'Mike is my fiercest critic'

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The Independent Online


My family has been very gung-ho about the whole Mayoral race. When I was making the decision to run we had a family council, my mother and sisters flying in from the States so we could talk about it. We decided it was worth having a go. My mother was very positive. She's definitely the head of the family - none of us would do anything she didn't want - and she said: "Go for it - don't waste any time."

Aside from my wife and children, there are two people whose opinions I've always valued. One was Bernie Grant, and the other is my elder brother Mike. They both come from the same no-holds-barred school of honesty and rigour. Mike is my fiercest critic, but it's a great help to have that kind of relationship, to have criticism from someone who you care about, secure in the knowledge that they think highly of you and only want the best for you.

Mike and I talk every day, if not face to face then on the phone. He's a proper intellectual, an artist and a very wise person. The good thing about him being a writer is that he doesn't give a toss about the kind of things I care about - he's not bothered about what people think, or good manners, or not offending people's sensibilities; he just says what he thinks is the right thing to do here and now.

My childhood experience was very different from Mike's. When I was born there were seven children in just two bedrooms, and that's not a terrific way to live. So when I was one, my parents sent me back to Guyana to live with my aunt and grandmother. I stayed there until I was six, and went back there again between the ages of 13 and 17.

So I grew up in a situation where, unlike here, your colour doesn't mark you out. My teachers were black, the prime minister was black: I didn't have any of the psychological barriers, the stereotyping black people get in this country. If I'd have stayed at school in England I would have ended up in jail. I would have been trouble and I would have been in trouble - that's what happens to lively, opinionated black boys.

My life has always been a voyage, a way of finding a way of living in a new society while trying to hold on to my identity. That's the great thing about London, its diversity astonishes me. I still have ambitions to be mayor, but whether I ever will or not is up to Londoners.


I think Trevor would be a brilliant mayor, and if he makes up his mind to do it he will be mayor. It's up to him. I've seen him do so many impossible things I wouldn't put anything past him any more. When he said he was going to stand for the National Union of Students national executive, I told him to forget it because I was at university a few years before him and had a very strong impression that it was hugely difficult for a black person to get on to the executive. He said "I'll try anyway", and a couple of years later he was the NUS President.

He gives the impression of being mild-mannered and jovial but behind that he's got a will of steel. Trevor's extraordinary: he gets sent somewhere as a baby, gets used to it and then gets sent back at the age of seven. Then he goes to a school for a few years here before being sent away again for his teenage years. After all that he comes back here and he's successful in every way.

The major difference between Trevor and me is that I was always a little migrant boy, whereas by the time he started university here a lot of things had changed. In 1956 when I arrived my parents lived in Islington, near Dalston market, which was pretty much a terrible slum at the time. My dad was working 16 hours a day as a railway porter and my mother sewed furs in a sweatshop.

Our elder brother couldn't bear it, ran away and went to live in Eastern Europe. We were reunited after 20 years and he taught me a lot about life behind the Iron Curtain. Since then I have spent a lot of time in Russia and Poland. I feel a strong affinity with it and my book is an attempt to draw parallels between the way I, as a black person, always felt censored - always trying to deliver what I thought a white person considered appropriate. It's very similar to that sense of being continually scrutinised growing up behind the Iron Curtain. One of the problems with being a black writer is that a white writer can go to Timbuctoo and back, but if a black writer writes about anything but the ghetto it's a betrayal of you background.

I've always been political in a more radical way than Trevor. During the 1970s, I was very much involved in left-wing and black nationalist politics. I'm conscious that the things Trevor achieved weren't open to me at all when I was his age, but I'm not bitter about that. Whatever obstacles and failures we experienced, we tended to see life as a training ground for younger ones, so when Trevor achieved various things it was almost as if I'd done it, and I think all my brothers and sisters feel the same.

If Frank Dobson wins, Trevor will be his deputy, but whatever happens he's going to be a member of the assembly. He's not there just as a representative of the minorities, but someone who has a real grip on the way London has changed and on the way it will change in future years. He's got more of a grip than anyone in the assembly and in that sense he would have made a very good mayor.

'A Shadow of Myself' by Mike Phillips is published by Harper Collins on 15 May, £16.99