Mike Phillips is a very good writer. And - he would like to remind politicians, critics and his peers - a very good British writer. By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
If Mike Phillips was a bottle of wine, you would say he had a bold, big flavour - tropical trees with potent, wet green leaves mixed with scented spices. And treacle. Definitely treacle, not tar, in the lungs, producing a voice and rumbling chuckle which make you want to inhale an entire packet of whatever he smokes.

Mike, big brother of the influential and altogether more urbane Trevor Phillips, has published eight thrillers - although some are a whole lot more than whodunnit capers - a collection of short stories and several critical essays. His latest book, The Dancing Face, has just been published.

Two of his novels have been turned into screenplays and televised. He is a subversive, moving, sexy writer (thighs and buttocks always terribly well observed) with several awards under his belt, including the Crime Writers Association's Silver Dagger. Last year, he was the writer in residence at the Royal Festival Hall. At the party to celebrate this, Peter Bottomley, at his patronising best, said: "So, Mike, you have become an insider at last." He wasn't to know it, but he had ignited the spark that makes Phillips' creativity blaze: "There you have it. What did he think I was until then? Forty years after I have been here, I was still an outsider until the Festival Hall gave me shelter? You know I am still described by many as 'British based' as if soon I shall be returning to the Caribbean."

Not of this place, not in its bookish heart. Not yet. Many of his characters are mixed race and illegitimate, claiming their birthright: "A good metaphor for our community. We came seeking that birthright and were not embraced." We met on the day that Oscar nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste found that out when she was simply excluded from the group of young British actors who were flown over to Cannes. Being good, even very, very good, is simply not enough if you are black and Asian, give or take a Kureshi or a Rushdie. Most of us are still not accepted in the club.

These attitudes make Phillips very cross. They also make him laugh and he does get sweet revenge, sometimes shooting first. In his novel, Blood Rights, there are two married Tory MPs who (not unlike the Bottomleys) look like siblings and present a cultivated open charm underpinned by steel girders. Their daughter is called Virginia. The electrifying An Image To Die For is built around a white TV producer, Wyndham Davies, who is always trying to ingratiate himself with his black journalist friend, Sam Dean, by confessing that he loves "all this ethnic stuff. It's what London's all about". Dean, meanwhile, has been screwing Wyndham's wife.

But Phillips is not merely a satirist or anything as simple as anti-white. He is just as scathing about black separatism and special pleading and this endless obsession with black culture: "Caribbeans came here with the complete British heritage. Our carpenter back home could recite Shakespeare. Shakespeare and the King James Bible is buried in our cadences. But that is not acceptable. If you speak fluent and educated English, you are not considered authentic by whites, or these days, by blacks. I despise that invented black ghetto culture that is stitched out of reggae, rap and red, green and yellow caps. You don't have to have dreadlocks to be a real black."

Phillips is also merciless in his depictions of the corruption and violence which are now such a central part of inner-city black life in Britain and the United States. The difference is that this he can and wants to understand. The urban nightmares are caused at least partly because, as crime writer Val McDermid says, this is a world where "hopes shrivel and dreams distort".

Much of this awareness comes from his own life and more particularly from his father. Phillips describes him as a "complex angry man who was harrowed by poverty and frustrated by discrimination... I deeply regret not knowing him better when he was alive, but I can feel him urging me on even now." He wanted to be a politician. All this country allowed him was a job on the railways. Sixteen miserable years later, he packed up and went off to the United States. Mike says he was afraid of him, as was his elder brother, Ron, now the vice-president of a black university in Delaware. In fact, at the age of 17, Ron disappeared and was presumed dead. He only came back after his father died.

Phillips' own relationships with his two sons, Kwesi, who is at university, and Kip, still a toddler with irrepressible energy, are very different. "I want peace between us, and friendship." Jenny, his partner, small and delicate and impressively serene, is a university lecturer. She is white, too, as is the mother of his older son. Hybridity, contrasts, difference are what he values and delights in.

Phillips has also known frustration in his time. He came here as a child from Guyana. In 1968, after getting his degree, jobs did come along, but not quite the ones he had imagined. He worked as a mechanic - "an undersealer's mate" - and then at a geriatric hospital. For a while, he was a petrol- pump attendant. Then came the big break. He laughs until he chokes. He found work as a telephone operator and next to him sat that other Guyanese hothead, Bernie Grant. They hail from the same village. Several qualifications later, he started lecturing in media studies at the Polytechnic of Central London.

So when did the writing bug bite, and why thrillers? "Soon after. Why thrillers? Because I wanted to be read. But I soon found out that my black identity put me on the side of evil. To be black in the world of crime fiction morality is to be on the wrong side of the tracks." This is clearly what journalists and reviewers imagined in the early days. Phillips was always asked how autobiographical the books were. "They looked really disappointed when I said I was a lecturer and not a small-time ex-drug baron."

But these days, surely, we are used to black authors, even thriller writers such as the African-American Walter Mosley?

Wrong question. Phillips positively explodes: "He is American. He is safely away from here. He offers reassurance to white Britons. It is distant from them. His books are often about those segregated good old days when middle-aged jazz fans felt easy and before the questions even in the US became difficult. Before OJ." He is right. Black Americans have limitless access to the British literary and media establishments and most are utterly ignorant of black Britons. When Marsha Hunt established the Saga Literary prize for black British writing she had the gall to say that there was hardly any good black writing in this country - because she hadn't heard of it.

Phillips' new book is in many ways a synthesis of all these passions. He is writing himself away from crime writing because he wants people to stop ignoring or dismissing what he is describing. This time he takes on the controversial theme of reparations for art stolen from former colonies. It came out of the hours Phillips spent walking around the Hayward when he was at the Royal Festival Hall looking at pictures and sculptures, talking about art and ownership with the custodians of these precious commodities.The book is brutal, deep, cunning and unbearably beautiful. It is located in the new British identity which is mixed and unpredictable, thriving and hard. But alive. It is about us all and our country, 50 years after the empire started to crumble n

Mike Phillips' new novel, 'The Dancing Face', is published by HarperCollins, pounds 15.99

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