Notebook: Minority celebrity for the Marxist who never was

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BERNIE GRANT may be the black man of the moment (see page 8), but before Grant it was Darcus Howe who used to frighten the life out of the Daily Mail. Howe was a black activist then, a man of Notting Hill and Brixton and bail; back then, in that quaint phrase of the times, he was a 'self-confessed Marxist'.

But now Howe is 50, and a minority television personality. Last week he presented a Channel 4 documentary on London's Roundhouse, the would-be black arts centre that foundered in a sad sea of money and muddle. Later this year he will bring back his own kind of chat show, Devil's Advocate, where guests are not interviewed but interrogated by a prowling Howe, menace masked by lilting Trinidadian rhetoric. Chris Eubank, the boxer and sudden saviour of Moss Side during the recent spate of shootings, had a particularly bad time. 'I thought Eubank genuine but ill-informed and ill- disciplined in regard to public affairs,' is the way Howe puts it.

We are sitting, in the words of the old joke, a stone's throw from Railton Road - once Brixton's famous Front Line, much rebuilt since the riots of the early 1980s - in Howe's back garden, where he grows tomatoes and tends roses.

Howe approves of Bernie Grant's calm handling of the Joy Gardner affair. 'I was playing cricket with Bernie,' he says. 'I lost my concentration and flashed at a ball, and Bernie barked at me, 'Settle down, Darcus]' Bernie has settled down, too.' Cricket is a passion with Howe; his uncle, who spent his last days with him in Brixton, was C L R James, the great Caribbean thinker, writer and cricket-lover; his father was an Anglican vicar.

For Howe, the riots were the key moment, the moment that British blacks fought for their place. Before the riots, he was being stopped by police up to 10 times a day; before the riots, he was on bail continually for seven years, 'assault on a police officer, incitement to riot, incitement to kill a police officer . . .' He was convicted once, over a scrap with an abusive ticket collector, but he was freed on appeal.

He has an unlikely hero: Willie Whitelaw, who recognised instinctively what Brixton and Moss Side and Toxteth and Handsworth meant, and what could not continue. Today, Howe talks about the 'ease of presence' that the black community has acquired since the riots. Before them, blacks would chant 'Come what may, we're here to stay'. 'Say that to black youths today, and the response would be 'What you talking about?' The anger over Joy Gardner, he says, is the shock of people who believe in the system. Young white racists were now the disadvantaged fringe.

Howe, married, father of five, about to adopt, denies that he has mellowed. He denies, too, that he ever confessed to being a Marxist - 'there are too many books to read' - but he does believe that every society bears the stamp of a class; that Margaret Thatcher removed it by introducing meritocracy; and that John Major presides over the indeterminate result.

He would like to bowl outswingers at Major, to judge his concentration. He would like Geoffrey Boycott as chairman of selectors. For now, he leads the way to his tomatoes.

(Photograph omitted)