Kester Aspden’s new book Nationality: Wog – The Hounding Of David Oluwale is an extraordinary piece of social history that investigates the persecution and lonely death of David Oluwale in 1960s Leeds.
The book takes its name from the police charge sheets – one where someone in the police station had written ‘wog’ over the original entry of ‘British’, and another where ‘wog’ was typed in as the original record.
Oluwale’s body was found in the River Aire and a coroner ruled that he had drowned. But 18 months later, a police cadet reported disturbing rumours he had heard about how he died. This sparked an investigation that led to the only case ever of criminal convictions for officers involved in a police-related death since records began in 1970.
Aspen draws on recently released archive material, as well as interviews with those who knew Oluwale or were concerned with the case. The book builds up a picture of the humiliation and brutality he faced at the hands of the Leeds police.
Oluwale was a rough sleeper when he was targeted by two police officers who terrorised him over several years. They beat him, urinated on him, smashed his head against the floor and took him to woods miles outside Leeds and left him there.
The investigation showed just how many officers knew what was going on or colluded in the persecution.
But the book doesn’t just deal with the final years of his life and death. It asks why Oluwale, who came to Britian in 1949 from Nigeria, ended his life living rough, in and out of mental health institutions and at the mercy of the police.
The author reconstructs his life and those of others who knew him to build up a picture of life as a West African in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. It shows the happier moments of his life – friendships forged and nights out dancing at the Mecca ballroom where, we learn, DJ Jimmy Savile was one of the few that played to racially mixed crowds.
But the reality was poverty and racist discrimination in jobs and housing. Oluwale got into trouble with the police and was sectioned in 1953. He was taken to Menston, a mental institution outside Leeds, and spent eight years there doped up on Largactil and subject to electric shock treatment. In all that time, he didn’t have a single visitor.
Over the next few years, Oluwale had many run-ins with the police, prison and psychiatrists. Each time he told a psychiatrist that he was being persecuted by the police, they took this as a sign of delusions on his part, which they attributed to his ‘anti-authoritarian’ personality.
During the criminal investigation into his death, everyone – the police, the lawyers, even the judge – agreed that he was a social nuisance. But Aspden tracks down people who have something different to say – not just his friends, but ambulance drivers, cleaners and shopkeepers who saw him as a friendly and gentle person.
The book is an engrossing account of black people’s lives in Britain, a heartbreaking tale of how racism and poverty destroyed Oluwale, and a damning indictment of institutional racism in the police and mental health system.
It is also a book that restores some dignity and humanity to David’s story – a story that deserves to be heard.
Kester Aspden is talking about Nationality: Wog – The Hounding Of David Oluwale at Waterstone’s in Leeds on Tuesday 12 June, 7pm, with Tom Palmer. To reserve a ticket phone 0113 244 4588. The book is published by Jonathan Cape for £12.99 and available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848.
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