The title is a bit of a shocker for folks in the UK, for the word "wog" is an offensive British word for a person of color.
Unfortunately, it's the word used by the police department accused of beating the man to death in what is considered one of the most notorious racist crimes in British history.
In 1969, the broken body of a homeless, mentally ill, Nigerian-born man was fished out of a river, and it was rumored that the police in Leeds put him there. Author Kester Aspden got hold of the recently unsealed police records and has written the first book about the case.
Intrigued by the subject matter and the controversy, I had a chance to catch up to this author and put some questions to him about the book, about his stint as a college crime history instructor, and about the state of the true crime genre in the UK today. He was kind enough to share his thoughts, and here's our Q&A.
This case unfolded nearly 40 years ago. What research hurdles did you face in uncovering the truth about the death of David Oluwale?
The distance in time actually helped rather than hindered the telling of David Oluwale’s story. I was able to access research material which wasn’t open at the time. The original police statements, depositions and case records became available to the public under ‘the thirty-year rule’ and I was the first researcher to get at them.
I also think police officers would have been reluctant to speak to a writer about the case at the time – it was too raw and the Leeds City Police were a beleaguered institution. But I found that the police officers I interviewed were happy to offer their thoughts, and whilst there was still a prickliness around the case many acknowledged institutional failings.
I think distance helps a writer to make sense of events, to draw connections and parallels which wouldn’t have been obvious at the time.
The main questions I set myself were: why did Oluwale come to be seen as a piece of dirt which needed removing from the streets? Why was he on the receiving end of such violence? Why didn’t other police officers try to stop the colleagues who it was widely known were beating him and hounding him? How did he come to end up dead in the River Aire? Who was responsible?
I think I went a long way towards answering these questions, though I’ve tried to give the reader space to make up his or her own mind. Some of the things the police officers did to Oluwale seemed bizarre and unnatural at first sight, but as you probe more deeply into the nature of urban policing you see that it wasn’t so exceptional or unusual.
Policing is all about clearing the ‘human rubbish’ off the streets. Respectable society – if we are to be honest - doesn’t really care how it’s done. I’m not sure I would have gone to the trouble of writing this book if I thought justice had been served. Police officers were jailed for some, but not all, the offences they were charged with.
Some of the things that the judge said about Oluwale during the trial of the policemen made you wonder who exactly was on trial. Oluwale was described as a dirty, filthy, violent vagrant who was a menace to society. Nobody said a good word about him at the trial. I suppose I wanted posthumous justice for Oluwale.
Does the title come from the official reports of the poor man's murder? Was the unfortunate murder victim officially described in that way? (How terrible. And telling.)
The title is attracting some controversy – as I suspected it would. A month before David Oluwale’s death, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. There’s a space on the charge sheet for various personal details including ‘Nationality’. One police officer crossed ‘Brit’ out of this box and wrote ‘Wog’ in its place. So that gave me my title and it seemed to say so much about Oluwale’s miserable status – non-citizen, non-human.
I don’t know whether ‘Wog’ is a common term in the USA, but in the UK it was a derogatory way of describing black people up until, I guess, the 1980s when it fell out of use. Unlike the word ‘nigger’, nobody has attempted to reclaim the word ‘wog’, indeed one race relations officer I talked to said that to him it was a far greater insult – it was like a punch to the face.
When teaching your course at Leeds University on the history of crime, which cases do you most talk about and why?
I have to say I wasn’t the greatest university teacher but I ran a course on the history of crime, punishment and policing and it seemed to go down well. I had a great bunch of students and miss that side of academic life. I tried to introduce cases which allowed us to reflect more generally on developments in criminal justice and penology.
Naturally, some of my students were fascinated by the most grisly serial killers, so it was a matter of channelling those interests to get at what was historically significant about them. One student compared the Mary Bell (late 1960s) and Jamie Bulger cases (early 1990s) two notorious cases where children were the murderers, to see whether society’s views about the criminal responsibility of children had changed.
