Book Review: Nationality: Wog - The Hounding of David Olulwale by Kester Aspden

 If the past is another country, where they do things differently, it is good occasionally to be reminded of how far we have come in some respects, but also of how old sins cast long shadows. With a quiet anger all the more powerful for its restraint, Kester Aspden tells the shocking story of David Oluwale, a stowaway from Nigeria who arrived in Leeds in 1949 full of hope for a new life, only to die, miserable and degraded, hounded by rogue policemen twenty years later.

Aspden does not tell the story in tabloid mode, as a hatchet job on the police and city authorities. An academic historian as well as a writer, he is meticulous in his research and even-handed in his desire to find the truth about how and why Oluwale died. A Yorkshireman himself, Aspden has a keen ear for the authentic voice and a gifted storyteller's knack of evoking an era and a culture now buried beneath the brash and self-confident new city of regenerated Leeds.

Two particular police officers eventually faced trial for David Oluwale's death. But what is on trial here is a Britain smug and self-satisfied in its cultural ignorance and prejudice against the outsider. With Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speeches ringing in our ears, we get a sense of what immigration to post-war Britain could feel like to those seeking a welcome. This is a book that goes beyond the limits of its own context. We cannot get away with feeling glad that things would have been different had we been there. Above all the tragedy of Oluwale is the story of an accumulation of petty indifference, systemic incompetence and the moral cowardice of people who saw a problem but did not want to get into trouble by getting involved. Everyone bears some part of the burden of this shocking tale: friends who lost touch with Oluwale, police and mental health authorities who endured or misread his bizarre mood swings and anti-social behaviour, shopkeepers and passers-by who showed him sympathy, colleagues of those prosecuted for his death who suspected what had happened but kept silent. It was not only the officer who filled in the word WOG in the nationality section of his charge sheet who abused Oluwale's human dignity. It is not only deliberate racism that crushes the life and hope out of the marginalized. At a time when Western societies are becoming increasingly defensive about outsiders in their midst, Aspden's powerful book is an indictment of the unintended evil that can be done when the good remain silent and human misery is greeted with indifference.

Nationality: Wog ­ The Hounding Of David Oluwale by Kester Aspden (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)

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