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Nationality: Wog – The Hounding of David Oluwale

by Max Farrar
16 Oct 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Review

ISBN: 0224080407 Review of: Kester Aspden (2007) Nationality: Wog – The Hounding of David Oluwale, London: Jonathan Cape

This is an important, even ‘must-read’ book for anyone interested in the history of crime in the UK, especially if that crime has racial horror hovering all over it. ‘Race’ was ‘hovering’ because, during the trial of the two Leeds’ police officers accused of abusing and killing the Nigerian vagrant David Oluwale in April 1969, ‘race’ was never an explicit issue.

And the author of this meticulously-research, finely-crafted and compelling investigation into Oluwale’s life and tragic death seems to go along with the view that Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching, who ‘hounded’ Oluwale, disliked all rough sleepers and vagrants, but simply had a special antipathy for Oluwale.[1] They were briefly imprisoned for assault on Oluwale, but acquitted of his manslaughter in November 1971. However, when I walked the streets of Leeds’ main black neighbourhood from 1971 onwards, the words ‘Remember Oluwale’ in stark white paint on a wall on Chapeltown Road told me that, among the expanding numbers of politically-conscious black and Asian citizens in Leeds, there was much more at stake here than simple hostility to the homeless.

So I find myself strongly recommending this book for its extraordinary diligence in bringing into public view a story which, outside Leeds’ black communities, is hardly known, but worrying that its explicit aim not to write a book which ‘makes a difference’ (p.9) somewhat undermines it. This might seem to be a matter of narrative style, rather than political position – but it would be a mistake to treat the two as though they are separate fields. Kester Aspden acknowledges his debt to David Peace, whose extraordinary quartet of novels stimulated by the police’s botched investigations into the so-called Yorkshire Ripper I admire very much. This book has a hint of Peace’s unflinching, staccato style, much favoured by the hard-boiled school of crime writing. Aspden taught a module on ‘the history of crime’ while briefly working as a historian at Leeds University, so we might expect the factual approach most historians favour.

Writing style, however, is as political as any other technique employed to navigate daily life, whether it’s what we wear or how we speak. Nor is this simply a book of facts. In investigating Oluwale’s journey (as a stowaway, in 1949) from Nigeria to Hull, and then to Leeds, and his long incarceration in Leeds’ main mental hospital for ten of the years between 1953 and 1969, Aspden has turned up some unusual research material on the social and health problems of Nigerian students in Britain and Ireland (circa 1960), and he refers to more recent work on ‘colonial psychiatry and the African mind’. He explicitly utilises social theory to provide some context to Kitching and Ellerker’s dislike of vagrants who, like David Oluwale’s, sleep in doorways of a city which as the ‘motorway city of the Seventies’ is already inventing itself as a shoppers’ paradise. Following Mary Douglas, he explains that these dirty, unruly people are ‘matter of place’.

I have great respect for Mary Douglas’ work, and Bauman explicitly utilises Douglas in his book on the Holocaust, where he argues that the Nazis saw the Jews as ‘slimy . . . compromising the order of things’.[2] But the absence here of any social theory explicitly on the topic of ‘race’ means that statements like these remain a sub-text:

Oluwale was a ‘nasty piece of work. He was so filthy, rank, stinking, and smeared with anything unmentionable. And if a copper went near to help him he’d get so near and then he’d bite his leg or gob on him or whatever. I could well understand that the policeman on his lonely beat having filthy teeth sunk into his calf and having some shit hurled at him was not amused’.[3]

These are the words of Gilbert Gray QC, a doyen of the Leeds bar, who defended Sgt Kitching, when he was interviewed by Aspden in 2005. Gray claims he had himself seen Oluwale in shop doorways prior to the trial. His client described David Oluwale as ‘a wild animal, not a human being’ (p.214). Aspden has already offered a different view, when he cites the statement of Olive Bradbury, who worked as a cleaner at the shop in whose doorway (completely out of sight) David usually slept: ‘Oluwale never made any mess in the doorway and I never made any complaint to the shop manager’ (p.69). And he lists six police constables who told the investigating officers that they never had any trouble of any sort on the occasions they moved Oluwale on (p.219) (none of whom were called to give evidence in court).

There is a school of thought which argues that the facts speak for themselves: a careful reader will see for herself that Gray is allying himself with his racist client and that the author has provided material which refutes Gray’s lurid statement. Maybe I’m being excessively sociological to say that it is a positivist myth that facts do all the necessary work. Maybe I am asking for a different type of book – one which foregrounds the persistence of the representation of the black man as filthy, violent and less than human, and which speaks to the hurt and pain that Oluwale’s death inflicted not only upon his African friends (several of whom Aspden has taken the trouble to interview) but also to the black and Asian British people who witnessed the trial and read about it in the papers.

The black British writer Caryl Phillips has spoken in Leeds about his forthcoming work Foreigners [4] arising from David Oluwale’s life and this has prompted a move to create a public memorial for David Oluwale in the city. Significantly, the recent launch in Leeds of Kester Aspden’s book was attended by several white people – including the ambulance driver who pulled David’s body out of the River Aire – who are deeply concerned about the case. They are assisting the campaign for the memorial, as is Aspden, and there will be much more debate about how ‘race’ weaves itself in and out of this story. Perhaps this book, along with Phillips’, and the memorial campaign will re-ignite the passions of progressive whites who ally themselves with the cause of racial justice. Gary Galvin, the 18 year old constable who blew the whistle on Ellerker and Kitching, and Austin Haywood, Leeds’ stick-thin deputy chief constable, and the six constables whose unused testimony that Oluwale was, in their experience, not a problem, are among those whites with a conscience. Leeds, like all other parts of the UK, is still desperately in need of people who will stand up an d be counted on these issues.[5]

Notes

1. Kester Aspden (2007) Nationality: Wog – The Hounding of David Oluwale, London: Jonathan Cape2007, p.155 [↑]

2. Zygmunt Bauman (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.38-9 [↑]

3. Kester Aspden , p.212 [↑]

4. Caryl Phillips (2007) ForeignersThree English Lives, Harvill Secker [↑]

5. See also Harmit Athwal’s review of this book at http://www.irr.org.uk/2007/may/ha000008.html [↑]

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