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Sam Brown talks to novelist Kester Aspden about West Yorkshire Playhouse's adaptation of his novel Nationality Wog

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Kester Aspden sits in the West Yorkshire Playhouse cafe, and the softly spoken Yorkshireman says, half-mockingly, with a half smile, “please don’t mention my 2008 CWA golden dagger award for non-fiction”. So I won’t.

Kester Aspden’s book Nationality Wog: The Hounding of David Oluwale, was published to critical and popular acclaim in 2007, exposing for the first time the story of a young Nigerian immigrant to Leeds, who was bullied, persecuted and abused by corrupt and racist City of Leeds policemen who eventually drowned him in the River Aire in 1969. It conjures up a bleak Leeds, a Leeds of police brutality, Afro-Caribbean poverty, and racist violence. It’s a world familiar to the readers of David Peace’s novels (writer of the forthcoming film The Damned United), and indeed Peace endorses the book’s bravery on its dustjacket.

Aspden’s book was the first publication to deal with Oluwale in a comprehensive manner: “in all the histories of race relations in this country, Oluwale was little more than a footnote,” says Aspden. “‘A black man thrown in the river,’ was how it was normally described.” In 2001 Kester Aspden was working as a post-doctoral research student in the history of crime at Leeds University. He knew about Oluwale vaguely, and with his funding coming to an end he went off to the Kew public records office in search of a topic for a book. There he discovered the Oluwale case file, and in particular, a document he could barely believe: Oluwale’s charge sheet, filled out by the City of Leeds Police, which gave his nationality as “wog” - hence the title of his book.

It’s a profoundly fascinating and moving book which presents Oluwale not as an idealised figure (he was presented as a “smiling cheeky chap” in Jeremy Sandford’s radio play Smiling David for the BBC in 1974), but as a deeply disturbed figure. He was “homeless, mentally ill and black at a time when Enoch Powell was the most popular politician in the country - this made him pretty much a non-person in the eyes of the police officers who dealt with him”. It’s a horrific tale of institutionalised police racism and repeated and total failures of justice and healthcare.

This month West Yorkshire Playhouse in association with the Eclipse Theatre Initiative are producing a stage version of the book, dramatised by Oladipo Agboluaje. Like Oluwale himself, Agboluaje has dual British Nigerian heritage. “Dipo knows David’s world,” says Aspen, “and he’s imagined him for the stage.” Despite the fact that we know very little about the real Oluwale, and only one picture exists of him - his police mugshot - Agboluaje and director Dawn Walton wanted to give the play a human face. “Since he was ignored during his life, they wanted to make the humanity the focus of the story - he was an enigma.”

The play is certain to be one of the highlights of the Playhouse season, and will certainly provoke strong reactions from the multicultural population of Leeds. Kester is optimistic about the play’s success: “so many people wanted this story told, and the play could have more of an impact in Leeds than the book”.

Kester has found the interest in Oluwale all-consuming, with radio interviews and opinion pieces, and his next project will continue his interest in Leeds: an alternative history of the North of England in the 70s and 80s. Leeds was the ideal place to stage a version of his book - “it was important for it to go to this theatre. I thought the city should come together and think about the death of David Oluwale - it’s something that’s scarred the city, and it needs a resolution. Perhaps the play could be cathartic.”
The Hounding of David Oluwale, 31 January to 21 February, West Yorkshire Playhouse, see Theatre section for listings

Posted on Wednesday 21st January 2009

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