I came across the hidden history of David Oluwale while working in Leeds. I’d been away from the north for some years and Leeds seemed a very different city to the one I’d known in my youth. Back then it was tribes of beer-drinking Tetley Bittermen, goths, and football hooligans from the Service Crew. Mostly unpleasant, dark stuff.
I found that the new Leeds, puffed-up by its service sector-driven prosperity, was at the vanguard of the “urban renaissance”. Its club scene eclipsed Manchester’s, and it even boasted Michelin-starred restaurants. The football team was riding high, in happy denial of mounting debts. The once desolate, dirty waterfront where Oluwale met his end was now peopled with young professionals.
The opening of a Harvey Nichols store, “the first outside London”, was greeted with an excess of civic pride. It felt to me like a city concerned excessively with shopping and surface appearances. A peacock city. A vibrant and multicultural centre in denial of the signs of social failure around its edges.
For my book I wanted to create a different Leeds, a more unsettled version, and found it in a forgotten crime story.
As a black, homeless, ex-mental hospital patient with a criminal record, David Oluwale was as low status as it was possible to be in 1960s Britain.
Nobody was interested enough to ask questions when his bruised body was dragged from the River Aire in May 1969, and nobody mourned him. His memory was paved over. Very early into my research, I knew that the city itself would be a central character in my narrative.
Trawling through local newspapers for the period I found that Leeds, then under a Conservative-led council, was trying to break with its sooty industrial past and forge a new future based on service industries, shopping and motorways. The new vision was called Project Leeds. More than any other provincial city, Leeds was zealous in its use of the wrecking ball.
Great swathes of back to back houses were razed to the ground – and with them went an intimate working class world, recorded lovingly by writers like Keith Waterhouse and Richard Hoggart.
Presenting an attractive public face was all that mattered. Old civic buildings were cleaned of industrial dirt. Police at Millgarth, the city centre station, came under pressure to remove those who threatened this picture of prosperity from public view.
The two Millgarth officers who would eventually be charged and tried with Oluwale’s manslaughter justified their harassment and rough treatment of the man on the grounds of civic hygiene – Oluwale was a stain on the city that needed removing.
I couldn’t help but think of the present as I tried to recreate this brashly modernistic Leeds. Boomtown Leeds, like Project Leeds before it, seemed hostile to anything and anyone that disrupted the glossy facade.
Those who disturbed the rhythms of the consumer orientated society were policed out of sight by the use of Asbos and dispersal orders, our equivalent of the local bobby’s boot. I fixed on the Oluwale story because I thought it contained a warning about where our visions of regenerated, purified cities can end.
The City Fathers who designed Project Leeds are, of course, forgotten, and their dreams turned to dust.
The city’s manufacturing industries collapsed and the anticipated boom in the service sector did not happen – not for another twenty years. Capital projects were stopped and large areas of the city centre were left in a semi-derelict condition.
The once-famous football team went into decline and their Elland Road ground became the playground of hooligans and fascists. This is Red Riding author David Peace’s Leeds – a dead city “abandoned to the Crows and the Ripper”, “just a terrible dream – a terrible dream”.
David Oluwale, unlike the City Fathers, is not forgotten. A kind of posthumous justice, perhaps. There are plans to erect a memorial to him in the city and his story is inspiring all manner of creative work. An adaptation of my book has just been staged at West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was an intense, moving experience – and though about an historic injustice, it had a very contemporary edge.
Every week there are deaths in custody, with black people over-represented in the roll-call. There are new hate figures in society. Violence and intolerance towards asylum seekers is rising. Scapegoats are being sought for our current economic woes. Forty years on from his death, Oluwale’s story is a timely call to a more humane, tolerant and inclusive civic life.
Kester Aspden’s The Hounding of David Oluwale won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction in 2008.
The David Oluwale Memorial Appeal is co-ordinated by Max Farrar at Leeds Metropolitan University. For more information, or to offer your support for a permanent memorial to David Oluwale in Leeds, contact firstname.lastname@example.org