Remembering the great Darcus Howe, Gibraltar’s phoney war, and cricket’s brain freeze

Peter Wilby's first thoughts.

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Nobody knew black Britain – its history, its fears, its hopes – better than Darcus Howe, who has died aged 74. As a New Statesman columnist throughout my editorship, he contributed a voice that was unique in the mainstream press.

Angrily, but with humour and without self-pity, he told us what it felt like to belong to an ethnic minority in Britain. Having no personal political ambitions, he could write without fear or favour. He always called me “Comrade Wilby” – he was brought up the old-fashioned way, he said, and couldn’t address an editor by his forename – and, when I berated him for filing late (as was necessary all too frequently) or for straying too close to the libel laws, he accepted my chiding without protest.

Browsing through his columns reminded me of how vividly and sometimes presciently he wrote. In 2004, for example, police stopped his 19-year-old son in the street and brought him home. “They had found a large-sized crayon in his pocket . . . I had never before heard of a crayon being an instrument of crime. I knew David Blunkett [the then home secretary] had added to the list of offences. Maybe this was one of them.” In 1999 Darcus visited Oldham and left with “a feeling of dread”. It was, he thought, a dangerously divided town. Its Asians were “extremely solid as a social group and aggressively so”. When a Pakistani was attacked, “a posse is mobilised in the twinkling of an eye”.

In 2001, as Darcus had predicted, Oldham erupted in a two-day riot, triggering similar violence across the north of England.

 

Black lives mattered

When Darcus first came to public notice in the early 1970s, it was as a fiery activist against police harassment in London. More than 30 years later, he was invited to address a magistrates’ training course on race, “the first time I have ever appeared before magistrates without having to enter a plea”, he told NS readers. By then, he was an established TV documentary presenter. But he was never an entirely respectable figure and cast a jaundiced eye over black people who climbed conventional career ladders. He criticised what he saw as an attempt by the black middle classes to take over the Notting Hill Carnival. “They want to organise corporate boxes from which the high and mighty can look down as we monkeys prance and dance.” He mocked his fellow Trinidadian Sir Trevor McDonald, the news broadcaster, who had “reorganised his face” for television. There was “not one ounce of Britishness” in him “except for his knighthood”, Darcus wrote, but McDonald had changed his accent, and that “would set in motion different facial muscles”.

Unfair and a little cruel, perhaps. Yet the view that McDonald was a bit of a phoney was widely shared and Darcus, with his record as a black rights campaigner, could get away with saying it. Some readers thought him a poor “representative” for the black community in the 2000s and a bad “role model”. They wanted someone less “chippy” and more aspirational. But our postbag suggested Darcus, who saw the black working classes as the chief drivers of change, was adored by the large majority of readers.

 

The 96 Per Cent

Brexiteers try to silence the 48 per cent of Britons who voted to stay in the EU. They treat Scotland’s 62 per cent vote for Remain as being of no account. Yet they are so mindful of the 96 per cent of Gibraltarians who voted Remain that they are prepared to go to war on their behalf. This is strange in more ways than one. The threat to the Rock is not that Spain will invade but that it will close the border, stop people and goods from crossing and strangle Gibraltar’s economy. If the Brexiteers stick (as it were) to their guns, they will be supporting a war to retain free movement and access to the single market for just 32,000 British citizens.

 

Easter island

With Brexit triggered, the Daily Telegraph, across the top of its front page, resumes normal culture-war service, accusing the National Trust of “airbrushing faith”. The trust has dropped “Easter” from the title of its annual Easter egg hunt. Both the PM and the Church of England add their weight to the Telegraph’s protests.

Hold on a minute, though. The event has been renamed the “Great British Egg Hunt”. Surely that is appropriate in this year of all years. Moreover, the day on which we celebrate Easter is determined by rules originally laid down by the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. This gathering in Turkey involved hundreds of bishops invited by the Roman emperor Constantine from across Europe and the Middle East. It was an early example of a supranational, unelected, unaccountable, elitist body, similar to the European Union but even bigger. Isn’t it time we took back control?

 

Better never than late

As usual, the rulers of English cricket are about a century and a half too late. In the 1870s, when the game had the mass spectator market virtually to itself, it should have developed leagues based on towns and cities. Instead, it preferred a tournament between counties and ended up, for instance, with a Somerset team playing matches in small towns such as Taunton, Weston-super-Mare and Yeovil, while Yorkshire and Lancashire, counties with several big cities, had just one team each.

Now the England and Wales Cricket Board plans to launch a Twenty20 league with eight new teams, based on, yes, cities: London, Birmingham, Manchester, and so on. Yet the counties, after all this time, have familiar brands and lifelong followers.

India and Australia have successfully created new, city-based teams but in the past neither country had a significant following for domestic cricket. Here, the gamble will surely fail. But Tom Harrison, the board’s chief executive, says “we have to recalibrate the distribution of our product” and, when they hear marketing-speak like that, everybody’s brain freezes.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue