Max Farrar (@maxfarrar) attends REMEMBERING OLUWALE
PERFORMANCE ON THE GARDEN SITE
23rd January 2013 …
In sub-zero temperature next to the River Aire in the centre of Leeds, an awe-inspiring, open-air event commemorated David Oluwale, the Nigerian immigrant found drowned in that River in 1969 [on 23rd January]. Conceived and directed by Sue Ball, the independent arts producer, about 80 participants were led onto the site by Chijioke John Ojukwu, of the Nigerian Community Leeds.
Amongst them appeared the Baggage Handlers, a group of writers living with mental health distress, who performed their poem-play ‘Aire – A spoken word memorial to David Oluwale’, complete with police cordon tape, sirens and flashing blue lights. Co-facilitated by Rommi Smith, the poet and writer, the Baggage Handlers reminded us of the capacity people have to survive and create, despite the odds.
Two Leeds police officers were acquitted of killing David Oluwale, but imprisoned for assaulting him, at a trial in Leeds in 1971 which became a cause celebre among people of African descent and their white supporters. Books by Caryl Phillips and Kester Aspden published in 2007 inspired the formation of the David Oluwale Memorial Association.
An indication of the change of heart among police in Leeds since those days was the presence of Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milson, who has backed the Association from the start, at the event. Poignantly, Sergeant Carl Galvin was also there. It was his father Gary, who as a 19 year old police cadet based at the notorious Milgarth station in the centre of Leeds, blew the whistle when Oluwale’s body was found in the River Aire. Risking – and receiving – massive hostility from fellow officers, Gary Galvin reported the attacks on David he had witnessed, and heard about, by Inspector Ellerker and Sergeant Kitching.
Corinne Silva’s film responding to David’s life and death, ‘Wandering Abroad’, was projected onto the gable-end of the site on Water Lane which will become the Memorial garden for David. The film meditated on the river itself, with shots of both de-industrialised Leeds – the monumental empty buildings beside the river downstream – and the shiny new Leeds of offices and restaurants now lining the river in the city centre. Interspersed with interviews which said more about David, and about the improvements the city has achieved, the film spoke hauntingly to the Baggage Handlers’ performance.
After a short the interval when Nigerian food was handed out, the event continued with a collective work by the astonishing Leeds Young Authors, led by Khadijah Ibrahiim, whose grandfather was among those who protested after David’s death. About 15 young people of all ethnicities, ranging from about 12 to 16 years old, recited their own poetic response to David’s story.
Cllr Anne Castle, Lord Mayor of Leeds, told the audience that she worked in the very building used as a screen for the film at the time of David’s death and had often wondered if she had failed to notice David as he tramped the city’s streets and slept in its doorways. “It’s a blot on the city’s history,” she said, as she urged everyone to help in the efforts to support those who remain marginalised and excluded in the city.
As Athaliah Durrant said after the event, “Yes, it was really cold, but it was all the better for that – it made you think of what it must be like for the people still sleeping rough or searching for shelter today in the centre of Leeds. Being by the river close to where David died, listening to those words and seeing the film really brought these issues home to me in the most powerful way.”
More of the David Oluwale Memorial Association here rememberoluwale