Brixton may just know something the Bronx doesn't

Race and class: does anyone talk about these subjects anymore? I ask because last week I went to a lunch in honour of a black American academic, Patricia Williams, who will deliver next year's Reith lectures. Her subject is to be race and class, here and in the States, and she asked us how these two vast concepts were faring in public debate in this country. Our pretty unanimous answer was that both had nearly vanished. Politicians rarely mention them. In John Major's mind we are all classless. In Tony Blair's speeches class is verboten. Race has not been much worried over since the riots of the 1980s. Perhaps this is all very good; perhaps these causes of so much inequality and social division are waning. Or perhaps the words have been disguised by other labels - law and order, inner-city education, drugs, asylum legislation - which allow us to talk about these subjects without mentioning them by name.

That, I think may be part of Patricia Williams' argument when she comes to give her Reith talks; in particular, that Britain may be heading down the same racial road as the US by imitating American ideas of sentencing and prisons. It's sometimes said that America has easier relations between races than Britain, but I left Ms Williams with the feeling that the opposite is true. We may have imported rap's brutal music and lyrics, but we don't have white shock-jocks poisoning the radio, and Brixton's reputation as a "ghetto" hadn't survived her New Yorker's eye. She'd been particularly struck, she said, by the numbers of black men and white wives/girlfriends and vice versa. These facts may be nothing to boast of, but could it be that Britain is in danger of getting something right, or more right than the US and much of Europe?

CLIFF RICHARD has never made me want to vomit. There seems no harm in him and his early songs are some of the few pop tunes that I can associate with times and places in my life ("Living Doll", Inverkeithing's annual fair, 1959). When, therefore, he stood up to serenade the crowd at Wimbledon, I didn't imitate the throwing-up sounds made by many others. I just wish he would come out of the closet. Not the closet of sex, but the closet erected by empire and Ms Williams' subjects, race and class.

Richard, born Harry Rodger Webb in Lucknow in 1940, is an Anglo-Indian. The term is a tricky one. Originally it described white British residents of India. Then, earlier in this century, Eurasians in India began to campaign for it as a description of themselves. They were successful and the Anglo- Indian community was formally recognised as comprising Indian citizens "born of European descent in the male line"; the race of the female ancestry is left unstated, but the implication is clear enough. In a country where caste mattered, ruled by a country where class mattered, Anglo-Indians suffered more than the simple prejudice against what Cliff Richard's biographer, Steve Turner, calls the "mystery of his skin pigmentation". They were mainly the descendants of British working-class men - private soldiers, locomotive drivers - who had married or bedded low-caste or Muslim Indian women. They became the Raj's trusted foremen and suffered the bigotry and snobbery of both rulers and ruled.

In those circumstances, hanging on to the coat-tails of empire, their denial of their maternal ancestry - Mother India - is understandable. The most celebrated denier, the actress Merle Oberon, invented a fantastical lie about her white origins in Tasmania which she sustained throughout her life. But now? All Cliff Richard has said about his grandparents is that they were "as British as roast beef". His loyal biographer records an improbable number of Spanish ladies and Burmese princesses in the family tree. The fact is his father was born in Tramway Quarters, Rangoon, and became a catering steward on up-country expresses from Calcutta. Richard's early life was spent in railway settlements and their enclosed, often carefree society of institute dances, church socials and amateur music. Nothing could be more Anglo-Indian.

Why, apart from satisfying our own prurience, should we want him to be frank on his racial and social origins? Only for this reason: that the Anglo-Indian community in India is now small and rather sad, a residual couple of hundred thousand people in a country of more than 800 million. They often talk about Cliff: "Oh yaar, he's one of us." So much denial has meant they have few heroes. He owes it to them.

A CAMPAIGN has begun to save the BBC's World Service from Birtian reforms which would shrink its staff from 2,700 to 800 and may well destroy its reputation and integrity. Last week at a meeting in Westminster the novelist P D James told a meeting of MPs that it would be "absolutely scandalous" if the "extraordinary arrogance" of two men (John Birt and his chairman, Sir Christopher Bland) wrecked an institution which belonged "to the people of this country and the people of the world". It's a pity that Baroness James didn't tumble to the arrogance factor when she was still a BBC governor and in a position to do something about it, but better late than never. At the same meeting, another novelist, Ben Okri, gave his accurate prognosis: "To come along and try to break into this structure is to break its fundamental heart... and when you break that, you break its influence and you begin to retreat from a position of world influence and value. And when you retreat, that space gets taken over by your radio equivalent of CNN. And when that happens, the voice turns inward and the nation gets smaller."

The campaign has enlisted Mikhail Gorbachev and this week hopes to enrol the support of Nelson Mandela during his visit to London. It needs to succeed.

Comments