Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Darcus Howe and the cunning of history

In 1981 the leftist journalist Alexander Cockburn, English-born but US-based, returned to the UK for the Village Voice to report on that year's spate of race riots and their originating tensions. Cockburn seemed to find most of what he was looking for in conversation with the then 38-year-old Darcus Howe, renowned Trinidadian-born activist. Reflecting on the Windrush moment of Caribbean immigration Howe made that familiar, plangent and suggestive recourse to the King James Bible, Joshua in this case: 'We were persuaded, encouraged to come to Britain, to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.' Howe's argument was that, while the West Indian generation who arrived in England were ready to put up with certain discomforts in the flux of the moment, their children would not suffer any such slight, or accept any misplaced burden of inferiority; and ought, indeed, to seek common cause with oppressed proletarian white kids. Howe was in favour of a 'black/white mass movement', one that would be necessarily unapproved of by the state. (He squeezed in a shot at the welfare system for its stifling of 'the political initiative of blacks.') And of course he was looking beyond Michael Foot's Labour Party, which in a broader dialectic manner he considered 'the creature of a certain moment in the material organisation of society.' On the decline of Labour (raised by Cockburn), Howe claimed to view this with optimism. But he also granted Cockburn's point that 'pathological symptoms, including racism, will increase as people fight on the scrap heap, as the economy goes down.'
I was reminded of all this tonight watching the beginning of a Darcus Howe season on More 4. Of course, subsequent to his interview with the Village Voice, Howe became a conspicuous filmmaker and presenter for Channel 4: first through the scholarly Bandung Productions, then as host/interrogator on the volatile Devil's Advocate. In 2000 he fronted a series called White Tribe, travelling well clear of London to investigate English identity: I recall him standing outside St James's Park, shaking his head over the pasty-facedness of the Toon Army, branding Newcastle (reasonably) 'the whitest of cities' and musing (rather more naively) that the natives 'were not English at all, they were Geordies. Their loyalty was to their team and to their city. England for them was another country.' (Precisely, and you need to have come lately to the question of English identity to imagine otherwise.)
Howe has since made films about racial hostilities between England's black and Asian populations; about his concerns for the children he's had by various women; and now about his struggle with prostate cancer - though this one, the kick-start for the new More 4 season, is somewhat unhelpfully coloured in the now-standard Jon Ronson manner by the presence of its director Krishnendu Majumdar, with whom Howe has worked previously.
In short, surveying this retrospective of the ‘charismatic black activist’ it's easy to see a story of Channel 4's gradual shift in interests from the polemical to the awkwardly personal - also, more reasonably, a familiar tale of the ageing process, that slow masterwork of Time, the Enemy.
The photo of Howe above is by and (c) Richard Ansett.


Anonymous said...

When i watched this series originally, I remember thinking how distorted and dishonest a picture Howe paints of England. Each episode presents a depressing, innacurate & utterly negative view of England ( or rather the English, as the few positive comments are reserved for youngsters from Eastern Europe, whom Howe naively refers to as "the future of England" ).

A visit to "middle England" becomes an opportunity to air the views of flag waving Tories or fringe nationalists, a visit to northern England presents us with the bigotted comedy of Bernard Manning & the hostile views of ugly people on a council estate, a lifeless St.George's day parade...young women extolling the physical superiority of black men at a strip show...

A deliberate piece of white baiting polemic, it used tactics usually favoured by right wing tabloids, such as "looking" for the legions of asylum seekers on the streets of Dover as described by Dover's disapproving residents ( swarthy, in groups, wearing moustaches ) & not finding any. No doubt if Howe had been filming a documentary on homelessness in Blackpool, he would reach the conclusion that homelessness did not exist to any great extent, because "I couldn't see any homeless people".

Howe set out to present English people as confused, ignorant, bigotted, intolerant, but mostly pathetic. The tone of the series was resolutely downbeat, the only apparent hope coming from a rejection of the English ideas Howe had chosen to spotlight.

Not only does Howe find next to nothing positive to say about England in the 90s, he seeks to lay the blame with English people themselves for their preceived lack of culture, direction or contentment.

He scoffs at the Americanisation of Birmingham & its line dancing, burger eating citizens, whilst sharing a cosy evening drinking wine & defending the hunting rights of a well to do woman in her country pile.

Not once does he attempt to understand the concerns & views of the working classes on their impoverished estates, prefering to dismiss their often legitimate points as racist.

Clearly Howe did not make the series out of concern for England or the English, but to present "typical" English people as conservative, ignorant, bigotted & narrow minded...the apparent solution to the problem being to embrace the very problems that have contributed in no small way to the troubling attitudes expressed by the "disaffected whites" and the erosion of England's identity as a nation.

Howe described England as a "nation of mongrels" & views this state as an inevitable result of globalisation, yet globalisation is a destructive & oppressive force that disregards the welfare of all nations. In effect, Howe was saying that the negative effects of globalisation were to be embraced by England...neo liberalism that sees both the Western world & the developing world grow poorer in every respect.

If Howe was not supporting globalisation, he was advocating it. Instead of addressing the concerns of the indigenous population of England, we are to dismiss them as simply racist & backward.

Howe is described as an "activist". In "White Tribe" he appeared to me to be an apologist. An apologist for globalism & all it represents. The utterly misguided view that the direction the world takes, as decided for us by government, is inevitable, so embrace the confusion, loss of identity and inequality it creates.

Richard T Kelly said...

Dom, thanks for that lengthy and thoughtful comment. In terms of White Tribe, or what I saw/can remember of it, I don't disagree with you. I thought it was tendentious, enervated, if not informed by then certainly pandering to a slack but endlessly noisy 'identity politics.' And I say that not just because Howe didn't understand Geordies... What I mean to say of him is that his clout as a social thinker/communicator/thought-provoker seems to me to have diminished steadily the longer he's gone on working in telly... However in his time he was most definitely a political activist - as active as you can get, otherwise we'd never have heard of him, and that, on the whole, IMHO, would have been our loss.