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Nationality: Wog – The Hounding of David Oluwale

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Kester Aspden, The Hounding of David Oluwale, Jonathan Cape, 2007

By Pete Carvill.

For fans of Life on Mars, the seventies appears to be a golden time for British policing: Gene Hunt careering around the terraced streets of Manchester, gun in one hand and whiskey bottle in another, stopping only to kick in a nonce before retiring to the pub for the rest of the afternoon. It’s a romantic image of the policeman as law enforcer, keeping the streets safe and clean from human flotsam that threatens continually to overwhelm society.

It’s also a fallacy, a screenwriter’s interpretation of thirty-five years ago. Gene Hunt is a character of bluster and unintended comedy, and Sam Hunt, his deputy is the incredulous middlemen that serves as the audience’s barometer for normality in this skewed world.

Northern England in the seventies has been written about much more realistically and darker by David Peace in his Red Riding Quartet and The Damned United, and in the so-called ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas of the period and the years after that were more interested in the relationship between man and urban than the petty politics of the domestic home. If the relationships between crime and the cities of the seventies have been explored widely in fiction, non-fiction has, concerning the same subject, struggled to find its narrative voice.

Kester Aspden, a former lecturer at Leeds University, has written Nationality: Wog – The Hounding of David Oluwale which retells the story of the suspicious death of a Nigerian man, found floating in the River Aire in 1969.

Oluwale came to Leeds from Nigeria in 1949, having stowed away from his home country. He ended up in Leeds and tried to make a living until a series of events following a disturbance in the city centre led to Oluwale, nicknamed ‘Yankee’, being housed in what were still called ‘asylums’ for eight years. After his release from the asylum, Oluwale drifted between London, Sheffield and Leeds, from boarding house to the streets, prison cells and another stay at the asylum.

By the late sixties, Oluwale was living on the streets of Leeds and was coming into contact nightly with policemen Ken Kitching and Geoff Ellerker who, in trying to keep the streets clean and safe, sought to move on undesirables who they saw as bringing the area down. Oluwale, as the sole black person, on the streets of Leeds at that time became the constant target for the efforts of Ellerker and Kitching, who sought to punish the ‘lame darkie’ for what they saw as his intractable inability or refusal to adhere to their notions of society. They beat him, urinated on him and drove him out of Leeds into the countryside where they abandoned him in the forests. In short, because they could and no one was stopping them, Ellerker and Kitching terrorised Oluwale.

On 17th April 1969, Oluwale was found and beaten in the street by Ellerker and Kitching. Oluwale ran off towards the River Aire, Ellerker and Kitching following him. Two weeks later, Oluwale was found floating in the river, and was later buried in a pauper’s grave in Leeds.

Aspden expands the basic facts from above by looking at Oluwale’s passage to England and the trial of Ellerker and Kitching, also bringing in the experiences of Albert Johanneson, a Nigerian footballer signed for Leeds during the same period.

Interestingly, Nationality: Wog hints at the issues of identity inherent in the stories of David Oluwale and the regeneration of Leeds. The ‘wog’ of the title was the substitution on the charge sheet for the word ‘black’, the original rubbed out and the racial slur written in its place. What that word demonstrates is how Oluwale was given an identity by the anonymous Leeds policeman who adjusted the charge sheet. Instead of ‘black’ or ‘African’, Oluwale is reclassified as something other, unhuman. It’s this reclassified identity that provided Ellerker and Hitching with the motivation and justification to hound and terrorise Oluwale.

The city of Leeds has gone through the same process of erasing a past identity and being refurnished with a new one. When you get off the train now at Leeds central station, you’re struck by how clean and modern the city is. In the past few years, it has been voted the best place to live in Europe. It’s a world away from the decrepit, broken-down terraced urban landscape that it resembled thirty-to-forty years ago.

Yet, without giving the ending away, it would seem that regarding David Oluwale, the city has never been able to reconcile its identity with the dead Nigerian, buried in a crowded pauper’s grave in a Leeds churchyard. Oluwale, a British citizen through being born in Nigeria, deserved better than what he received in life – rampant and shameless racism, an uncaring mental health system, police brutality – but it’s not been until Nationality: Wog that a fitting valediction has been written.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Pete Carvill is Senior Editor at 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 3rd, 2007.