was one of the outstanding activists and public intellectuals of his generation, Diane Abbott said on hearing of his death in 2017. Simon Joseph Jones met him at his home in south London on 20 September 2004.
Photography: Andrew Firth
What sort of childhood did you have, and what were the values that helped to form the man you are today?
I grew up in a sugar-cane community in Trinidad, though I was educated as if I had been born in rural Wiltshire. My father was a headmaster and also a deacon in the Anglican church. We were the only family in the village that had a radio, and were among the very few who had rooms – we had a sitting room, a dining room, a kitchen, a pantry, a bathroom and bedrooms. The latrine was outside.
When my father was dying, I went to see him and I said, ‘I’ve come to tell you I love you, and all that I am is largely because of you.’ And he said, ‘I have something to say: I beat you too much. I wanted you to be somebody, but it was wrong.’
So, was your upbringing Christian?
My entire life was Christian (though the village was made up mainly of Hindus and Muslims, from the indentured labour that was brought to the Caribbean after slavery was abolished). How I saw the world was through the prism of the sacrifices that Jesus made. My father was a remarkable sermoniser. My whole world was shaped by Christianity.
And then there was a sharp moment that interrupted it all. One day – I was about eight – rain had flooded the school playground so we couldn’t play cricket and I was explaining to a friend that we must have done some huge sin because God was punishing us. I didn’t know my father was listening.
The following day he came into the classroom and drew a map of South America with some arrows showing the trade winds and he said that the wind hits the mountains and rises and condensation and saturation take place, and eventually rain. Then he looked at me and said, ‘Nothing to do with sin, my boy. Nothing to do with sin.’ He also said, ‘There is an over-preponderance of God when science is not available.’ That was the moment when I entered the world of reason. Before that, it was all God, but as I grappled with that sentence, God began to retreat. And now I am an atheist.
I have left Christianity behind, but I have brought with me the liberal notions that it gave me. My God was only generous, and my radicalism is the radicalism of Christ
I had a deep fear of death, and I can remember my father burying people. He would say, ‘“I am the Resurrection and the Life,” saith the Lord. “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. He who liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”’ Those words used to hit me like dynamite.
I was also very moved by hymns – ‘Through all the changing scenes of life, in trouble and in joy…’ If I go to a church funeral now, I sing lustily. And so those early influences, of popular song, poetic language, science, all gelled in my own personality in coherence and in conflict with Christianity.
Do you think it is possible to be committed to a faith and still be committed to reason?
I find faith completely unreasonable. But I do not ever seek to convince anybody of this. My friends say, ‘When we’re dealing with religion, let’s leave Darcus out of it!’ My last child is adopted and she went to a Catholic school (because she came to us as a Catholic and I don’t want to interfere with that). She comes home on her first day and she says, ‘Dad, we have religious instruction!’ I say, ‘You see that front doorstep? When you come into this house, leave it there.’ Because this is a house of reason.
Do you think religion is inevitably a force for ill?
I don’t believe it’s inevitably anything. I just believe that you arrest your intellectual development once you opt for that. Once you opt for that, that’s who you are and the most you can do is to proselytise.
I have left it behind, but I have brought with me the liberal notions that it gave me. My God was not vindictive but was only generous. And my radicalism is the radicalism of Christ.
How were your politics formed?
My father politicised me in the sense that race was central to his life – he was physically a very black man, dark as the night. In Trinidad, people used to call me ‘Sambo’ – not white people but brown people, because the paler you were the further up in the society you went. And my father was hostile to that. Also, he was hostile to snobbery. So, my instincts were formed by having to deal with racial prejudice, and through that prism of race I discovered the political world and its nuances. But the concrete struggle was the struggle for independence.
How do you see your role as a columnist?
I write from within the black community to inform the general public and to keep it abreast of not only what is taking place but what the different interpretations are, and what mine is. Also, I am thinking aloud, so my writing is not a conclusion: if you follow me, I reorganise my thoughts as I go along. And over the years I have built up a body of readers who are like a body of friends I come and talk to every week. That’s why [New Statesman] still keeps me – lots of people turn to me first.
And I see myself as a writer. I like to make metaphors dance and stuff – I don’t know how good I am, but that’s another matter.
What do you make of the trend towards younger and younger columnists and leader writers?
A columnist is somebody who has something to say after years of engagement. You have to know what your hinterland is – and I have a huge hinterland
It’s all thought, and there is never a single anecdote that brings you to reality, because they don’t have many. They sound like empty vessels sometimes – and that’s why I find the Guardian more and more difficult, because it has this thing about youth. A columnist is somebody who has something to say after years of engagement. You have to know what your hinterland is – and I have a huge hinterland.
