HOWWE MET

DARCUS HOWE AND PAUL BOATENG
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The Independent Culture
The broadcaster and journalist Darcus Howe, 53, was born in Trinidad. He came to England in 1960 and studied law at Middle Temple. A former community activist and Black Panther, he now presents Channel Four's Devil's Advocate. He has seven children and lives in south London with his wife Leila. Paul Boateng, 43, was born in east London. He trained as a barrister and was a member of the Greater London Council from 1981-86. In 1987 he became MP for Brent South; he is currently Labour spokes- person on legal affairs. He lives in north-west London with his wife Janet and their five children.

DARCUS HOWE: I first met Paul when he was 19 years old and working for my then lawyer Ben Birnberg - one of the very first solicitors to engage on the black question. In those days I was always out on bail for demos and activities against police brutality or unfairness against blacks.

I was seeing Ben about something and he told me there was a man he wanted me to speak to. I was introduced to Paul. He struck me as young, well- spoken and a bit pompous - but pleasantly so. We immediately started to talk about politics. I was trying to draw him into the idea of activism and black radical community politics. He said: "Oh, no, no, no. I'm a member of the Labour Party, and one day I'm going to be a government minister."

Those days were pretty dark. The Labour Party didn't have a single black MP and there wasn't a hope in hell that the situation would change. I thought: "He must be crazy." I think I told him the most he'd get out of it would be a distorted personality and a nervous breakdown.

Soon after, Paul gave me his telephone number and said, "Whatever hour, day or night, do call." I think he had a regard for the things I had done and wanted to show appreciation. We met up all the time in the late Seventies and early Eighties. He was a member of the GLC; I was chairman of the Notting Hill carnival. He also supported the cultural work I was doing in Brixton. That's when our relationship was flowering. Because of that period I feel I have, in a sense, been part of Paul's development.

I have always admired his tremendous ambition and focus. Even when I first met him he was very clear about what he was going to do. If Blair wins the next election, it's likely that Paul is going to be sitting in the cabinet.

Paul comes to me for advice and I think he does look to me as a father figure. He is always honest with me if there's something he disagrees with. A few weeks ago, I went to a party at one of the chambers in the Temple. When I saw Paul, he just nodded at me and kept on walking. I followed him and asked: "What have I done?" He said: "You've hurt me." It was because I'd written that I wouldn't vote for Bernie Grant and would have to think through whether or not I'd vote for Paul. At the time I was thinking through the Blair version of the Labour Party and where Paul stood in relation to it. But he thought it was a gratuitous statement and said: "You write brilliantly and you've taught me so much - now you treat me like a dishcloth." He expected me to be more generous about his achievements. Now my decision is that I will vote for him - I was behaving irresponsibly. I really wrote it to get at Bernie Grant - which I try to do regularly.

Sometimes I feel protective towards Paul. Years ago, during a meeting at the GLC, a black activist had slapped Paul. I hunted this man down and provoked him so he would retaliate. In the end he wouldn't, so I slapped him and said: "This is for Boateng." I never told Paul, but did it quietly for myself. I felt he mustn't be treated like that. Growing up in the ghettos, you acquire a physical confidence.

There is a wonderful arrogance about him. He doesn't feel inferior to anybody. You see this huge smile, but behind it you know the guy's deadly. He has a backbone of steel that other people don't have.

He did make me flinch once. He used to have a tendency to over-enthuse, but I haven't seen it much lately. When he won his seat he made some grand statement about being part of the resurgence of black people worldwide. I thought: "No, that's triumphalism." But he's lost that now.

Paul's never cluttered or congested by external matters. I look at other black MPs, who tend to be attracted by all manner of minority interests. Instead, he always keeps his eye on the ball and doesn't get caught up in side-shows.

Our friendship has lasted because of mutual respect. I think he's got great presence, energy and style. And he just thinks I'm the cat's whiskers.

PAUL BOATENG: I remember I had just got an offer of articles with Ben Birnberg - a great radical lawyer of the early Sixties and Seventies. Darcus was somebody I had read about and admired. He was a considerable activist and I thought he was a particularly able polemicist and, in many ways, a brilliant writer. I first met him at the old Institute for Race Relations building in King's Cross. Our first conversation was about the different way we approach things. He no doubt gave me some advice - he's never been unforthcoming in that regard.

I made a decision very early on in life to work within the established political framework. Darcus has taken another way. He has been a trenchant and powerfully constructive critic of the system. We have chosen very different paths although, as far as our ideals and vision are concerned, we have a great deal in common.

One of his greatest achievements was in 1981 in mobilising the community at the time of the New Cross fire. It was a devastating event for the black community and believed to be a racial attack. Darcus was responsible for a great and peaceful non-violent protest. In that way, he has certainly had a freedom outside politics I have not been able to enjoy.

Part of our regard for one another is that we both have lives that are capable of embracing more than just politics. It's good to be able to meet up and talk about politics one minute and a book or a film the next. That adds depth to a relationship. I admire him because I think he's a person of enormous integrity. He has a joyfulness about life that I appreciate. He also has a sense of mischief - Darcus is able to prick the pig's bladder of pomposity. If one lapses into it, which I try not to do, he will always pull you up short. And he won't mind if you do the same.

We both have strong egos and personalities, so we discuss and argue a lot. I'm attracted to strength, emotional and intellectual power. I think Darcus is exactly the same.

He does have the capacity to wound. Most of the time, as a politician, one is capable of developing a sufficiently thick skin. With Darcus, though, if he writes something that I think is unfair then it can make me angry. He wrote something recently and I have been very upfront with him about it. In the main I wouldn't feel it at all. With him I do because his opinion counts.

Darcus has influenced me in that he challenges me to ask: "Why am I doing this?" When I was working with him in the Seventies and early Eighties, he would put important issues on the agenda. At the time of the Bristol riots, he was doing a very positive job and providing leadership to the black community. The demands he made on me then as a lawyer obliged me to think things through.

At one time I encouraged him to become a barrister. He had many of the skills that would have equipped him for the bar, but without the pomposity or verbosity. But now I think it would have been too confining, because you have to operate within a context. Darcus is not prepared to be contained within any context - not even the media.

That's why I enjoy seeing his Puck-like spirit at work - because I know I have made a decision to subject myself to that discipline. Life would be the poorer if people were not prepared to do as Darcus does. He is prepared to be an utterly free spirit. !

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