Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
2:00 AM 31st March 2024

Review: Stoking The Fire - Oluwale Now

An Anthology Of Poetry, Prose And Artwork Responding To The Story Of David Oluwale
The sheer colour and vitality of Leeds’ annual West Indian Carnival, and of the exponents of cultural identity in all of its dynamism, endorses the patchwork pageant of integration that mostly seems to work in despite. It demands to be seen: a loud, raucously joyful and instinctive foregrounding of African and Caribbean diasporic history, but set in the present, a glittering counterpoint to the uniform red brick of the Chapeltown streets, and a celebration of what makes the city tick.

A city that would be wholly diminished without its tapestry of postwar immigration. Or its colour – the effervescence of sartorial brilliance, the long memory of the eye in Black Afro-Caribbean heritage, breathe life into dull northern margins; panaceas, like the endless mugs of tea that stave off darker reflections, to lift the municipal spirits.

The river Aire, by which Nigerian-born David Oluwale was swallowed in April, 1969, also gives off dark reflections, made darker still by chromatic accretion when viewed through the grim lens of contemporary images. The backwater in which David, a victim of systemic racism and police brutality over the several years leading up to his death, was found, is marked, in Oluwale Now, by two murky photographs taken in 1971. Brutal hindsight encourages one to imagine the mirrored surface of the river shattered like a mosaic as David’s body is thrown from the bank.

Oluwale Now is a backward glance at a backward glance, a culmination of the many artistic responses that have followed the various commemorations over recent years, and a frank, even ironic, assessment of the present landscape. Though the institutionalised racism of post-Windrush Britain has been etoliated by gradual assimilation, the problem hasn’t evaporated.

It demands to be seen: a loud, raucously joyful and instinctive foregrounding of African and Caribbean diasporic history, but set in the present, a glittering counterpoint to the uniform red brick of the Chapeltown streets...
A fact made uncomfortably abundant in Liam Sullivan’s finely-honed essay on grief, or ‘The Absence of Grief’ given the swift erasure of David Oluwale from official memory. Sullivan’s meditation on the numbness induced by death, and the process of ritualised detachment, turns into a moving lament for a non-person, an elusive figure of untraceable African lineage, of ‘no fixed abode’, a figure whose anonymity justified civic indifference:

‘No one ever fought his corner, the way that no one stood with him in death. Even in memoriam he is stuck in between two warring factions. His blue plaque, that was installed on the bridge where he was thought to have entered the river, was almost immediately vandalised. Still allowing him no peace, fifty years after his death.’

It is a paradox that David’s symbolic presence is sufficiently palpable to induce a knee-jerk reaction in those who would kick his corpse all the way to Rwanda. Restitution in the form of the jailing of the two police officers who hounded Oluwale to his death has clearly not engendered a mood for reconciliation or comity in die-hard racist quarters. And it is to the enormous credit of Emily Zobel Marshall and Sai Murray, the editors of Oluwale Now, that their curatorial effort should be effected on a broad canvas, hopeful of, but not incarcerated by, an idealised view. The damaging of the plaque by the Aire tells a less palatable story.

Structured in broad chapters that roughly reflect the past, the present and an uncertain future, Oluwale Now is a book of mood, of impression, of lyrically moving passages and, in some instances, a powerful sense of identification, this last most lucidly realised in Kareem’s lacerating journey of the émigré, ‘My Story: From Lagos to Leeds’. A collection of poems, fictional and non-fictional prose, of artwork and photographically recaptured commemorative events, the received effect is heartbreaking, a dignified collective reminder of a tragedy that would not have unfolded in a more tolerant world.

It is fitting that Zobel Marshall and Murray should both contribute to this narrative of commemoration; the former, in a fine poem of prayer, whose immediate focus is the rosary of beads found on David Oluwale’s body, a symbol, for the narrator, that transfigures the detail of a court’s inventory into a demand that neither he, nor his fate, should ever be forgotten by those…

‘left with only traces,
fragments of a man,
but assembling the pieces
filling in the spaces’ (‘Rosary’)

We reconstruct the man in order to give unitary definition to the ‘holding’, or sustaining, of memory. Ian Duhig, in the first section of Oluwale Now, re-affirms the attempt, in spite of the difficulty of alchemising something durable and lasting like cultural change, from a copper’s unforgiving boot. The dark Aire yields little, beyond an aching susceptibility to oxymoron and the impulse for contemplation:

‘The alchemy of cold-fire on the Aire’s earth makes
nothing happen, like poetry, yet makes something
from nothing for a man treated like he was nothing,
making room to reflect on river water running softly.’ (‘An Aroko for David Oluwale’)

That Duhig finds an affecting form of redress for David’s spirit in the open arms of the Nigerian river goddess Oshun, makes of his poem a beautiful repository for the preserving of sotto voce silence. The effort of will is repeated throughout the book, as if to underline Leeds-reared writer, Caryl Phillips’, passionate apostrophic address to David’s parents to the effect that their son’s memory will no longer be consigned to Leeds’ historical margins:

‘We could have done more. We should have done more. But we do remember your David.’

