AS I WAS SAYING
What my new (black) friend told my relatives about their Georgian manor house
The big boot of racial bigotry in this country is alive, but not kicking — except on the football terraces — or so I have been led to conclude after spending a fort- night in search of the damned thing for a Channel 4 documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the arrival on the Windrush of the first large load of postwar West Indian immigrants. When first commis- sioned to make this documentary, I was surprised that Channel 4, of all channels, should have chosen a crusty old reac- tionary like me to take part, and only learnt later that the choice was not theirs but that of my West Indian co-`star', Dar- cus Howe, who, believe it or not, had made my presence a condition of agreeing to undertake the job. I only mention this to blow my own trumpet. Having been banned from Channel 4 early on by Liz Forgan because of my reactionary views, it was a source of great pride to be reinstated at the specific behest of Britain's most dis- tinguished black radical journalist.
Originally, the idea was to try to assess how white attitudes to black immigration had changed in the last 50 years, and we put a lot of thought into planning the documen- tary along these lines. Then one morning we heard that Channel 4 wanted a different programme, concentrating instead on how the idea of Britishness had been changed by large-scale coloured immigration. How the programme will work out by the time it eventually gets to the screen later this month, only time will tell. Conceivably, it will turn out that Channel 4 has set me up, but I don't believe so, for after a fortnight's filming, as arduous and time-consuming an activity as can be imagined, certain bonds of mutual friendship and loyalty are forged rather as in the trenches — and having gone through a fortnight's filming hell with Dar- cus, not to mention Michael Jones, the pro- ducer, and his splendid crew, I would trust the dear fellows with my life, let alone my journalistic reputation.
Before we set out, several long and pleas- ant lunches had helped to establish Dar- cus's and my respective positions on the subject in hand, with Darcus taking a some- what different view from me. His position roughly is that black West Indian immi- grants need make no difference to the Britishness of Britain since, except for the colour of their skin, they are British born and bred. 'Not only do I feel but I am British,' he insists. 'West Indian immigra- tion did not introduce something new into Britain but, in essential respects — like a love of fair play — only more of the same.'
My view, on the other hand, was that it will take several more generations before the whites can accept this proposition, and that if and when they eventually do accept it, the re- education process experienced in the course of bringing this change about — involving as it must an acceptance of the terrible guilt of slavery — will have fundamentally changed the British character, rather as the accep- tance of the guilt of the Holocaust, it is hoped, has changed the character of Ger- many. In the case of Germany, nationalism has been almost entirely eliminated, except among the brutes, and although the soul- searching required to bring about racial inte- gration here has not quite yet had that effect, it is moving fast in that direction — again with the exception of the brutes.
This struck me most forcefully when I took Darcus to my old school, Stowe, now proudly multiracial, and Darcus took me to the even more multiracial Hampstead Comprehensive, where his two daughters were educated. In neither institution did one sense any colour prejudice. At one point at the comprehensive, Darcus asked a class, which included every colour under the sun, to which nation each pupil believed that he or she belonged. The whites seemed quite as uncertain in their answers as everyone else. Indeed, they all sounded as if the idea of nationhood was for them a bit of a joke, to be discussed and giggled about in rather the same way as even grown-ups discuss and giggle about which sign of the zodiac they are born under. If the disgrace of being black has been overcome, so also has the pride of being British. For in today's multiracial classroom it isn't easy to get rid of the one without also getting rid of the other.
Later, we visited the beautiful Georgian manor house in Hertfordshire where I grew up — sadly the programme's budget did not stretch to Darcus's childhood home in Trinidad — and in the course of another very jolly lunch Darcus wryly pointed out to my relations, who live there still, that the house and park etc. had almost certainly all been made possible by the blood and sweat of his black forebears in the Trinidad sugar plantations. In the old days before the war such a remark by a visitor would have been very ill received. There was total amnesia then among the ruling class about the eco- nomic underpinnings of their gentlemanly way of life. No longer. My young cousin was in no way put out by Darcus's blunt comment. He readily agreed that his splen- did house and park may well have been built out of profits from the slave trade.
This is a tiny instance, of course, of the realities, the ugly home truths of Empire, which are going to have to be squarely faced in a multiracial Britain. It is too late to make reparations, but not too late to feel ashamed, and these feelings are bound to detract from the pride we take in our national story. Terrible wrongs were done, not on the scale of the Holocaust but get- ting on that way. Whether a new, con- science-chastened, national mood will help ease Britain into accepting, with good grace, the diminution of nationhood in a European Union — as was the case long ago with the Italians and the Germans and even the French — remains to be seen. But judging by what Darcus and I heard on our journey, I think it very well might. At least going into a European Federation would wipe the slate clean and give all future gen- erations another chance.
Which brings me to the Sun-reading brutes among whom overt racialism is still to be found, although it takes some seeking out. We found none in Brixton, for example, in spite of spending hours patrolling the streets with a pretty, young, white policewoman. No doubt it helped being in the company of a famous local black figure, but even laying off that great advantage the atmosphere seemed quite remarkably unmenacing, as it did even among the queues of mostly black youths waiting for attention at the local police sta- tion. The terraces of nearby Charlton foot- ball ground, however, were another story, although even there Darcus's worst fears were only partially fulfilled. True, his face was about the only black one to be seen in the entire packed stadium — unlike on the field, where at least half of the players were black — and a white youth behind us did shout racial abuse. But it is only fair to add that after the game was over his companions forced him to come up to Darcus to eat hum- ble pie.
I hope the film ends on that encouraging note, with Darcus, my new and treasured friend, deservedly very much the hero of the hour.
England My England will be shown on Channel Four on Sunday 26 April at 8 p.m.