Part of that hinterland is a life of confrontation with the police. How do you feel looking back?
I’m afraid that right now there is a constant rise in confrontation, increasing in numbers and intensity. What I have to face is that young blacks are now armed. After 40 years of constant and unrelenting struggles between those two forces in society, this is where we are. Do I regret it? I must regret it where lives have been lost, or will be lost. I must regret the blood and hellfire that have flowed from it. But it’s not my fault, and instinctively I know what side I’m on. I used to be one of them.
You have said that this country is in an interregnum. Can you explain what you mean by that?
The England that I came to was the England of the patrician Tory. There was a consensus between the Tories and the working classes that was rooted, in my view, in the war, when the courage of the working classes had been immense. Margaret Thatcher wiped that away. She destroyed the working classes at their best and most powerful, and all we’re left with is office boys and girls. Mrs Thatcher worked in an office with a few people. So did Tony Blair. If you work in a factory, you work with thousands of people. If you are one of the landed gentry or you own a business, you are responsible for masses of people. Mrs Thatcher and Blair know nothing about anything. Blair never met anybody, never travelled anywhere before he started travelling as Prime Minister. And now these people are in charge.
To be in charge as a ruling class you have to put your stamp on a population, and they are finding it impossible. They can’t get hold of us. And so they try now to con us with spin, because they don’t have the social authority that comes from owning or producing or servicing in large numbers. I tell you, I know some of them personally and I’m astonished at their stupidity. Politics is about people, the people – and they have no sense of the mass. And confrontation is inevitable when you try to impose yourself on people when you have no authority. We’ve just had the biggest demonstration we’ve ever had, when two million people protested against war in Iraq.
‘Let’s draw a line under this and move on,’ says Blair, like an accountant. Even their language betrays this little office-political cult. They are mesmerised by money, because they don’t have it.
But there are millions of us who don’t have money. Isn’t Blair representative of us?
But he’s not representative of us. He’s not comfortable with being ordinary. He wants something else. It’s quite remarkable, the shallowness of it all.
Are you optimistic that a happier, more liberal and more creative society is going to emerge?
Oh yeah. I’m not going to give up, because that’s vision! I’m not frustrated because it might not happen in my lifetime. But I hope that what I do now contributes to that kind of society.
Rhett ‘Darcus’ Howe was born in Moruga in Trinidad in 1943. He won a scholarship to Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain, and came to England in 1961 to study law at the Middle Temple, where he completed the first part of his studies before quitting.
From 1963 to 1965 he worked as a clerical officer at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, and then was variously employed as a gardener, bouncer and waiter.
He went back to Trinidad in 1969, where he briefly edited Vanguard, the weekly journal of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union, but returned to England after an uprising on the island.
From 1970 to 1973, he was editor of Freedom News, the weekly newspaper of the Black Panthers in Britain. In 1971, as one of the so-called Mangrove Nine, he was tried for incitement to riot and assault but, after conducting his own defence, was acquitted.
In 1973, he became editor of Race Today, a post he held until 1982.
In 1981, he was a member of the ‘massacre action committee’ which organised a 15–20,000-strong march in a ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ in protest over the police’s handling of the investigation into the New Cross Fire, in which 13 black teenagers had died.
He first appeared on television in 1982 in Channel 4’s magazine programme Black on Black. In 1984, he co-founded with Tariq Ali and Greg Lanning the TV company Bandung Productions and in 1985 he and Ali launched the magazine programme The Bandung File on Channel 4, which ran until 1991. Among others, he interviewed for this Robert Mugabe, Rajiv Gandhi and Michael Manley.
On the same channel he presented Devil’s Advocate from 1992 to 1996. He subsequently worked as a freelance documentary maker, notably writing and presenting England My England (1998), White Tribe (2000), the three-part Slave Nation (2001) and Who You Callin’ a Nigger? (2004), all for Channel 4.
His journalism appeared in, in Trinidad, the Express, the Sunday Express, the Guardian, the Sunday Guardian and the Sunday Mirror; and, in Britain, the Yorkshire Post and the Walsall Express and Star, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Observer, the London Evening Standard, the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Times.
He landed a weekly column for New Statesman in 1995. He also contributed to The Wisden Cricketer.
For BBC Radio 4, he wrote and presented Darcus and Dickens.
He was long involved in the Notting Hill Carnival, leading the mas band Race Today Renegades in the Seventies and chairing the carnival’s development committee from 1977 to 1980. In 2004, he led a new band, London Renegades.
He was married three times and had four daughters and three sons.
Up-to-date as at 1 October 2004