July 25, 2008
by Alan Copps
A GOOD BIOGRAPHY frequently casts as much light on the times its
subject lived through as it does on the person. When the subject is
such an elusive personality and assiduous maker of his own myth as
Michael X, and his times include desperate days in the Fifties and
extremes of hedonism in the Swinging Sixties, the result is an
absorbing book that adds up to rather more than one life.
Michael de Freitas, Michael X or Michael Abdul Malik changed his name
to suit his ambitions, which for a poor Trinidadian immigrant of the
"Windrush generation" were astonishingly varied.
On one hand this is the biography of a small-time crook, conman,
pimp, drug dealer and finally executed murderer. On the other it's
the story of a man who seized his opportunity to give black Britons a
voice when they needed one after the Notting Hill riots of 1958. As
such he has a serious claim to have founded the race relations
"industry" in this country.
That he later became the leader of a sinister Black Power cult yet
could still command the support of John and Yoko and other
celebrities even while on death row back in Trinidad illustrates his
alarming and ultimately toxic mixture of charm and force. Along the
way he was absolutely up to his neck in any number of crazy Sixties
ventures from music and gambling clubs to poetry festivals, radical
publishing and even the Profumo scandal.
He crossed paths with just about everyone: Alan Ginsberg, John and
Yoko, Pink Floyd, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, William S. Burroughs
and the infamous call girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies,
who were at the heart of the Profumo affair. Both had been mistresses
of the notorious Notting Hill landlord Peter Rachman, for whom
Michael had worked as a rent collector and who appears to have been
something of a mentor when it came to getting others to do one's own
The man himself may have been almost forgotten until the recent movie
The Bank Job credited him with a part in a crime that, surprisingly,
gets no mention here, and he could easily be dismissed as just a
chancer. But in revisiting his story, the author examines several
issues that are still with us in different ways: the relationship
between immigration and crime; the legacy of colonialism; the
political exploitation of the "race card" and the rise and fall (or
at least dissipation) of the Sixties social revolution.
In striving to capture the essence of this complex character and to
debunk his self-serving autobiography (From Michael de Freitas to
Michael X by Michael Abdul Malik, published in 1968), John Williams
draws coincidentally a more compelling picture of London in the
Sixties than many of the eulogisers who have concentrated solely on
pop music, sex and fashion.
What emerges in between the drugs, sex and radical politics is a
portrait of a society that was socially mobile to a greater degree
than today's. In his progression from the ghetto to community
leadership and back to death row Michael appears to have vaulted
class barriers with an ease that would be difficult to emulate today.
There's no doubt that he was a brilliant networker long before the
word was coined.
There are excellent descriptions here of street demos and wild
parties that have the authentic note of the times, and even of the
Commonwealth Arts Festival in Cardiff in 1965 that appears to have
been a doped-up mixture of the two.
But when it comes to establishing the hard facts of Michael's later
years as a sickeningly self-indulgent cult leader, Williams runs up
against that old saw about the Sixties: "If you can remember it you
weren't really there." He is diligent and often relishes his
interviews with surviving relatives, friends and radicals, but sadly
their recollections sometimes fail at crucial moments.
Michael X: A Life in Black & White by John Williams
Century, £11.99; 304pp