Biba vs The Angry Brigade

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Angry Brigade bombing the Biba boutique, this is an extract from Alwyn Turner’s book The Biba Experience (ACC, 2004)

Mayday in 1971 fell on a Saturday, and to mark the international celebration of working class solidarity, the Angry Brigade planted a bomb in the basement of the Biba boutique in Kensington High Street.

The first phone-warning was received mid-afternoon and was summarily dismissed by the girl answering the call. At 3.30pm a second warning was issued: ‘You have only five minutes before the bomb goes off.’ The tone was by now very panicked. ‘At first,’ said Biba’s co-owner Stephen Fitz-Simon, ‘I thought the caller was a crank but then I decided to take it seriously as there were about 5,000 people in the store, most of them women and children.’

It fell to the store’s security officer, John Evans, to clear the premises: ‘I got the customers out to safety and then went downstairs into the basement to see what I could find. As I opened the stockroom door there was a violent explosion.’ He was slightly injured, but fortunately was the only casualty in an incident that could have had far more serious consequences. As it was, the damage was almost entirely confined to property: ‘Half the basement was demolished. There were bits of hatstands all over the place.’

One of those there at the time remembers the chaos of the day. ‘Someone said: The shop is closing, will you please get out in the street as soon as possible. And of course everyone was screaming and at the same time stuffing things up their jumpers, pinching stuff like mad. There was one girl next to me having complete hysterics, flinging her arms around and saying: “Oh my God, oh my God, we’re all going to die.” And as she was doing this big drama thing, she was stuffing loads of things into her bag.’

It was one of the more unlikely episodes in the history of Biba. At the time the renewed war in Ireland hadn’t spread to the mainland, bombings were far from commonplace, particularly in public places, and terrorism had yet to become a fact of life for Londoners. The first acknowledged Angry Brigade action had been a bomb that failed to explode outside Paddington Green police station in May 1970, with the most famous attack coming the following January when there were two explosions at the house of the Employment Minister, Robert Carr. A series of bombings over an eighteen-month period were, so it was claimed, carefully targeted: ‘Fascism and oppression will be smashed – Embassies, High Pigs, Spectacles, Judges, Property…’ read an early Angry Brigade statement.

Which raised the question: Why Biba? No other shop had been, or was ever to be, attacked by the group, and Biba didn’t readily spring to mind as a symbol of ‘fascism and oppression’. Indeed for many of its customers it was seen to be mounting the barricades itself. ‘On the surface Biba’s concern with fashion might have seemed suspiciously establishment, part of the problem, rather than the solution,’ recalled Catherine Ross, one of those entranced by the mail order catalogues. ‘But to our 14-year-old eyes there was absolutely no doubt at all that Biba was “on our side” … the Biba catalogues looked far more subversive and potentially dangerous than other more overtly revolutionary publications like Black Dwarf.’

The Angry Brigade itself issued a press release, titled Communiqué #8, to explain their rationale:

All the sales girls in the flash boutiques are made to dress the same and have the same make-up, representing the 1940s. In fashion as in everything else capitalism can only go backwards – they’ve nowhere to go – they’re dead.
The future is ours. Life is so boring there is nothing to do except spend all our wages on the latest skirt or shirt.
Brothers and Sisters, what are your real desires? Sit in the drugstore, look distant, empty, bored, drinking some tasteless coffee? Or perhaps BLOW IT UP or BURN IT DOWN. The only thing you can do with modern slave-houses – called boutiques – is WRECK THEM. You can’t reform profit capitalism and inhumanity. Just KICK IT TILL IT BREAKS.

Ignoring the critique of Biba’s fashion sense (it was hard to believe that founder Barbara Hulanicki’s fondness for retro design was really the motivation), Scotland Yard pointed immediately to the attack being an attempt to appeal to radical feminists: ‘way-out militant women on the fringes of the “Women’s Lib” movement, but not connected with any organized group’. The connexion between the Angry Brigade and the Women’s Liberation Movement had, the police stated, been under investigation for some months.

This claimed association with the more militant wing of early British feminism was not as implausible as it might appear. One of the first public manifestations of the women’s movement in the USA had been a demonstration at the 1968 Miss America contest in Atlantic City, denouncing a culture based on the idea that ‘women must be young, juicy, malleable – hence age discrimination and the cult of youth’. Suitably inspired, British feminists greeted the arrival of the Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1970 by throwing flour, stink-bombs and smoke-bombs to disrupt the proceedings inside the venue. This was little more than rag-week street theatre, but more worryingly a BBC Outside Broadcast van was blown up by a real bomb, in an attack whose authorship was never identified.

Amongst those on the inside concerned by this development was Erin Pizzey, who became ever more alarmed when she heard suggestions within the movement of further attacks: ‘I said that if you go on with this – they were discussing bombing Biba – I’m going to call the police in, because I really don’t believe in this.’ When she did indeed inform the police, she found herself forced to leave the group in which she was participating, and instead went off to found the first refuge for the victims of domestic violence, beginning a campaign to force that issue on to the political agenda.

In the charged atmosphere of the time, the activities of the Angry Brigade were seen by many within the counter-culture as being effectively the most radical expressions of the war against straight society. The Christmas edition of International Times declared 1971 to be ‘The Year of the Angry Brigade’, while Oz and Frendz produced Angry Brigade issues later that year, both of them subsequent to the Biba bombing. The group’s ideological link with feminism was not obvious (the first Angry Brigade communiqué had opened ‘Dear Boss’, in deliberate echo of Jack the Ripper), and it is striking that no statement issued after Communiqué #8 referred to the Biba bomb, as though it had been some kind of aberration. Just as striking is that the attack did nothing to damage the reputation of the Angry Brigade as the shock troops of alternative Britain. Indeed the Guardian even argued that Biba should see it as ‘some kind of macabre tribute’ that anarchists should single it out in order ‘to protest the rising tide of capitalist female deco-decadence’.

The fact was that there were many on the left who had a strong ideological objection to Biba. It may have been the creation of a woman, its management structure may have been almost exclusively female, and it may have inspired feelings of empowerment and liberation amongst those who shopped there, but the ‘objective reality’ was that all the above were the victims of an industry designed to exploit women, to subjugate them and to lure them into consumerism. In the confused quasi-Marxist rhetoric of the times, Biba was the enemy. It was too successful, too visible, too seductive…


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