Friday, October 28, 2011

Kester Aspden - The Hounding of David Oluwale

Rarely do I read a book that leaves me quite so upset and angry. The life of David Oluwale should really  have been a footnote in history. Like many Commonwealth citizens in the 1950s and 60s, he came to the UK as an immigrant, firmly believing no doubt, that the mother-country would provide a life and work for him. Oluwale arrived as a stowaway and eventually worked in a succession of different jobs, ending up in Leeds. Many of his contemporaries did this and ended up living successful, if unnoteworthy lives.

What marks Oluwale's life out though, is the manner of his death. Kester Aspden has pieced together the little that is known of his life - through interviews with surviving friends and acquaintances, detailed researches in the archives and newspapers of the time. In the early 1950s, Oluwale was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Care was primitive, treatment limited and brutal, involving electro-convulsive therapy. Oluwale left hospital a decade later a changed man. Unable to hold down work, his life increasingly seems to have become dominated by rough sleeping, drugs and alcohol. He also attracted the attention of the police.

Two officers in particular seem to have taken a personal dislike to Oluwale. Following a number of violent incidents when David bit and fought back, they seem to have deliberately targeted him. Asking fellow officers to alert them if he was seen, hunting him down, "hounding" him. One police officer reported, while a witness in their later trial that he'd seen one officer urinating on Oluwale, while he slept in a doorway. The other held the torch. To the policemen concerned, Oluwale was a piece of rubbish. Something that littered the night-time streets of Leeds. Somebody to be moved on, harassed and beaten. He was, as they described in the nationality section of two charges sheets, merely a "wog". Oluwale was clearly violent, though given the abuse, its not surprising that he didn't fight back to try and resist being taken into a police vehicle where he might repeatedly bang his head, or be kicked in the groin. On one occasion Officers Kitching and Ellerker drove Oluwale for 40 minutes into the countryside, leaving him in a forest. What was going through the man's head during those minutes as they drove him far away cannot be imagined.

Yet others didn't see him as violent. Several shopkeepers describe how he was not violent in the slightest when they moved him away from their doors. Others saw him as gentle, if excitable and frustrated. An ambulance worker who knew him seems to have genuinely liked Oluwale.

Aspden's book brings to life a forgotten era in our recent history. The 1950s and 1960s were not easy times, economically or socially. Racism was rife, it was a long time before public institutions would acknowledge the need to combat it. The words of Enoch Powell had a hearing from large sections of the populations. The small number of immigrants were blamed for job losses and social problems.

Certainly there was a level of acceptable racism. The police force was then, as now, a notable hotbed of backward attitudes and racism. It seems that many of the colleagues of Kitching and Ellerker believed that they were guilty of Oluwales' death. Abusing him one last time and either pushing him, or causing him to jump to his death in the Aire River. No one seems to have spoken out, until one young policeman asked a few awkward questions.

Aspden's book is not really about the search for some belated justice. What he has tried to do, is to reconstruct a difficult and forgotten past to better illuminate our own history and ask pertinent questions. What is it about a society were a man can fall so far down, that no-one seriously attempts to help him? How can a man, repeatedly end up in front of the courts, without another section of society trying to understand why? How can police officers, who regularly saw violence against a member of the public, not speak out, nor intervene, despite their personal disgust?

Social justice, if it is to mean anything, should be for everyone. But in the Oluwale case, institutionalised stigmas and racism, a culture of violence and apathy towards those at the bottom of society, conspired to culminate years of abuse into murder.

The consequences were limited, but there were changes. The Leeds police's credibility was damaged beyond repair - the force was merged a few years later. Leeds United fans chanted "Never Trust the Leeds Police - Ol-u-wa-a-le" at the coppers in the football ground. When Ellerker and Kitching were released from prison (not for Oluwale's murder it should be said) they were shunned by their colleagues. In particular, the trade unionists at Ellerker's new workplace tried to prevent him joining their union. This reaction was not the end of racism, but it demonstrates a new era of solidarity growing. Oluwale's death highlighted injustice and was a small part in the further demonisation of racism that still needs to be done today.

Aspden's book is an amazing read. Few books have made me gasp out loud in shock and anger. Few non-fiction works make me cry like this. I urge you to read it. But it made me think too. Oluwale slipped through a social security net that barely existed. In the 1950s no one cared about mentally ill black people. Today, things are better, though there are still inequalities in the way that black people are treated by the mental-health system. Police racism still exists, as does corruption and cover-up.

But we have won some changes. Health care for the vulnerable is far better than 60 years ago. The police cannot get away with everything as they used to think they could. But what of the future? What happens if the NHS is further eroded by the Tories? What if funding is further cut for the most vulnerable in society? What then for those who end up on the streets, unable to escape a cycle of violence and poverty, finding themselves at the end of a racist copper's truncheon?

