White Tribe

Thursday, January 27, 2000 by

These are auspicious times, for sure.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, due to a number of curiously interrelated factors – New Labour’s determined “modernisation”, devolution for Scotland and Wales and the attempt to return home rule to Northern Ireland, and the globalisation brought on by the growth of the internet – there’s a war going on. A battle between a wide-ranging, pluralist vision of what this country could be (as expressed by Andrew Marr, Polly Toynbee, and most other Guardian and Observer writers) and attempts to reinvoke a dead monopoly Britishness (which we can see in Peter Hitchens’s The Abolition of Britain, Simon Heffer’s Nor Shall My Sword, and the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Spectator generally). British TV is currently reflecting this sense of a turning point and identity crisis.

Enter Darcus Howe. Brought up in Trinidad during the ’50s, he is a child of the Empire’s twilight years, raised on an idealised vision of the very same Britain beloved of Hitchens and Heffer, but he found it racially hostile towards him when he arrived here 40-odd years ago, at the height of Commonwealth immigration. It is this essential love-hate relationship that underpinned the provocatively-titled White Tribe - the very fact that Howe is black will forever make him an outsider in Middle England, but his age (he is 10 years Tony Blair’s senior) gives him a certain nostalgic perspective.

That said, the opening of White Tribe was slightly surprising. Walking around Brixton, Howe seemed to object to the new generation’s preference for clubbing and the cappuccino culture over the old idea of “Englishness”, wondering why young white Londoners feel the need to dress in such an “abnormal” way and identify more with black and Asian culture than with traditional English identity. In this part of the programme, he seemed to be trying to limit pluralism, rather than add to it. Elsewhere, he despaired at Birmingham’s reinvention of itself on the American model, and the popularity of a voyeuristic strip club in Peterborough, although his comments about the void at the heart of Newcastle (“when you take work away from working-class culture, there is nothing left but football and beer”) were spot on.

But when we did glimpse what remains of the old, entrenched Britain, we realised how little we are really losing. In Stow-on-the-Wold quintessential Middle Englanders said that France was still like Britain was in the ’50s, but to some of us it is clear that, if France appears that way, it is because of the disturbing popularity of Le Pen and Chirac’s Thatcheresque ability to cover up all the uncertainties in his country. In Skegness, very much the type of town evoked in Morrissey’s Every Day Is Like Sunday, Howe realised that quasi-Americanism was preferable to this sad place. Norman Tebbit’s appearance at the town’s Conservative Club – shockingly telling Howe that, because he was black, he could never consider himself English, and ranting against the effects of the flexible market economy when he himself urged us to “get on our bikes” to find work – was chilling, and Tebbit’s prejudice spoke for itself. As Howe said, Skegness represents a dying culture. You feel something must happen here (come, come, nuclear war) …

But if much of episode one was disturbing, it didn’t prepare us for the second programme. It opened with images of English nationalists, expressing their faith in a grand illusion of England ruling the world, and voicing some pretty disturbing opinions. When Howe visited Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club, you could tell how much he dreaded the experience. The vileness of Manning’s performance, and of his entire persona, stood out, but when Howe (who had once argued on Channel 4 that Manning should be banned, back when the network was much moreunequivocally liberal than it is today) spoke to Manning, and admitted that he liked his non-racist material and admired his skill with one-liners, you could sense a peace being made. Howe confessed that, despite himself, he had a certain affection for the traditional Englishness represented by Manning, and would actually be quite sad to see the comedian’s son take over the club, and make it appeal to the metropolitan élite.

But, from here on, the programme became possibly the most depressing hour of television I’ve ever seen. It was on the desolate estates of Oldham, just outside Manchester, that we most clearly saw Bulldog England’s last gasp, grunts of Old Northern hostility towards the town’s Asian population. The swastikas scrawled on doors, a woman expressing admiration for the National Front – Howe’s anger and disbelief was tangible, and Manning’s voice – “you’ll love it in Manchester, Darcus, people up here are so friendly” – stood out for the ugly, complacent statement it was. Howe’s St George’s Day walk through Eltham – destined to be forever associated with Stephen Lawrence – was impossibly poignant, and his description of Britain as currently terrified of the future and obsessed with the past was spot on.

The group of East Anglian English nationalists, defining Englishness by what it was 1000 years ago, and reviving the pre-1066 English Orthodox Church, seemed fixated on an unchanging English identity, rooted in Blood and Soil. As for Dover – erstwhile gateway to an island race, now brimming with hatred for Eastern European asylum seekers, right down to its terrifyingly reactionary local paper – the beast of English nationalism had awoken. The reactionary belches of hatred transported Howe back to his arrival here in 1960. The overall feeling was of a dead English culture desperately resisting its inevitable demise, raging against its deserved irrelevance in the new England that is coming, and it was almost impossible to watch in places.

Episode three began with scenes of an exclusive housing estate in Loughton, Essex, shielded from the outside world with the security you’d expect on a military base, and recreating the English village as a pure kitsch object. Then we saw the terminally depressed town of Grangetown, Cleveland, one of the places which lost its industry in the Thatcher era and is still struggling to find a role, and became the car crime capital of Britain. It is now completely patrolled by CCTV cameras, a situation which many people there actually seem to approve of, because it reduces the violence among young people which had become endemic. But it seemed as though the town missed its notoriety because that was the only claim it could possibly have to fame. Watching all this was even more depressing than what had come before.

Further north-east in Northumberland, we encountered the landed gentry, seeming protectionist to an extent (sample quote: “Being part of Northumberland is, in itself, being English”) but strangely likeable, and Howe pointed out how the old Establishment had become, by Blair’s redefinition of Britishness, rebels. Howe’s admiration for the efficiency of the fox-hunt surprised me, but even someone one as opposed to hunting as myself could see what he saw in the history of the ritual, its standing as something historically representative of Britain and now under threat – and his comment “I’d rather hunt foxes than help hunt for Stephen Lawrences” was, in this context, impossibly poignant.

Travelling through Todmorden, Yorkshire, Howe visited a club full of the type of working men and women he knew 40 years ago, the people now without the work but seeming to sustain their dignity. Then one man referred to white people as “the superior race” – and suddenly the flaws of the old England came right back to the surface. It was the popularity of therapists in the town, and the occupation of the castle, once the residence of Todmorden’s mill-owner, by a Buddhist community (a return to spiritualism and a rejection of the materialism of the modern age) that, in their very different ways, gave us a taste of the new England which is moving into the crumbling shell of the old one.

Ultimately, White Tribe confirmed several things that most of us already know, but illustrated just how and why they are happening very well. The Britain which Darcus Howe entered in 1960, where every national stereotype still held true, is dead. But then so is every isolated national culture – the effects of globalisation are so strong, so total, that parochialism has to finish, and will finish quite naturally, however hard it might seem. But, as we saw when Howe made his return to Brixton and expressed such relief to come home, we all still need our home – and maybe it’s the desire to create a home for ourselves that will enable the new, shifting, changeable England to emerge from beneath the trapped unchangeable, and therefore unsustainable, old country. Along with The Day Britain DiedWhite Tribe tells you all you need to know about this moment of flux.


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