I was sorry to read today of the death of Darcus Howe, aged only 74. He was one of the great activists for black rights of his (very big) generation. Like most of that generation he had been a collective activist, and was an intellectual. Things have changed a bit in recent years. I wouldn't presume to say much about the politics of race, in Britain or anywhere else, but I'd like to say that I read the New Statesman for many years, and was always stimulated, often entertained, and sometimes educated, by Darcus Howe's weekly column in that organ.
At a certain point around the year 2000 Darcus Howe began to cooperate and work with Blue Sky, an arts and cultural organisation based in Reading. I had some concerns about this organisation, not especially about its activities as such but about the transparency of its funding, and relayed those concerns, not publicly but to Reading Borough Council, which supported Blue Sky at times and in various ways at the time. I had no issue at all with the work Darcus Howe was doing with them.
For context, there was a shooting in 2002 from outside a Reading nightclub, The Matrix (since closed) which put a member of club staff in hospital for months. Following this, Blue Sky hosted a debate on guns, in Reading, presided over or spoken at by Darcus Howe, to which I was invited as the then constituency MP. I accepted the invitation but subsequently had to give apologies, for reasons I cannot now remember but which had nothing to do with the merits of the event. Another Reading MP, Martin Salter, got wind of the event and did attend. This was his first recorded interest in any issues of interest to Reading's black communities, despite the fact that the vast majority of those communities lived in his constituency of Reading West, which is not where the shooting took place. Mr Salter had a word with Darcus Howe, whose next New Statesman column informed his readers that I had refused to attend the event as I disapproved of Blue Sky and its work on guns and race. Darcus Howe went on effectively to call me a racist. You will not find the article on the New Statesman website, not surprisingly. However, once I had contacted libel lawyers Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners Darcus Howe published this column, which ended thus:
Further to last week's column, I wish to make it clear that Jane Griffiths MP did not express reservations about Blue Sky Arts's guns debate in Reading. On the contrary, Ms Griffiths accepted an invitation to attend. I apologise to her for my error.
An apology and costs.
I happened to meet Darcus Howe at Labour Party Conference later that year, and he treated the matter with dignity and humour. I just wanted to place that on record.