Howe's England

Television - Andrew Billen on the tribal conundrums of race, class and nation

It's risky reviewing colleagues. In the case of Darcus Howe, whose three-part series, White Tribe, began on Channel 4 on Thursday (9pm), I plead only that, although he is a fellow New Statesman columnist, I have met him only once, when I interviewed him in 1983 for the Observer. We drank quite a bit and I remember walking away from his home in Brixton surer of his hospitality than his wisdom. He had assured me, for instance, that his personal propensity to violence (see New Statesmen passim), sexism and promiscuity were West Indian characteristics. The Voice didn't like this at the time, and I wasn't sure if I did either.

On paper, getting Howe to re-examine the host county he arrived in from Trinidad 40 years ago looks like a no-fail format. In practice, the director, Paul Wilmshurst, and producer, Helen Littleboy, must have asked themselves if Howe would not prove too much of a blunderbuss to catch England in his sights. His weakness for Elizabethan biblical oratory could not have augured particularly well: Howe cannot stop himself saying he is travelling England "for 40 days and 40 nights". Yet, beneath the rhetoric, Howe quickly emerged as a conscientious, open-minded observer of the English wilderness, witty and often moving. Englishness is a well-examined concept right now, but compared to these programmes (I've watched the next two on tape and they are even better than the first) Melanie Phillips' and Jeremy Paxman's contributions to the debate are plods.

Rightly assuming that London's "Gucci and cappuccino crowd" are irrelevant, Howe headed first for Southall, where whites are in reality, rather than merely in their minds, outnumbered. In the midst of an exuberant Sikh festival, he met an indigenous youth called Simon, who moaned that all the English had was Easter - "Buy an Easter egg: it's done." In Newcastle, he discovered a white carnival spirit of sorts, but it celebrated not Englishness but something called "Geooordinezz" and Newcastle United FC. In Stow-on-the-Wold, the middle classes, who always like something exotic - "they liked me when I arrived" - were educating themselves in the arcanum of French wine-growing. Birmingham, he concluded, was a Yankee city of line-dancers and mall-shoppers.

Having so far visited so many Englands in which the Englishness had seeped away, he eventually located its ebb tide in Skegness. In "this place on its last legs", a microcosm of the old England, he came upon the halt and the lame of the Tory party, roused to its fallen arches by Norman Tebbit's anti-European name-calling at the annual Conservative Association dinner. "Clearly you aren't English, you are British," Tebbit explained to Howe.

"Because of my colour?" Howe enquired.

"Not colour, the ethnics of it," Tebbit explained, as if to a moron.

In the second programme Howe heads into "the belly of the beast", meeting the white racists of Eltham, Manchester, Oldham and Dover, a town paranoid about Kosovan immigrants which bears, says he, "the mark of the beast". The final instalment explores the English siege mentality behind the gates of a housing development in Essex and in a sink estate watched by 21 security cameras in Cleveland. His spirits are restored among the faded, fox-hunting nobs of rural Northumberland and in Todmorden, a small Yorkshire mill town without a mill, whose retired workers recall the English he met 40 years ago, brimming with confidence and dignity.

What will keep you watching this series, aside from the sprightly direction that makes light of Howe's lumbering gait, is waiting to hear what conclusions Howe has cumbersomely arrived at. White Tribe benefits from having been made in defiance of the Birtist principle of "first write your script": Howe slowly makes up his mind on what he sees, not what his researchers have told him. His judgementalism compares well with the sniggering-behind-the-lens school of sociological television. It is unnerving to hear this big, eloquent black man say how often he is afraid of white England, but it is inspiring to hear him revise his own prejudices. Talking to Mary Benson, who runs the hunt in Tynedale, he confesses that she is the sort of upper-class white he would not have given a chance in the past. Yet he detects not a whiff of racism about her. But Howe can be duped, too. As he hazily enjoys a glass of wine on his own, Wilmshurst asks the old mill-workers of Todmorden what they dislike about the "new" England. "Multiculture," they reply.

Howe's weakness for nationalism may prove his undoing as much as England's. In Manchester, you'll see him suppress his giggles at Bernard Manning's race-flecked act and lament that his club is about to be bulldozered to make way for a supermarket. Had he stayed any longer in Tynedale, he would have probably joined the baying hunt himself. But his sentimentality assists the programme's lyricism. Howe emerges as the truest Englander of them all, most loyal to the tribe's phlegmatic tolerance. As Benson says, to his evident pleasure: "You are probably just as English - if not more so - than the rest of us."

The only puzzle is that, six years ago, Howe told me: "I'm a West Indian, see?"

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing