Nationality: Wog

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(315)

Kester Aspden, Jonathan Cape, £12.99

In the introduction to his book, author Kester Aspden boldly declares his belief that "the hounding of David Oluwale says something about Britain then and now." Initially this appears a brave, but injudicious assertion on a number of counts.

Firstly it is a story about a very specific set of circumstances, namely those surrounding the death of a 38-year-old Nigerian immigrant. Secondly, the events the book discusses took place nearly 40 years ago in a city almost unrecognisable from what Leeds had metamorphosed into by the early 1990s.

The city in which Oluwale lived was one of "filthy rivers, back to backs and pea souper fogs". The River Aire was allegedly so polluted that the sighting of a live fish could attract newspaper headlines. It came as no surprise when those fish washed up dead, but the gruesome discovery of Oluwale's body in those same waters in April 1969 proved more newsworthy and exposed a scandal that culminated in the criminal convictions of two Leeds City police officers, inspector Geoff Ellerker and sergeant Ken Kitching.

Oluwale came to Britain in August 1949. Before long he drifted into a life of misery that saw him spend over half his remaining years either in prison or the notorious High Royds mental hospital. "Nationality: Wog" was the designation attributed to Oluwale on one of the numerous charge sheets discovered during the investigation into his death.

The second half of the book focuses on the new institutional practice of unit beat policing and the canteen culture that developed within the Leeds City Police force.

It was this lethal combination, personified by Ellerker and Kitching, that culminated in the relentless and fatal harassment of Oluwale.

Of course, today's police "service" would have us believe that such behaviour is a thing of the past. No doubt they will express disgust that Ellerker and Kitching were only convicted of various assaults rather than homicide.

But they will proceed to proclaim that such "bad apples" have been rooted out and that this process has been accelerated as a result of the changes initiated by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Equally, politicians and civic leaders would prefer that we let these matters lie.

The Leeds of 2007 is even glitzier than the city I lived in during the early 1990s. However, behind the facade, the inequality, deprivation and discrimination that poisoned society in the 1950s and 1960s persists, and it is in this sense that Aspden's claim rings true.

On the very day that I began reading Nationality: Wog, it was reported that another series of "terror related" arrests had occurred at addresses in Beeston, the area of south Leeds in which two of the 7 July bombers had lived and worked. Three of those suspects were released without charge on the day that I wrote these words.

Meanwhile, an Asian driver was stopped and questioned by a vanload of police officers outside my flat in London. Nationality: Wog does indeed provide an insight into the world we live in today.