Bending The Bars: Prison Stories

By Stewart Home, 22 January 2003

Stewart Home reviews ex-Angry Brigade member John Barker's Bending The Bars and finds a solid critique of the politics of bolshevism under the skin of a con's prison-diary.

Bending The Bars is not what someone who has accepted at face value the press stories about John Barker being a dangerous terrorist and drugs smuggler would expect him to write, but then Barker is both too genial and too complex for these one-dimensional misrepresentations of his past to adequately sum up where he's coming from. This book is not about Barker's relationship to that loose 'affinity group' known as the Angry Brigade, but rather an account of the time he spent inside after being convicted of bombing various properties (no one was actually hurt during the course of these actions).

Prison books often offer readers moral platitudes, and I don't just mean those by cons and former cons who express pseudo-regret for what they've done because they've found redemption through Christ or some other preposterous abstraction. That the mystical cretins who write prison books of this type are shedding crocodile tears is obvious enough from the fact that had they not erred, than a non-existent God wouldn't have been able to demonstrate his munificence by setting them ‘straight’. Likewise, books by and about political prisoners are sometimes deliberately designed to build a hierarchical cult around wronged martyrs, and cynically exploit the notion of injustice to drum up support for a specific brand of specialised politics; in short, writing of this type fails to rise above a religious perspective even when it comes without the usual trappings of Christian piety. John Barker's book is different, since he uses a class rather than a moral perspective. Barker writes about his own subjective experiences of prison, but by repeatedly signaling his awareness of the multiplicity of views he's heard other cons express about incarceration, he deftly avoids privileging his take on this matter over that of anyone else. Likewise, Barker's focus is not that of most best selling prison books, there is far less emphasis on brutalisation than in the work of Jimmy Boyle, or even in the American jail sequences pot smuggler Howard Marks includes in his autobiography Mr. Nice. That said, while prison drug taking features in this book, Bending The Bars is only about Barker's first period in jail after being arrested and then convicted for various Angry Brigade bombings, there is nothing here about his later incarceration for smuggling pot. Likewise, geographical and historical differences make it useful to read Barker's writing alongside books such as Mumia Abu-Jamal's Live From Death Row, a courageous attack on the inhumanity of the USA's penal system by one of its many victims.

While there is a sense of brutalisation in Bending The Bars, this comes as much from enforced boredom and deliberately wasted lives, as anything else. Since Barker isn't interested in pushing himself forward as a leader, he has no need to present himself as a prison hard man, he is human rather than superhuman; and therefore he is able to present prison as an integral part of the capitalist world, rather than making the mistake of treating it as something separate from everyday alienation. Indeed, one of the things I found most poignant about Bending The Bars is that it left me with the distinct impression that many British jails are ultimately more dehumanising to the screws than the cons. Barker's treatment inside may have been cruel, but it would have been far worse if it had succeeded in convincing him that he was cut off from humanity, rather than an integral part of a world that needs changing. Half-way through the book Barker announces: ‘What I'm saying is you've got to live out the contradictions. You've got to make some kind of life here cos you're not dead, but never forget you're in the jail and that it's totally abnormal and anti-life.’ (page 63).

This point gets a dialectical reiteration at the book's conclusion when the author states that the ‘...changes in how I saw the world seemed to be going in step with my friends. When that became clear, in a single sentence, or over the whole visit, we'd be pleasantly surprised and then not surprised, after all we were living through the same times. Mostly it was a matter of recognising in what a ghetto revolutionary politics existed...’ (page 120). Similarly, Barker's weariness at other cons who pointlessly protest their innocence surfaces in his stories. Barker tells us that when he was convicted the cops had 'framed a guilty man', and that is pretty much it. If Barker started to repudiate all the lies that have been told about him, it wouldn't reveal the truth, he'd simply find himself dragged into endless debates about what he did or did not do.

Thus it would be a mistake to treat Bending The Bars as a political or personal testimony, since while in parts it has a relationship (but definitely not an identity) to such things, the author is very much aware of the politics of representation. The use of the word 'stories' in the title shows that Barker wants his writing to be treated as a self-conscious literary construction, and his approach is down beat: ‘ was the Scrubs, allocation jail for first-timers. The escort cop car suddenly turned off the road. I caught a picture of big gates opening and saw we were expected, bright lights everywhere, walkie-talkies, alsations. My wide awake, weak coloured tiredness was heavy on the eyelids...’ (page 17-18). Here Barker is playing with cultural clichés about the grim gates of prison and this is very definitely pathos, he is too tired to react with fear; while the observation about being expected sounds almost welcoming. This tone of weariness is a fully conscious deflation of the all too common melodrama encountered in myriad cultural representations of individuals entering prison. With regard to the many issues that might be signified through terms such as reportage and formalism, Barker remarked: ‘I was not then, nor have been since, any good at having a notebook in the sense of writing down things seen and heard for future work - but I did want to get down the sense and flow of the many conversations, especially those when we were many in a cell. And of course I wanted to jazz it up, show off even, with jokes and puns. They are though a fairly honest general account in which I am increasingly the “social democratic” voice, at least that's the way I see it.’

Most of the time not much happens in Barker's account of his seven years of porridge for the Angry Brigade actions, but as a result small things became magnified. In places this creates a sense of disorientation that reminds me of Beckett; in as much as Barker creatively deploys a sense of boredom to simulate the end games of literary modernism. However, this isn't simply a case of avant-garde anti-narrative tricks being self-consciously redeployed as a post-modernist trope, Barker simultaneously undercuts these entropy effects with some hilarious and bizarre stories; among these is an account of the bemused reaction of those around him when a friend posts him a toy rat as a present. Given the tedium of prison life, Barker's stories about his rubber rat artificially inflate themselves to epic proportions. While elements of serious culture are being reconfigured in Barker's stories, he prefers to emphasise other things: ‘As I said on the back cover, the push to start writing came from the first appearance of the Brownie stories in Republican News - which my IRA pals in the jail received - in 1976, stories set in Long Kesh.’

That said, Barker's reading is eclectic, and he uses his writing to carefully pick his way through it: ‘As it happens, I now think Chandler's influence to have been disastrously widespread. I did though very much like the prose-style of the first four Len Deighton books and I'm sure that as an unconscious influence, he is there somewhere. I was also in prison very lucky that my pal Philippe Garnier sent me the first two or three Bukowski books as they came out. Those three books must have been borrowed by many, many cons and I left the jail without them. Of course in the prison library there was lots of rubbish but also some real gems, of which the most important to me was stuff by a Russian writer Konstantin Paustovsky. He is politically engaged but despite hardships, suffering, makes you think life is wonderful and absolutely worth living. Even though he is nasty about Makhno, I think he still stands up.’

Much more than books, Bending The Bars treats movies and TV as highlights of the prison week. However, Barker generally ignores the external trappings of a film such as its title, stars or director; instead movies function as a kind of externalised subjectivity, and thereby their function as spectacle is simultaneously upped and negated. Given the Hollywood obsession with crime, it is perhaps not surprising that it is predominantly crime movies that are screened for cons. Although Barker doesn't explicitly state this, the conclusion that must be drawn is that it is the judicial system that produces criminals rather than the other way around. Mobsters have for many years modelled themselves on the depictions of gangsters to be found in films. In the very act of screening crime movies for cons, penal institutions reveal their true function as colleges of criminality; since as Marx pointed out long ago in a footnote to Theories Of Surplus Value, the cop, the judge and the screw all rely on the criminal for their employment - and it is inevitable that a judicial bureaucracy will want to encourage the growth of crime, since more crime is the best way of justifying the ongoing expansion of legal and penal institutions. The theatrical phenomenon of criminals modelling themselves on movie gangsters reaches its sick conclusion in a story Barker relates three quarters of the way through Bending The Bars about a fifties hanging judge called Goddard, who as a young boy liked to play act pronouncing death sentences as a party piece. Barker understands that gangster culture, just as much as legal institutions, is an integral part of the capitalist system - and that these twin phantoms produce and mediate each other. Likewise, Barker is fully aware of the problematic status of the media, including publishing: ‘I was reading this report yesterday, it says violence on TV don't make people violent, it just makes them more nervous and passive...’ (page 101). Barker doesn't want to make people nervous or passive, he wants them to live. However, he is po-mo enough to recognise TV is not entirely a one way street, and he carefully describes the effect of live coverage of the Hull prison riot when he was inside. This raises more issues than space allows me to deal with adequately here, ranging from how violence is defined to whether, when read in context, the sentence I've just quoted from Barker's book cancels itself out in a self-conscious act of retro-modernist negation.

