Farewell to the friend who once called me an idiot

Bernard Montgomery Grant shall not pass this way again. I am not in the business of obituaries, simply a summary of his rather short life. I knew Bernie only in passing, but I was aware of the tremendous impact he had on the black and Asian movement for change. He was a remarkable populist focused on the pulse of those he represented. Walk through Brixton market today, and every West Indian will articulate a deep sense of loss and gratitude for what Bernie did for them.

His funeral will be a political rally, a gathering of the mass of the people. It is always important for the development of our society that we understand who these figures are and why they are crucial to our future. I have read all the reports in the broadsheets and the popular press, and they contain Bernie's old and worn-out statement about the police in Tottenham getting a very good hiding and Tony Blair's comments about the man. The few personal references were hardly illuminating.

Bernie arrived in this country at the age of 19, 37 years ago. He was Guyanese. A very important fact. So is Trevor Phillips, Sir Herman Ouseley, the actor Norman Beaton and the late Walter Rodney, as fine a historian as ever walked this earth, and that fine painter Aubrey Williams. Guyana has always been a hotbed of advanced politics and haute culture. They entered the modern political frame, not in some meek and mild repeat of the British parliamentary party. They plumped for the Marxist-Leninist party, the vehicle of the Russian revolution.

It was not an accident of history. Guyana had a divided working-class of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers. It needed an advanced idea and organisation to bring two sharply differing cultures together. Politics was central and immediate in what was then a British colony. Bernie belonged to the first generation of black youth in this country. There weren't many of us around then, but he would have been making political assessments of what was taking place around him.

I have always found that the Caribbean politicians, apart from platform and party, have a tremendous interest in some sport or the other, and in popular music. Bernie would have arrived here with the sweet melodies of Sam Cook, Dinah Washington, Brook Benton and Ben E King. Bernie could boogie. You only had to watch him walk, stepping along carrying his huge frame as though it was feather light.

And bat too! Bernard Montgomery Grant could bat: a high back lift and strong off the back foot. He reminded me of the great West Indian cricketer Clyde Walcott. We played together once in a charity game, a fundraising for London councillors who had been defying Margaret Thatcher's poll tax. Bernie was the captain. We were going along nicely, both of us building a stand. I had most of the strike, middling the ball rather well. Then, as if overcome by the spirit of a mad bull, I lashed out and missed, cross-batted and was almost caught from a top edge. Bernie screamed from the other end: "Cut it out". No mid-wicket quiet consultation, but a sharp order from the skipper. I obeyed, but much more than that, I was greatly impressed. You see, he was looking within and beyond the boundary, at once intolerant of the West Indian tendency to sudden bouts of indiscipline which so frequently have marred our progress.

Popular song, sport and political ideas served to form and shape a remarkable populist. But populism can reveal deep flaws. Bernie's constituents, perhaps a fair number, revealed to him at surgeries that, given cash, they would willingly return home. Repatriation, so to speak. Bernie snatched the idea and ran with it. He ended up in the Devil's Advocate hot seat and was severely embarrassed. He left the studio in tears.

He was unforgiving, hateful at times. His last reference to me was rather funny: "That famous idiot Darcus Howe."

In the last few hours, in sessions of sweet silent thought, I wish it were otherwise. Farewell my friend . . .

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy