My sneaking admiration for an angry man

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It was the moment of truth, the culmination of three years of work or skiving, mindless pleasure or mental turmoil – the first Finals exam for students reading English at Cambridge. We gathered at the Senate House, nervous and hollow-eyed from weeks of panicky revision, took our seats and, when instructed, turned over the exam paper which was waiting for us.

It was at this point that there was a brief distraction. The student at the desk five yards away from mine, stood up, tore the exam sheet in half and padded with studied casualness out of the room. John Barker's Cambridge career was over.

The next time I heard of Barker was a couple of years later when, in 1971, he was one of six people arrested in a police raid on a house in Stoke Newington, north London, and accused of being members of a terrorist organisation which had become legendary over the previous year, the Angry Brigade. It was they, we read, who had been responsible for a series of bombings, targeting business, the police and politicians, including the Attorney General and the Home Secretary.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the trial of the Angry Brigade, and a small flurry of media events will soon be reminding us how significant this largely forgotten historical incident seemed at the time. For the mainstream press, the Angries became the embodiment of the establishment's most paranoiac fears, showing where the Sixties empowerment of youth – the marches, the sit-ins, the drugs, the shameless hedonism – could lead. Journalists shuddered delightedly at the revelation that four of the six accused had been bright, relatively privileged members of the middle-class, that two of them were women. "Dropouts with brains tried to launch a bloody revolution," read one headline. "Sex orgies at the cottage of blood," read another.

Awkwardly, their trial, at which Barker and three others elected to represent themselves, revealed that much of the forensic evidence used against them was flawed but, after the longest case in legal history, they were found guilty and sent to jail for 10 years.

By the time all that happened, I was bumbling my way into some kind of professional life. It would be good to think that I might have felt a mild disdain for contemporaries who had somehow refused to grow up while the rest of us were moving into a world of careers, relationships, dinner-parties and first mortgages.

The embarrassing truth is that I was in awe of Barker at Cambridge and, in spite of my best efforts, I remained so. He was one of a gang of English undergraduates who had been educated at Haberdashers' Askes and who arrived at university having read more books, lived more life and slept with more women (not difficult in my case) than the rest of us. Barker, with his long hair and donkey jacket, was taciturn, humourless and coolly contemptuous of those, like me, who were less engaged and more confused than he was.

It is difficult to shake off those early impressions. Even when I read that Barker, having emerged from jail, re-offended in a more conventionally criminal manner – he was involved in a drug-smuggling scam in the late 1980s – I was unable to shift my view that, unlike most of my generation, he somehow had avoided the small acts of ambition and self-interest which add up to a life of compromise.

Commendably, the ex-members of the Angry Brigade have declined to join the media fest surrounding the anniversary of their trial, which will take place without their contributions. For all I know, John Barker may now be a twinkle-eyed, middle-aged man who chuckles nostalgically at the thought of his youthful excesses. But part of me hopes that, wherever he may be, he is still an outsider and still at least a bit angry.