Further Reading

A far better review than mine of "The Hounding of David Oluwale" is here in Socialist Worker from 2007. An interview with the author was also published in the same edition. It can be found here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Henry Mayhew - London Labour and the London Poor

Henry Mayhew's classic text, London Labour and the London Poor is a powerful and fascinating study of life on the streets during the later half of the nineteenth century. This new edition comes with a very useful introduction which puts Mayhew's life and work into the context of the times.

Victorian attitudes to the poor varied considerably, but the majority opinion seems to be that they were lazy, feckless or represented some sort of unemployable section of society that could never make good. While clearly having great sympathy with his subjects, Mayhew does reflect these sentiments occasionally. His four part classification (Those that will work, Those that cannot work, Those that will not work and Those that need not work) summing this up well. But Mayhew doesn't try and explain the situation, he wants to report it, and his interviews capture the lives of those trapped in poverty at the bottom of society. Through the voices of the individuals he meets, we see that often their poverty is the result of mishap, old age or family circumstance.

Some of the tales are extraordinary. To take one example, the young man, turned burglar, whose succession of jobs are ruined by his brother who pressurises him to steal money or materials from each business, eventually leading him into unemployment and a life of crime. Here is one of Mayhew's common themes, the idea of a fall from grace leading to criminality or life on the edge of society. Occasionally Mayhew's generalities can seem annoying to the modern reader

"The chimney-sweepers generally are fond of drink, indeed their calling, like that of dustmen, is one of those which naturally lead to it."

But such statements reflect the prejudices of the time, rather than any attempt to understand life at the bottom. Is it any wonder that men, who, Mayhew is told have "vomited balls of soot" like to have a good drink?

Mayhew's reportage was immensely popular at the time. This seems slightly strange. Many of the people who bought and read these tales, must have seen this life all around them. But what may have been attractive to them are the lives that are led behind the scenes - the small tricks of the trade - how the pickpockets learnt to steal, or the life of "Old Sarah" the blind hurdy-gurdy player who in her forty years on the streets had gone through "four guides and worn out three instruments" until struck by a cab and left unable to play, finally died alone. The modern fascination for tricksters and swindlers shown by the popular program, The Real Hustle, is no different to Mayhew's detailed accounts of the tricks of beggars, or the activities of burglars and other criminals.

Many of the jobs are forgotten today - some are unnecessary - the crossing sweepers, who cleared the horse-shit and rubbish from the road when higher class people wanted to cross the road are one example. These young men created their own organisation, with code-words and slang, nicknames for particular police men and strict codes of conduct for who could lay claim to particular individuals that approached. They would encourage charity and employment by turning cart-wheels, and presumeably, like all young boys, boast to Mayhew about being the best at particular tumbles. But there are more oddities. Then man who earns a living by imitating farmyard animals, another who gets a few coins allowing people to look through his microscope and so on.

Mayhew is not afraid of the poverty or the people. He paints a picture of a society dominated by the lack of wealth, struggling to survive. But despite the poverty, a strong sense of solidarity comes through. While crime was rife and people thought nothing of cheating a customer (the photographers are a particularly amusing example of this - most people had never seen their own image, so the pictures often weren't even of the subject) people did help each other. Unlike some Victorian writers, Mayhew doesn't hide things that he doesn't approve of. Prostitution was part and parcel of the life he was documenting, and while he doesn't go into great detail, his interviews with prostitutes of different ages show that the reality was far from the lives documented in a few recent fictional depictions of life on the streets at the time.

Some of the book seems dated and Mayhew's methodology may be suspect - he has suspiciously accurate figures for the amount of rubbish discarded (2,240 lbs of cigar ends annually) for instance. But these stories (and this new edition from OUP is but a selection of the much larger Mayhew collection) are a wonderfully evocative taste of life in Victorian London.

The patter of the street seller who, in the 1800s encouraged his onlookers to purchase his goods like this:

"Well, then say 17,16,15,14,13,12,11, 10 shillings; what, none of you give ten shillings for this beautiful article? See how it improves a man's appearance'....'Any young man here present wearing this chain will always be show into the parlour instead of the tap-room; into the best pew in church,.... But I'll ruin myself for your sakes... Say 9s. for this splendid piece of jewellery - 8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 -a shilling.... will anyone give me a shilling...."

He could be transported to street markets the length and breadth of the British Isles today and find his pitch and sell his gear. In many respects, despite the lack of crossing-sweepers and animal impersonators, very little has changed.

Related Reviews

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Wise - The Blackest Streets

Friday, October 14, 2011

Philip José Farmer - The Fabulous Riverboat

I've previously reviewed the first novel of Philip José Farmer's series set on the fantastic Riverworld, so I won't repeat my descriptions of that amazing planet. Volume two of the series is more action packed and less thoughtful than the first book, but that does not undermine the essential brilliance of the novels. Here we have the most impossible planet, made to feel possible.

