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Michael X: A Life In Black And White, by John Williams

Notting Hill to death row

Sometimes reading makes one feel old. As the fag end of the swinging Sixties merged into the sobering Seventies, John Williams was "a little white kid growing up in South Wales", seeing the Angry Brigade, the IRA and Black Power as distant spectres from the adult world. By contrast, I was newly married to a jazz musician and living in affordable Notting Hill, crossing paths with many of the characters that people Williams's engrossing biography. Michael X: A Life in Black and White does a remarkable job of contextualising for a younger generation that may scarcely have heard of him the long-gone world of someone who once laid claim to being "the most famous black man in Britain".

Born in Trinidad, Michael De Freitas was the offspring of an Obeah-practising black woman from Barbados and an absent Portuguese father from St Kitts. Encouraged by his mother to pass for white, in a society that preferred fair skin, "Red Mike" was headstrong and at 14 was expelled from school. A seafaring job brought the wayward teenager to Britain, land of hope and glory. Like many poor black immigrants with limited choice of housing, he gravitated to the overcrowded shabbiness of west London – territory of the notorious landlord Peter Rachman - finding common cause with another set of social outcasts, the white prostitutes.

Ready to explore every money-making opportunity, and ambitious for fine living, Michael soon took up hustling and pimping, and also acquired a pretty young Guyanese wife.

Racial tensions rose to boiling point in 1958 with the Notting Hill "riots". When Michael and some friends were arrested for loitering the following day, he demonstrated a mastery of shape-shifting identity. He told the police, "You've made a mistake, I'm not black, I'm a Jew," whereupon he was released and was able to organise bail for the others.

As the area became the epicentre of Britain's "race problem", the do-gooders moved in, and Michael came to the fore. This was the start of the trajectory that would eventually take him to Death Row on the island of his birth at the age of 41 in 1975.

Some unlikely headliners of the time share this narrative: Colin MacInnes, Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies, Alexander Trocchi, William Burroughs. Michael's formidable contacts encompassed the aristocracy, counter-culture, gangsterdom. The Black House, his grandiose dream of alternative living space, attracted tens of thousands of pounds in donations from the likes of Muhammad Ali, Sammy Davis Jr, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Malcolm X, on a visit to London in 1965, was befriended by Michael, and an over-literal interpretation of Malcolm's reference to him as "brother" resulted in a new name: Michael X. Media attention began to focus on this piratical-looking man, who claimed to be the leader of a numerically significant British black-nationalist organisation. The grandiloquent Racial Adjustment Action Society was primarily an excuse for the mocking acronym RAAS – a popular Jamaican obscenity.

The British press, ever on the look out for the latest Black community activist, bears some responsibility for inventing Michael X. But, always one step ahead, he soon embraced Islam and yet another name.

As well as revisiting (with judicious scepticism) his subject's autobiography, From Michael De Freitas to Michael X by Michael Abdul Malik, published in 1968, John Williams incorporates first-hand reminiscences.

Nancy Bacal, a woman with whom he had a five-year relationship, recalls: "In the early years it was as though the world had been given to Michael as a party! He was far more Damon Runyon than criminally minded".

However, as Michael began to operate in an atmosphere of increasing darkness and menace, the party was definitely over. He re-located to Trinidad, with plans for a rural commune; and then two dead bodies were found on his land. Not even his celebrity supporters could save him from the gallows now.

A less skilful biographer might have settled for painting Michael De Freitas/Michael X/Michael Abdul Malik as a colourful trickster and impostor who got his just deserts. The reality, as Williams shows, is much more complex. This was a life as full of contradictions as the decades it spanned: prison and poetry; hedonism and abstinence; the tragic and the laughable; wastrels and millionaires; sex, drugs and pop music; the good, the bad and the ugly – a life in black and white, indeed, yet still with a whole heap of grey areas. That this is also a story told with compassion makes it all the more readable.

Margaret Busby edited 'Daughters of Africa' (Ballantine Books)