Michael X is a somewhat neglected figure in London's radical, political and cultural history. Williams read the (fictional) prologue and part of a chapter from the first serious study of the man who was at various times Michael de Freitas, Michael X and Michael Abdul Malik.
The bulk of the evening was devoted to his interpretation of Michael X, and a Q&A session that was almost as diverse as Michael X himself.
What Was Said?
Williams first became interested in Michael X after finding his (hard to get) autobiography in a second hand bookshop. This interest increased when he realised Michael's former residence of his home city, Cardiff, and the incredible life he had led in 1960s London. At various times he was a pimp, slum landlord's enforcer, sailor, political activist, socialite and friend to figures as diverse as Muhammad Ali, John Lennon and William Burroughs.
Michael X was the first man to be jailed in England for inciting racial hatred. As is so often the case, a law that had ostensibly been brought in to protect ethnic minorities from abuse from fascists, ended up being used against those it was supposedly designed to protect. This should not however detract from the stupidness of what he actually said (paraphrasing Stokely Carmichael to argue that black people should take up arms against whites)
One woman in the audience had been present at that meeting - one of a handful of whites at a black meeting in Reading. The contradictions here perhaps sum the man up better than anything else - for all his rhetoric, he was living with a white woman at the time, and attempted to dumbfound the court by claiming he had been speaking in a different language!
Influential, Without Influence
How else can you describe a man who was present at the founding of the drugs charity Release, the beginning of the Notting Hill carnival, the free school movement, and Britain's first black arts centre - the Black House in Holloway? This was in the days before council funding to anyone willing to enter into 'partnership' with the authorities, and Michael funded the Black House by soliciting donations from the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Needless to say, it all ended in tears. Money went missing, and Michael fled to Trinidad after being charged with assaulting a man at the Black House.
Scaring Black People
As a speaker from the floor pointed out, Trinidad in this era was a Conservative place. Having survived one Black Power uprising, the Island's authorities were inclined to take Michael X's hype and rhetoric seriously. Having scared the horses in his adoptive home, London, Michael was soon scaring the authorities back home in the Caribbean.
Here Williams stressed that Michael X was not an original thinker. He absorbed ideas from black thinkers such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, and from Londoners like Colin McInnes. He was not someone who could build a mass movement - he simply flitted about too much. Arguably he was someone who never quite fitted in wherever he was, and was always striving, unsuccessfully, for something.
A Man Of Religion?
Having read Michael X's autobiography, "From Michael De Freitas to Michael X" it is hard to see him as someone committed to the austere lifestyle that is often associated with Islam. This is a man who liked the good things and had a hectic social life in an era of experimentation and social liberation.
John Williams answered my question on this issue by suggesting that Michael had converted to Islam, but always had an eye on the main chance. On death row in Trinidad, his mind had focused properly on religion, and he had studied the Qu'ran seriously.
A Man of the Left?
The left kept their distance from Michael X. Whilst Malcolm X was posthumously given full honours by many UK Socialist groups during the revival of interest in his thought in the early 1990s (they all manage to ignore his anti-Semitism!) Michael X has not been rehabilitated. However, many of the issues he agitated around - such as housing - remain crucial today.
John Williams argued the 1960s left was uncomfortable with Michael - they had come out of the Universities. They were a different class. Michael was not part of the New Left, indeed he evoked their jealousy and hostility. That is why he has been written out of left wing history.
There is clearly a healthy market for Williams book. Michael X has not been forgotten, and many of the people at the talk were coming to his life story for the first time. Housmans was full for this reading, and at times when even corporate book giants such as Borders are struggling, it is refreshing to see a true independent packing them in. And where else would you get Tom Vague,Jake Arnott and Ian Bone all in the same room?
For details of similar events in the future, check out the Housmans website. As for Michael X, here he is at his peak.