Another looked at the notorious Moors Murders case and the criminal justice system’s treatment of Myra Hindley over 3 or 4 decades. The student was clearly a supporter of the death penalty but she believed that Myra Hindley’s continued incarceration had more to do with politics than law and justice.
Some of the best true crime issued in the United Kingdom never makes it over to the west side of the pond. What terrific British true crime books might we have missed over here?
I don’t think there is much quality true crime in the UK. There isn’t a British In Cold Blood or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I read as much true crime as I can, the good stuff and bad stuff, and I’ve devoured everything there is to be read on the Yorkshire Ripper and the Moors Murders. So, on the former, I’d recommend Gordon Burn, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, and on the latter Emlyn Williams, Beyond Belief (which I know you despise Laura).
I tend to go for true crime books which offer a window on society. I’d recommend very strongly John Williams, Bloody Valentine: A Killing in Cardiff and Brian Cathcart, The Case of Stephen Lawrence. The first concerns the killing of a prostitute and the injustices which followed; the second concerns the murder of a black teenager and the failed investigation – it was a case which had a profound impact on the police and British society. Cathcart’s book won the British Crime Writers’ Association non-fiction award.
Others? Blake Morrison’s As If . . ., a meditation on a child murder, is strange and compelling. And if you like that book, you should read Andrew O’Hagan’s The Missing.
For books that offer a window into sick minds rather than sick societies I’d recommend Gordon Burn, Happy Like Murderers, on the Fred West killings, and Brian Masters, Killing for Company, on Dennis Nilsen, Britain’s Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s the quality of writing and their intelligence which sets them apart.
When writing your own book, which authors did you look to for guidance?
Nationality: Wog was influenced by many books and authors. I have to put the British novelist David Peace right up there, both for his personal support and his books. Peace writes ‘fictions torn from facts’ and all of his books to date have been set in Yorkshire – which is where I come from – in the dark days of the 1970s and 80s. David Oluwale is even referenced in one of his books. So there are similar obsessions.
And I would say that we both believe that the task of the crime writer (fiction or non-fiction) should be to go beyond the gory details and – without hopefully sounding too pious - to situate the crimes in their social/political/cultural contexts.
For similar reasons, the crimes writers who inspired me are George Pelecanos (especially Hard Revolution), Jake Arnott, Martyn Waites, Cathi Unsworth, Ian Rankin, Walter Mosley and Denise Mina.
In researching Nationality: Wog, I read widely in history, sociology, geography, anthropology and philosophy and particular books which helped to shape my outlook were: Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, Stanley Cohen, States of Denial.
I wrote much of my book while living in Moscow (2004-5) and the street I lived on had Gogol associations. Reading Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ helped me to think about David Oluwale. Richard Cobb, an idiosyncratic, totally original British historian wrote a strange little book Death in Paris, 1795-1801, which told a history through the possessions found on dead bodies washed up in the Seine. I think this book, along with Daniel Defoe, The Journal of a Plague Year, may have exercised the most profound influence on my work.
Who are your favorite authors in true crime? Your favorite titles? Do you remember the first true crime book you ever read?
I think the first true crime book I read was either Emlyn Williams, Beyond Belief or Judith Cook, Who Killed Hilda Murrell? The British true crime books I’ve mentioned in a previous answer would be among my favourite titles. This list would also include Normal Mailer, Oswald’s Tale, Sebastian Junger, A Death in Belmont, and, possibly my favourite true crime book, Emmanuel Carrère, The Adversary.
Will you write up more stories in our favorite genre?
I haven’t decided what I’m going to write about next, but guaranteed it won’t be about love and peace and understanding.
For more, the author can be contacted via CJohnson-Hill *at* randomhouse.co.uk.
Read the review of the book from the Institute of Race Relations ("this important book should be read by anyone interested in how the state and its officers treat the most vulnerable.... brilliant.")
Here is the Amazon.co.uk link to the book. The book is also available from Amazon US via this link --