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Vol 60 No 1

Published 11th January 2019


John Howe, 1938-2018

A long-standing friend of Africa Confidential, John William Alan Raymond Howe was a remarkable reporter, columnist, translator, poet and short story writer. Best known for his reporting on Chad, Algeria and the Western Sahara in the British and French press, John's first trip to Africa was to Nigeria where he was hosted by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Afrobeat music star, in 1973. That gives a measure of the man.

A long-standing friend of Africa Confidential, John William Alan Raymond Howe was a remarkable reporter, columnist, translator, poet and short story writer. Best known for his reporting on Chad, Algeria and the Western Sahara in the British and French press, John's first trip to Africa was to Nigeria where he was hosted by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Afrobeat music star, in 1973. That gives a measure of the man.

At the time, few people outside Nigeria had heard of Fela and his marriage of African highlife and jazz with a cutting social commentary on the ruling elite and their foreign accomplices. A friend of the poet Allen Ginsberg and avant-garde novelist William Burroughs, John kept his cultural enthusiasms more open than most.

An energetic advocate for Fela and the Africa 70 band in Europe, John saw him as creating a new musical form, Nigeria's Duke Ellington. The radical Lagos musician and dissident Oxford student shared an era, coming of age as the searing social changes of the 1960s took off. They became firm friends and occasional verbal sparring partners on matters political and spiritual. 

John was a regular guest at the Kalakuta Republic, Fela's compound in Lagos which served as an impromptu hotel for itinerant musicians such as such as Lester Bowie of the Chicago Art Ensemble and the British jazz drummer Ginger Baker, late of the rock supergroup Cream. On subsequent trips to Nigeria, John got to know the Kuti clan, including the redoubtable matriarch, Funmilayo, a formidable campaigner for women's rights who drove an Egba king from power for imposing harsh household taxes.

Those trips and a starring role in the 'Worst Dancer' competition at the Africa Shrine in Lagos provided the raw material for John's perceptive memorial to Fela, published in the New Left Review a few weeks after his death in 1997 (Fela Anikulapo Kuti, An honest man).

Prior to landing in Nigeria, John had established himself as a freelance writer, one of a coterie that included Peter Wollen, Alexander Cockburn, and Fred Halliday; the team that founded the left-wing weekly Seven Days. Based in Ladbroke Grove in west London, John was close to the Trinidadian artist Larry Forde and photographer John 'Hoppy' Hopkins, among the pioneering spirits behind the Notting Hill Carnival.

With panache, the carnival brought together the neighbourhood, long before it became Europe's biggest street festival. Each year, John and his wife Rosamund, whose family home was on the carnival route, would hold a freewheeling party for friends, artists, and activists in the locale as well as a contingent of African writers and journalists.

Travelling to West Africa brought John into contact with the publishing scene in the region and its leading lights, Ralph Uwechue and Peter Enaharo, at first in Paris and London and then back in Nigeria. For a decade starting in the mid-1970s, John wrote regularly for Uwechue's Africa Journal on Algeria, Chad and the Western Sahara.

He was also one of the more intrepid correspondents covering the war in Chad in the early 1980s between the forces of Hissène Habré, backed by France, and Goukouni Oueddei, whose fighters got much of their armoury from the Gadaffi regime in Libya. As the Chadian crisis escalated into a three-way trial of strength between African nationalists, Colonel Gadaffi and Western spies and soldiers, John was one the few journalists to interpret its importance for the wider world, filing despatches for The Guardian and The Economist as well as for more specialist outfits such as Africa Confidential and Le Continent.

In the early 1980s, John was appointed London correspondent of Le Matin de Paris, a left-liberal daily and offshoot of Le Nouvel Observateur. His despatches in French covered the turbulent years of Margaret Thatcher's government: clashes in the inner cities, hunger strikers in Northern Ireland, and policy battles in the Labour Party. For all his far-flung friendships, John had a keen reporter's eye for the set-pieces and nuances of British society, such as royal weddings and Test Matches.

Given his scepticism towards politicians of all stripes, John was not an instinctive campaigner. Yet he threw himself into the fight for a Sahrawi state independent of Morocco, whose army had marched into the Western Sahara as Spanish forces quit after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975. 

In one of his 'From the Moto Park' columns in The West African Hotline, an idiosyncratic Lagos fortnightly which flourished in the late 1980s, John set out the Sahrawi argument: 'Morocco's legal case consists of a tissue of lies, distortions and omissions delivered with a cynical shrug and razor-edged military grin. The big problem for the nationalist majority of Sahrawis is that there is no machinery for enforcing international law, which is applied in a partial freelance way. The right of self-determination is "inalienable" only in pious principle …'

In the 1990s and 2000s, John took on more translation work, often for his friends Robin Blackburn and Perry Anderson at the publishers, Verso Books. Among these were translations of books by Régis Debray, the radical who had somehow transited from a friendship with Che Guevara to a senior post in the French government. John's translation of Debray's homage to Charles de Gaulle, 'Futurist of a nation' won particular praise. Other translations included tomes on anthropology, sexuality and cultural schizophrenia.

With an obsessive interest in motor cars and their mechanics, John would interweave his intricate translation projects with a more metallic complexity: stripping down the gearbox of his trusty Lada saloon on Ladbroke Grove. With his close friend Glen Kidston, whose father raced Bentleys at Le Mans in the 1920s, John shared enthusiasms for fast cars, modern jazz and abstract art.

A great companion in newsrooms, London pubs and West African chop bars, John will be much missed by his many and varied friends and extended family. First, John married Anne Collins with whom he had a daughter, Fingo. After this ended in divorce, he married Rosamund Mulvey with whom he had two daughters, Natalie and Frances.

Devoted to his family until the last, John died of lung cancer on 11 June.

PS

 



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