Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Michael X: A Life in Black and White

John Williams has resurrected one of Britain’s forgotten bogeymen - 1960s black power leader Michael X. In his entertaining biography Michael X: A Life in Black and White, Williams charts his subject’s journey from a Port of Spain childhood, to his eventual hanging for murder in Trinidad’s Royal Gaol. A circular trajectory that takes in Tiger Bay, Notting Hill, and the Holloway Rd.

During this picaresque tale, Michael X encounters many of the major players of the 1960s: Colin MacInnes, Lennon and Ono, Alexander Trocchi, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali, William Burroughs, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Allen Ginsberg, and Mick Jagger, to name but a few. Just as interesting, though, are the sundry characters he meets on the fringes of society - the conmen, junkies, pimps, and chancers.

Michael X turns out to be a natural chameleon. There are the name changes: Michael de Freitas, Michael X, Michael Abdul Malik. His different personae: hustler, poet, revolutionary. He is variously black, white, red, brown and, in a tight spot, even a jew. Whether writing articles for Oz; sorting out Pink Floyd’s security; or addressing Black Power meetings, he was equally comfortable.

As well as possessing chameleon-like qualities Michael X is shown to be a born networker. His access to prominent figures in both the counterculture movement and the political underground, ensured his presence at many of the big events of the era: the Notting Hill riots; the Wholly Communion; the Dialectics of Liberation Conference; and the setting up of the London Free School. He was pretty much ubiquitous.

Michael X is far from being a hagiographic work. Williams isn’t seeking to retrospectively exonerate his man, or portray him as an out and out victim. It quickly becomes evident, however, that British newspapers in the 1960s - with an eye on events across the Atlantic - were keen to raise the spectre of race-war here. Michael X’s demonic public persona was, therefore, essentially a press construct. That said, shameless self-promoter that he was, de Freitas was more than happy to step up to the plate and become their black bogeyman.

As well as being a thoroughly researched book, its author has a sharp eye for the absurd, and it’s worth pointing out that there are many comic moments in this biography. A trip to Timbuktu by Michael X, Alexander Trocchi and Nigel Samuel, to find a fabled African university is cut short when they discover that it closed down sometime in the Sixteenth century. The sudden appearance of the black revolutionary’s mother in Britain, wearing a bright red quilted bathrobe, is also memorable.

From a Welsh point of view there are interesting episodes. Britain’s original multi-ethnic community, Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, is eulogised by its one-time resident. The Commonwealth Arts Festival of 1965, also in Cardiff, is portrayed as an hilarious Dionysian romp. And Michael X’s spell in Swansea prison, peering out over the lime pit where hanged prisoners were buried, eerily foreshadows his own fate.

By the time of his own demise at the end of a hangman’s rope, Michael X had become oddly emblematic of the Sixties. Having fled London to set up a commune in rural Trinidad, the idyll ends horribly with murder, in an atmosphere of drug-aided paranoia. Whilst never on the scale of Manson’s Spahn Ranch nightmare, or Jim Jones’s, later, Guyanese religious massacre, there is still an air of Utopia turned sour, and of a leader with ever diminishing power, unable to deliver on his promises.

It’s telling that while a band of Michael X’s white liberal celeb friends were trying to free him from the death penalty, the Trinidadian public were keen to see him swing. During his incarceration calypsos were composed with titles like One to Hang and Hang Him. Thus Michael X’s life ends with a characteristic air of carnival, like those he had attended as a child, and the one he had been instrumental in setting up in Notting Hill.

Michael X: A Life in Black and White is an absolute belter of a biography. It’s published by Century and is on sale now.