A major recreational activity in jails is drug taking, and no prison book by someone with a bohemian background would be complete without some account of this. In what is probably the high point of Bending The Bars, Barker uses circular and repetitive prose to describe and simultaneously replicate his first stumbling acid trip on the inside. He also tells an amusing story about cons spiking a screw with acid. However, hooch, fags and joints prove to be the staples of Barker's prison escapism, and halfway through the book he announces: ‘I've stopped taking acid in the jail. The sixth trip was the same as the fifth only boring with it.’ (page 56) The important thing to remember about seemingly escapist activities such as these is that they are also communal. One of the more obvious lessons of this book is that solidarity is the only way to improve things inside or outside jail. Barker describes a number of prison protests; but equally important in their own way are cons cooking or making music together. It should go without saying that it is our intersubjective relationships that make us human, which is why isolation is used to transform cons into bourgeois individuals and simultaneously something less than bourgeois individuals; obviously to be bourgeois is by definition to be less than a fully realised human being, since being a class subject necessarily means one is alienated. At one point, when describing the feelings of depression he's experiencing, Barker says: ‘Every question that should be political becomes one of self, of whether or not I lived up to my standards, the way I see myself..’ (page 85) If this isn't an attack on existential notions of authenticity, I don't know what is, particularly as the book was largely written in jail. Barker on his stories: ‘The majority were written inside with the last two or three later when I was released in ’78. I think the whole thing was finished - I was mostly too busy enjoying freedom and engaged politically - early in 1980.’ Getting the writing out of the nick wasn't a problem either, and didn't involve anything as romantic as smuggling, Barker again: ‘There is a passage in the book about making a decision about the prison censors which was - apart from obvious things not to write - to ignore them. And then at the end of the sentence you were allowed to take out all your stuff, books, writing etc.’

Bending The Bars is a book about jail, and while Barker mentions some of the events that led to his ten year sentence, he doesn't do so in the same way as when he wrote a critical review of Tom Vague's book Anarchy In The UK: The Angry Brigade (AK Press, Edinburgh 1997) for the journal Transgressions: ‘I've found it painful thinking about this past, doing it for the first time in a very long time. I don't regret what I did... but the “me” of then seems very distant and, though I respect what I did, I have felt critical and not wholly sympathetic. Some of the rhetoric and righteousness of AB communiqués now makes me cringe... The AB's attacks on property targets mostly occurred in the time span of Mr. Edward Heath's government... We were arrested in August 1971... The modern British state played by the rules until it suited them to unilaterally suspend them. A year later 13 citizens of Derry on a peaceful demonstration were shot dead by the armed agencies of the British state. I was in prison then and it felt like the British state wanted the IRA, they wanted a militarisation of the struggle in Ireland as preferable to Free Derry and democratic communism in practice... The many and varied people who did AB things were not very comfortable with clandestinity, which is inevitably elitist when it doesn't come out of a mass movement... The respect element of the critical respect I feel now is that we were serious about what we felt and thought and acted upon it. Doing it and having a good time was largely financed by cheque fraud... But why then bombing, a 19th century tactic, easily labelled as anarchist (which we were not), necessarily clandestine and, given that we did not want to hurt anyone, necessarily limited in the damage it could do... it felt like it was hurting them without hurting ourselves... All that happened with the AB is that it cheered up the relatively powerless for a while. But it was too much from the outside... All I can say is at least we were never like those unscrupulous leftist groups that encouraged black youths to attack police stations after the death of Colin Roache and then disowned them when they did it with petrol bombs (which are far more democratic than dynamite)... What has survived and flourished from the libertarian movement and especially from the women's movement has been a scepticism about the automatic “we” of traditional left politics. On the other hand in defeat the notion of autonomy (now used in mobile phone adverts) has become enmeshed in notions of personal identity. Unity today needs to be worked for. But it can be stronger than the automatic “we” when borne of mutual respect and if it includes those made furiously angry by our government of Christian Bolsheviks as their rhetoric of inclusion becomes ever more excluding...’

The positions articulated explicitly in this review of Tom Vague's book are implicit in Bending The Bars; to restate the obvious, Barker is a libertarian communist with a fully fledged critique of the hierarchical politics of bolshevism.


BENDING THE BARS: PRISON STORIES by John Barker is available from Christie Books, Hastings 2002, 123pp, eBook £7.50/paperback £12.00 or $15