This volume only mentions Richard Burton, the hero of the first book in passing. Burton now has reached almost mystical proportions amongst the denziens of Riverworld. A few characters return, Goering, as a rather annoying religious character for instance.

This plot centres on the desires of Mark Twain, or Sam Clemens to use his given name. Sam wants to build the eponymous riverboat, to explore and find the true meaning of Riverworld. To do so, he needs a source of metal and other materials that barely exist on the planet. The intervention of a rogue member of the planet's alien masters allows this material to be found, and the kingdoms that develop around the locations of these new resources creates the potential both for technological advances and conflict. An era of Imperialism has arrived to Riverworld. Interestingly, slavery (in the form of grail slaves) has re-made an appearance. On a planet were no-one has to work, because food is provided through the grails that each person has on reincarnation, getting others to labour or fight for you, can be difficult. Taking their grails away makes slavery possible. It also makes slave revolts a possibility too.

The uneasy alliances between such historically untrustworthy characters as Eric the Bloodaxe and King John are of course bound to be full of tension. To tell more would ruin the story, but Farmer skillfully keeps us believing its all possible and throws in a few sharp commentaries on the way the world runs today.

Related Reviews

Philip José Farmer - To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Monday, October 10, 2011

David Kynaston - Austerity Britain 1945 - 1951

As the Tories and their lickspittle friends the Liberal Democrats try to destroy every last vestige of the welfare state, what better book to read than an account of Britain's greyest hour - the post war years. Austerity Britain is well titled. The sufferings of the war-years, the rationing, the death and destruction rapidly passed into a period of dull greyness. People continued to go hungry, if anything rationing got worse as the food aid that had poured into the country from the United States no longer arrived. The destruction wrought by bombing, added to the over-crowded conditions in many working class areas from before the war, meant that housing was in short supply.

David Kynaston's history of this period is a superb follow up to a book I read and reviewed here recently - Angus Calder's history of World War Two - A People's War. Like Calder, Kynaston uses extensive social records from the time, Mass Observation in particular, but also diaries, reminiscences and interviews. Many of these are from ordinary people, though Kynaston is at pains to try and include all sides of the class divide. This is important - class differences a very stark during these years.

The book starts with the most hopeful period - the introduction of the welfare state and the nationalisation of industry. Around a fifth of the economy was nationalised - including the coal industry, energy, the Bank of England and the railways. Kynaston argues that this nationalisation was at the heart of the post-war Labour government's agenda, and as a consequence was viewed with terror by the establishment and the Tories. As the election results came in, many middle and upper class people thought their time had come. They imagined their wealth being taken from them, losing their money, businesses and homes. In fact this didn't happen. Labour proceeded nervously, seemingly unsure of how to use their popular mandate, terrified of upsetting big business.

As unemployment rose, cynicism seems to abound. Kynaston paints a picture of a population unhappy and grumbling, unhappy with their lot, but unconfident to challenge the system. There must be some truth in this - strike figures don't exactly show a combative working class, but you do see the settings for future conflicts beginning to be laid out.

One review of the book, in Socialist Review, argues that there is not much to this, than a series of anecdotes. There is much truth in this, and I agree with that reviewer that the anecdotes are illuminating. Too often they seem random, but they are given context and the astute reader can develop a better understanding of the time. There are startling omissions - the rest of the world most importantly. The ending of the War, marked the beginning of the end of Britain's Empire, yet some of these great events, which surely must have impacted upon people's consciousness barely get a mention. I do not recall a single mention of Indian Independence in 1947 for instance.

The book is at its best when it gives a flavour of life and the times. The sections on the lives of recent immigrants to the country from the West Indies for instance, are fascinating. The chapters dealing with the reaction of the establishment to the election of Labour are similarly interesting and show how scared their side is of us. Labour comes out of the book, less like the domineering and influential post-war government that we are often told about. The creation of the Welfare State brought was done with frequent pandering to the vested interests for instance. Leading politicians seem to show ignorance, naivety and indecisiveness in the face of economic crisis and social change, but nothing new there.

If you enjoyed A People's War, you'll probably enjoy this, though there is a weaker narrative - the book is more of a sequential history, rather than an attempt to come to many conclusions. That said, for those interested in social history, there is a wealth of material here of interest.

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Angus Clader - A People's War

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

V.I. Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky

Cover of Russian first edition (1918)
The outbreak of World War One was supposed to have been met by mass strikes and protests led by the mass socialist organisations of the Second International. At numerous meetings and conferences, leaders of these organisations had declared the coming war to be an imperialist one. Not in the interest of the proletarians who voted and supported these organisations. With the start of the war, one by one these parties capitulated to their national bourgeois, declaring that the defence of their nation state was the most important priority. This abandonment of revolutionary socialism shocked those socialists who remained loyal to Marx's ideas. In particular Lenin's Bolsheviks remained one of the few organisations to remain opposed to the war and imperialism.

