Nationality:Wog - Kester Aspden

Jonathan Cape London 2007, 244pp, £12.99, HB

Bite Size: A timely return to a grim true story

Every so often a crime hits the news-stands that sticks in the public mind as representative of a wider evil in society, highlighting abuses too long ignored. The killing of Stephen Lawrence came to symbolise in the nation's conscience both the twin evils of both murderous white supremacist thuggery, and the pernicious combination of incompetence and racism in the police which let his killers walk free. Meanwhile dozens of other racist murders over the years have been either forgotten, or never noticed in the first place.

The death of David Oluwale, his bloated body fished from the River Aire in Leeds in 1969, stands mid-way between these two extremes of iconography and oblivion. A national news-story at the time, its memory lingered on in West Yorkshire for years, but is largely forgotten now. In some ways this is no surprise. Oluwale was not a man to inspire sympathy in "Middle England". He could not be less like Stephen Lawrence, that bright, well-liked, law-abiding, young, integrated student. Oluwale, a Nigerian stow-away immigrant who arrived in the UK in 1949, was a vagrant, a nuisance, mentally ill and occasionally prone to biting those who disturbed him on his lonely, endless trek around the streets of Leeds. When the police of that city harassed him to move on, elsewhere, anywhere, as he dossed down there was no outcry. When two policemen in particular stepped up this campaign of harassment to include the systematic humiliation of Oluwale:- kicking him, punching him, bashing his head on the floor and pissing on him on a daily basis, until he mysteriously ended up dead in the Aire, there was no instant investigation. It took the brave word of a young police recruit not so fearful of his career being ruined as others to speak out and lead to the investigation which finally, two years later, led to some of the foul truth coming out (though not to anyone being convicted of his death, either murder or manslaughter.)

Kester Aspden has a tricky job in bringing the case of Oluwale to life. There are no interviews with close friends or family -he didn't really have any. Oluwale had spent ten of his twenty years in the UK in mental institutions. The Nigerian community he socialised with in his early days in Britain remembered a likeable, sparky individual nicknamed "Yankee" for his swagger, and these memories are indeed drawn on. But once Oluwale began to fall prey to mental illness these friends soon drifted away. What Aspden does is forensically track Oluwale's movements with the diligence of a detective, tracking down the testimonies of dozens of witnesses to his sad trudge around the city.

Aspden also explores three major themes to put Oluwale's persecution in full, and pertinant context. The first is the Nigerian immigrant community of which Oluwale was a part, marginalised and persecuted but doggedly making its way in a new society. Points of contrast are made David and his counterparts such as his friend Gayb who managed to get a job and thrive, and Albert Johanssen, who became Leeds United's first black player, before drinking himself to death.

The second is the character of Leeds itself. With a clear, concise style Aspden draws a brief social history of the city, showing both the bloody-minded insularity and hostility to newcomers of its past, and the ruthless, superficial vision of its new leaders in the 60s to create a gleaming, tidy new commercial landscape, and their wish to sweep away anyone who didn't fit into its newly asigned post-industrial future. Oluwale, an unwanted blot on the landscape, was caught in a fatal collision between the two. The third theme is the police force of Leeds, still more fiercely insular and parochial than the city they served, a close-set breed who would never speak out against each other, no matter what sins their brothers-in-arms committed. Sergeant Kitching and Inspector Ellerker, the pair who hounded David, are shown as neither the archetype of the force around them nor especially deviant from it either, but rather sadists working with a sense of both self-justification and impunity stemming from the system around them.

These different threads of social history connect before the book's final stages, which detail the trial of Kitching and Ellerker. The night of Oluwale's plunge into the Aire is recounted in the same detail as it was in court. He was last spotted running down the street in terror shortly after another meeting with his tormentors. After the whistle was blown, at last Kitching and Ellerker's comrades had turned on them, but the trial didn't unearth enough evidence to convict either of them for murder or manslaughter. They were however found guilty of various counts of assault and sent down for several years. A scrap of justice. Outrage in quarters, but no great national soul searching. Two "bad apples" to quote the cliché. Except of course it went much further than that. The book takes its name from a log in the charge book relating to Oluwale made by an anonymous officer, scratching out "British" under the nationality section and scribbling "Wog" in its place. This was initially filled in by an officer who may or may not have been Kitching or Ellerker. The subsequent policeman who typed it up as part of an official document however, was certainly someone else. It was in this atmosphere of casual contempt that the destruction of a troubled life led by the official forces of the state was allowed to occur. The book ends with the reminiscences of some of those involved. There is no "conclusion", because nothing has really been resolved. But a telling story has been told well.

Any cop? This is quality social and personal history, well researched and well written. Its lack of the didactic makes its indictment of racism and police brutality all the more effective, while a sad, wasted soul and the terrible wrongs done to him have been given the memory they deserve.

[First published on Bookmunch, 2007] Back