Darcus Howe: The bruiser

Although he rails against other people's stereotypes, he's quite happy to employ his own BY PAUL VALLELY
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It was clear enough where the Jewish comic was coming from. Hers was a pure American "melting pot" psychology. Let's all forget about labels, treat each other as people and have a nice life, she said. But with Darcus Howe, you needed to know about years of calcified bitterness and resentment.

The clues were there when Howe talked about Son of Mine, the film he was there to plug - about his relationship with his son who recently narrowly escaped a prison sentence. Young black boys, he said, were neither "good nor bad".

"They're just what they are historically. They have emerged into the world of globalisation with a certain attitude. They spend a lot of time in prison which reflects our society's serious intolerance of their behaviour, however mild."

There was Darcus Howe's life's work on a neat little plate: a doughty portion of advocacy, with a dollop of Marxist historical inevitability, a cupful of excuses, a liberal sprinkling of rights with a deliberate under-seasoning of responsibilities, and all stirred together in a recipe unchanged since his heyday in the Sixties.

"You've got such a chip on your shoulder," barked Ms Rivers. Chip is not the word. For Darcus Howe, Britain's leading professional black man, it's not even a plank or a tree. It's an entire tropical forest.

To be fair to Mr Howe, it's not hard to see why. He grew up in 1950s Trinidad in a school with an Anglican church in the grounds. His father was both the headmaster and the church deacon. "Sometimes, the services were High, sometimes Low," he has recalled. "But the vicar was always English." At school, the extravagantly over-named Queen's Royal College, he learned cricket and Latin. "Tantum hostem quiescentum," as one of his schoolboy contemporaries put it. "So great an enemy lying in wait".

When he left home in 1960, to study law at Middle Temple, Trinidad was still a colony. He sailed for the imperial homeland. But when he arrived, he found the English sense of fair play he had been taught did not apply to blacks.

He moved into Notting Hill in its pre-Hugh Grant era. In those days, he found, "you didn't want to be seen alone walking down a street if four white men were coming the other way". He was married, still a teenager, in a shotgun wedding into a white middle-class family where the in-laws were not best pleased. It was the era of Africans campaigning against Portuguese colonialism and independence for Rhodesia and for an end to apartheid. Radical politics seemed inevitable.

He abandoned the law for activism and joined the Black Panthers, a movement inspired by the American group of the same name. But where the US separatists carried guns, their British counterparts just talked big. Being a British Black Panther, one wag later said, was about as hard as being a Welsh Sandinista.

Even so, in 1971 Howe was charged with riot, conspiracy and affray after an anti-police demonstration. He and the other "Mangrove Nine" were all cleared after a huge media hoo-ha involving Vanessa Redgrave and Black Power demonstrators outside the Old Bailey. But in 1977, he spent six weeks in jail. "I got three months for beating the shit out of [a policeman]," Howe told his son recently.

But he was a romantic rather than a rationalist. In 1981, he was elected editor of a magazine called Race Today in a workers' coup. It saw the unemployed not as workshy but as the vanguard of social change. He printed a short story by the IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands (which he later said had little literary merit) as an act of revolutionary consciousness.

Around the same time, he organised a 20,000-strong Black People's March in protest against the lack of progress in a police investigation of a fire at New Cross in which 14 black teenagers died; the police said it was an accident; the protesters felt it was a neo-Nazi attack against a black celebration. Howe has always leant towards a conspiracy view of the world. When the Government weapons inspector Dr David Kelly died, Howe's New Statesman column was the first publicly to suggest that it was not suicide, but a CIA/MI5 plot.

Somewhere along the way, Darcus Howe got stuck in a timewarp. He chaired the Notting Hill Carnival in the 1980s, but then in 1998 declared it to be "crap". He celebrates West Indian cricket, but looks back on the Seventies and Eighties as a golden era in which "we" - Howe fails the Norman Tebbit cricket test - "conquered all that stood in our way", through a combination of black consciousness and the discipline inculcated by the colonial education system. He lauds black music, but stops at Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Bob Marley, condemning hip-hop singers for lacking "artistic intensity" and having voices that lack range and phrasing and are weak.

