London swing’ – and it had since grown to become a fully fledged department store, run almost entirely by women and celebrated by its mostly female customers as a place of glamorous liberation. In its final incarnation, from 1973 to 1975, it would create an escapist paradise, a version of retail theatre that owed more to Busby Berkeley than to the high street, and that offered glam heaven to its customers and habitués: ‘You can be Garbo! You can be Marilyn!’ enthused the store’s designer, Steve Thomas. ‘It took girls out from being second-class citizens, secretaries and shopgirls, to being stars.’

It also attracted the fashionable end of the middle-ageing ’60s generation; the caftan-wearing wife of The History Man, in Malcolm Bradbury’s satire of radical intellectuals, regularly disappears off to London for a ‘Biba weekend’, occasions for her to go shopping and meet up with her lover (she has, it need hardly be said, an open marriage).

Biba had thus emerged from the same cultural explosion that produced both the Angry Brigade and its supporters in the underground press and beyond, even if their paths had subsequently diverged. The Guardian was later to claim that it was ‘some kind of macabre tribute’ that Biba should be targeted by the bombers ‘to protest the rising tide of capitalist female deco-decadence’, though those who worked at the store, particularly the security officer, John Evans, who was injured in the blast, did not entirely appreciate the compliment.

The May Day attack was allegedly ordered by feminist associates of the Brigade, angered by Biba’s decadent appeal, and the admission of guilt issued in the wake of the bombing contained the one great slogan produced by the organization in its entire existence: ‘If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy buying.’

There was a certain irony, therefore, in the fact that the terrorist campaign itself inspired a new line of clothing. Craig Stuart Fashions Ltd, a strictly non-political company which ‘had the dubious claim to fame of inventing loon pants’ (the heavily flared jeans that became the uniform of 1970s hippies), went on to create a trouser in tribute to the Angry Brigade. ‘Angry pants were introduced to follow up the phenomenal success of loons and were made in various shades of brushed denim,’ remembered company founder Craig Austin. ‘They sold quite well but never really took off in anything like the same incredible way as loons. Great name though.’

published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2008

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