Are blacks programmed to die in custody?

Andrew Marr's week
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YOU WANT to know the trouble with blacks? I'll tell you the trouble with blacks. Squeeze their necks a bit, and they just die on you. It's a well-known fact. Or, rather, that's the implication of what Richard Tilt, director-general of the Prison Service, said on Newsnight this week, after the inquest jury decided that Alton Manning had been unlawfully killed during a violent struggle at Blakenhurst prison.

Tilt, quite extraordinarily, suggested the problem was that people of Afro-Caribbean background were likelier to suffer "positional asphyxia" because "there is a physiological difference" between them and whites. As Jason Bennetto and Andrew Buncombe reported in yesterday's paper, the Prison Service helpfully explained that "positional asphyxia ... is when they are held in a certain position. It is when there is pressure put down on the windpipe."

So, in plain terms, black people keep getting killed in prison because there's something funny about their necks. It is nothing whatever to do with racism. Terribly sad and all that, but it's a medical fact - according to Tilt, there is "evidence emerging" about that.

Well, there's a convenient discovery - the dreaded "black people dying in custody gene", hitherto unknown to medical science. It sounds very like the physiological fact that black people have small brains or high libidos, and other similar classics. You might have expected to find it in a Southern plantation in the 1850s, but to hear it coming from man in charge of prisons in a liberal democracy is shocking. This man has a lot of explaining to do; and if New Labour means what it says about racism, there will be a wholly justified eruption of anger in the Commons and Whitehall.

One of the things that has changed around Docklands since my return to the paper - nicely described by a colleague as a "refenestration" - is the fast-growing network of cables and steel skeletons in and around the Millennium Dome. But why, writes John Blundell, general director of the Institution of Economic Affairs, is the jamboree happening at Greenwich - or, more specifically, why has Greenwich the prime meridian of longitude? The short answer, he explains, is the might of the Royal Navy rather over a century ago: "In 1884, the International Meridian Conference was held in Washington DC and Greenwich was just one of a number of candidates: the others included Rome, Jerusalem, the Great Pyramid and the Canary Islands. British naval power predominated over religious and historical considerations and Greenwich got the nod.''

Had the conference been held today, then presumably the prime meridian would have been in Washington itself, from where the US Navy is controlled, and not London at all.

Speaking of genes, Tony Blair's achievement in delivering a speech in French to the National Assembly may help break the stereotype that there is something in the British gene-pool which disables us from speaking foreign.

The best tale about a British leader failing to communicate in French has Winston Churchill addressing an eminent audience in Paris after the war. Intending to explain that when he looked back over his career, it could be split into two phases, Churchill cleared his throat, glared over his spectacles and announced to the startled gathering: "Messieurs et Madames. Quand je regard mon derriere, je vois qu'il se devise en deux parties egal." I suppose he probably never said that; or if he did, that it was a grumbly Churchillian joke. But it's too good a story to properly research.

Of all the week's unlikely stories so far, however, the least likely seeming was the customs alert for Iraqi anthrax smuggled into these isles in containers, including duty-free Scotch and scent bottles. It was the kind of thing that would be implausible in a bad airport novel, a caricature scoop out of Drop the Dead Donkey - and, more than that, a Sun exclusive, too. Yet it was, in all essentials, true. Anthrax! The ultimate nightmare.

Or it is for me, anyway. As a child, our family holidays were in Wester Ross, a dazzling, bleak paradise with an offshore little nightmarish island, Gruinard. Gruinard, silent and sinister, was the anthrax island, poisoned in Ministry of Defence experiments and then uninhabitable, the spores still there in the earth.

For me, it fused into then-common gloom about nuclear holocaust and the evil at the heart of things. I don't suppose teenagers now have any idea how threatening it seemed, in the era of "Protect and Survive". Now the pervasive fear of imminent destruction has lifted - a great advance in human happiness which future historians will probably never think of mentioning.

And Gruinard? Clean again.