Others moved on. Farrukh Dhondy, another Black Panther, recently repudiated their old idea that school was a machine to grade the labour force, and set low expectations for immigrants so they would do the most menial jobs. It took no account of the importance of self-discipline which the new generation of young blacks now lack, he said, and induced a "something for nothing" mentality. "The endemic paradox of revolutionary philosophies," he said, "is that they are based on demands for rights, with no acknowledgement of duties."

Or as Dr Raj Chandran, of the Commission for Racial Equality, put it: "We shall not bring black, Asian and white youths to respect and live with one another if people like Darcus Howe continue with their attitude that the white man owes them a living."

But Howe has continued to make one TV series after another locked into his anachronistic world view. The most recent - Who You Callin' a Nigger? - looked at tensions between different ethnic minority communities in Britain. The new violence is between black and Asian youths in the inner cities. What happened to the spirit of anti-racist solidarity that bound them together in the struggles of the Sixties and Seventies, Howe wondered? But somehow, he wanted simultaneously to hold that "since 9/11, Muslims have become the most hated group in Britain" and also to maintain that his black community are still the real victims.

His broadcasting style, as Joan Rivers discovered, is confrontational and bullying. His Devil's Advocate series on Channel 4 puts him in the role of hectoring prosecutor, judge and jury. Jonathan Dimbleby has branded him as Any Questions' most difficult panellist ever: "He didn't seem to be aware that some listeners might like to hear the views of the other panellists as well." In one TV series, he reduced a 38-year-old woman he met through a dating agency to tears; the poor woman sobbed for the cameras to be turned off.

The personal is political with him. He has had seven children by four different women and opines: "Divorce is to be celebrated. Anybody who challenges that is an enemy of freedom."

In Son of Mine, when his first wife points out that he was an absentee father, he goes ballistic and starts shouting at her about colonialism. The idea that his kid went off the rails because he wasn't there clearly is nothing set against the enormity of hundreds of years of racist oppression.

But although he rails against other people's stereotypes - "you can't simply say black people can run faster and white people can swim better" - he's quite happy to employ his own. Geordies only seem interested in beer and football, he said on TV once, in an off-hand way which would outrage him if someone said the same thing about blacks and drugs and promiscuous sex. "I am a West Indian. That means I make children all the time," he has said. "West Indian men are historically violent," he adds, by way of excuse. "We tend to fly off the handle quite quickly."

When he was mugged by a Somali recently, he tracked the youth down and, with some friends, kicked in his door and seized the money back. But what would he have said if it had been white vigilantes and a black mugger? He would doubtless have said quite a lot, and loudly. Shouting being a substitute for thinking in his self- regarding polemics.

But then the world keeps giving him reasons which legitimate his tribal outrage. His wife was recently told at a white hairdresser's in Brixton: "We don't do your sort of hair here."

His son was not long ago stopped and searched by police who threatened to charge the youth with "intent to do criminal damage" because he was carrying a crayon. No wonder Darcus Howe is still an angry old man, even if his oft-billed "radical" ire increasingly seems to take on a reactionary tinge. The only shame is that he is unable to realise that his self-righteous and slightly pompous indignation has a diminishing return.

A Life in Brief

BORN 1944, in Trinidad, which he left, aged 16, for England.

FAMILY Father a headmaster and Anglican deacon. Mother a teacher.

Married, he has had seven children by four women.

EDUCATION Queen's Royal College in Trinidad. Studied law at Middle Temple in London.

CAREER As a Black Panther activist, he was charged with riot and affray in 1971, and acquitted. Sentenced in 1977 to three months for assaulting a police officer. From 1981, editor of 'Race Today'. Chairman of Notting Hill Carnival in the early 1980s. Since 1990s, has presented 'The Devil's Advocate' series, Channel 4. TV series: 'White Tribe', 2000; 'Slave Nation', 2001; 'Who You Callin' a Nigger?', 2004.

HE SAYS 'I am always to be found running up freedom street.'

'If Amiri [Howe's son] ends up in prison, it will be a defeat of everything I've dedicated my life to.'

THEY SAY 'A loopy libertarian' - Charlotte Raven.

'A man of vast charm and even vaster ego'. Jane Shilling