In this short book, Lenin deals directly, in polemic, against Karl Kautsky. Kautsky had been a leading Marxist for several decades, heading up the German SPD and Lenin had looked to him for most of his life as a revolutionary. Kautsky's conversion to supporting the German capitalism was a great shock to Lenin. This polemic though is a response, not to Kautsky's initial betrayals, but to his later attacks and criticisms of the Russian Revolution.

There is too little time for me to rehearse the history of the Russian Revolution here. Suffice to say this book will remain mostly incomprehensible if you haven't read some history of that momentous point in working class history. Amongst the things that Lenin takes Kautsky to task for is the belief from Kautsky that the revolution in Russia was premature. Like many of the pre-war Marxists, Kautsky (and indeed Lenin) had argued that the coming revolution in Russia would be a bourgeois one. One that would create a capitalist state like those in Western Europe. Russia's economy, and in particular its working class were too immature to lead a successful revolution. Kautsky's criticism is based on this mechanical interpretation of events.

Lenin and Trotsky had argued two things. That the revolution against the capitalists and their government in Russia could lead to the workers taking control, so long as the peasantry was on their side. Secondly, they argued that a successful Russian Revolution could only survive if followed by a European wide insurrection. Kautsky criticises this, asking "what if it did not happen?" To this Lenin points out, that the "expectation of a revolutionary situation in Europe was not an infatuation of the Bolsheviks, but the general opinion of all Marxists". To betray the revolutionary opportunity would have been a betrayal of revolutionary principles.

Kautsky supports his argument with what Lenin refers to as many "liberal" arguments. The declaration of the dictatorship of the Proletariat is undemocratic, that with a majority of support and vote of the population there should be no need for the new workers state to protect itself against the capitalists. These were hollow words for Lenin, who was in a country assailed by the forces of the capitalists. Lenin rehearses the basic Marxist arguments of the role of the state - an instrument for the oppression of one class by another. The nascent workers state, Lenin says was as much in need of defending itself against external threats as the capitalists needed to protect their interests from the workers and the mass of the population.

Lenin argues that Kautsky's position on this is the crux of his abandonment of Marxism.

"Infatuated with the 'purity' pf democracy, blind to its bourgeois character, he 'consistently' urges that the majority, since it is the majority, need not 'break down the resistance' of the minority... Kautsky inadvertently commits the same little error that all bourgeois democrats always commit, namely he takes formal equality... for actual equality. Quite a trifle."

As Lenin then points out this trifle is a failure to understand the most basic of Marxist ideas, namely that "the exploiter and the exploited cannot be equal." As a result of this abandonment of his politics, Lenin explains that Kautsky spent the war years, trying to "extinguish the revolutionary spirit, instead of fostering and fanning it."

Kautsky's betrayal of Marxism was an enormous shock to the workers movement. In this book Lenin argues against Kautsky's new positions, and defends the revolution, in particular challenging Kautsky's criticisms of the disolution of the Constituent Assembly and the agrarian policies carried out by the Soviets. His defence of soviet power as a higher form of democracy is based on a re-reading and reassertion of many of Karl Marx's core ideas. In particular Marx and Engels' writings on the Paris Commune, and specifically, Marx's book The Civil War in France. This reassertion of Marx and the defence of the revolution, in the midst of the revolution itself is what makes this book so powerful and interesting.

The only thing that is lacking in the book is an attempt at an explanation of why so many great Marxists and their organisations capitulated to capitalism. In his excellent book The Comintern Duncan Hallas argues that the parties like the SPD in Germany that Kautsky led, had managed to gain a foothold inside the system. Their bureaucracies, their MPs, their organisations gave them a significant inertia and interest in maintaining the status quo. For them to break with Marxism in practice, meant, Hallas says a return to illegal, under-ground work. For many of the leaders, whose Marxism was limited to speeches on May Day, there was much more "to lose than their chains". This stake in the system, combined with a bastardisation of revolutionary politics, began to undermine the desire for genuine revolutionary change. Rosa Luxemburg in particular had before the war broke out, fought a hard fight against such reformism from one of the SPD's leading members.

The book itself has no conclusion. Lenin notes at the end of the last chapter, that his last few lines were written on the same night that news reached Russia of the seizure of power in numerous German towns, including the capital by Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. For Lenin this in itself was the final rebuttal of Kautsky's politics and offered new hope for the Russia Revolution itself. Sadly this was a false dawn, but this neglected book of Lenin's remains a powerful declaration of the hopes of the revolution and a defence of the revolution itself.

Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky - full text from the Lenin Public Archive here.

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