The artistic reinventions of the single extant photo of David’s head, by, amongst others, Lynne Arnison, Jeannine Mellonby and King Monk, ground the man firmly in the colour of his original home, and in the context of his émigré domicile. Arnison’s moving re-rendering of Oluwale’s image, set against the background of a map of Leeds’ streets, is a de facto indictment of a civic system that, to paraphrase Phillips’, did not feel a ‘responsibility to look out for those among us who are weak and suffering’, and an unspoken call to arms, a reminder, in the pointed repetition of the line from Panya Banjoko’s poem ‘Tallawah’, that ‘Someone has to stoke the fire.’

David Oluwale
David Oluwale
Water – its black, seemingly measureless depth, its metaphorical and symbolic suggestiveness, its power to sunder and to transport – is the vehicle by which several poets and prose stylists return David Oluwale to his place in the spirit. Excepting where they cannot. Rituparna Sahoo’s poem ‘Solitude’ is confounded by the mood music of the waves, freighted with the heaviness of introspection, and shadowed by the ‘long, withdrawing roar’ of Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’:

‘nothing lifts the grey fog in my head:

all I can hear now is the sad valedictory song of the retreating tide.’

The overwhelming sadness is painful to contemplate, and it is well that the section from which ‘Solitude’, and the images of David, are taken is ‘Lost’, a title that yields to a sense of abandonment in weaker moments, and is a reminder of our myopic complicity in the worst excesses of postwar ignorance. But most, it refers to the profoundly ‘lost’: those abandoned to the margins, the great ignored, like the emaciated, nameless figure who slips ‘like a shadow through the deserted streets’ in Gill Tennant’s haunting threnody. And lives, and expires, without a trace, the music in her head etched in her final expression:

‘…despite the empty eye sockets the look on her face was one of rapture, as if the angels themselves had come to take her home’. (‘Lost’)

Perhaps they did. The perception of man as untermensch is echoed in the words of Sgt Kitching, one of David’s two murderers, who described the latter as a ‘wild animal.’ Dean Gessie’s acerbic satire, ‘(Sic)stemic’ turns the notion of extreme racism inside out by describing the victim in terms that the racist would best understand. Here, in a series of lacerating tercets, is a sickening and shaming visitation of hatred, whose final quatrain melts the illusion of the sub-human in a moment of distilled humanity:

‘until one day bleeds into another and
(for the Juneteenth time) my black skin
presents its collar and muzzle and leash
and unconditional love’.

The litany of angry, sad, reflective, questioning poems in a section of the book fittingly entitled ‘Who Cares Now’, tolls like a bell. From on-point Haiku (Kevin Searle’s exquisitely concise poem of deracination - ‘Migra(ine)tion’) to diptych, the poems conflate and contrast the continuum of racist attitudes whose markers never went away. This last, in Tolu Agbelusi’s intelligent and brutally accurate reading follows the dogmatic ‘justification’ for racism with the mechanism of its hideous application, as though the tenets of Mein Kampf gave inexorably on to the landscape of Belsen. In the world of legislative rectitude – ‘The law will be a shield’ – the victim’s fate – ‘His face was in the concrete, his head a ball bouncing’ – is attended by the heaviest of ironies.

Here, at the ‘Pay-as-you-feel’ café where volunteers offer food for the hungry, the homeless, the scarred, we hear echoes of David Oluwale’s voice...
Just as the exquisite woodcut of artist and printmaker Brian Phillip yields an affecting collage/counterpoint of abuse and pain (‘God Enters My Home’), the prose studies of Emma Allotey and Celia A. Sorhaindo illustrate, at unnervingly close-range, the relentless imposition of stop and search, and of ‘targeted’ scrutiny, first-hand. If Sai Murray’s complex psycho-geographical crossing of boundaries of time and place finds a home for David Oluwale in the aether of defiant Nigerian history in ‘Hibiscus Rhizome’, then his memory is liberated by shared ancestry.

And if a kind of hope is conferred in the act of remembrance, the final chapter of Oluwale Now releases an energy, both pictorially and poetically, that refuses to submit to the minority who propagate division with the boot, the spray can and a disproportionately noisy social media presence. Whilst Yvie Holder (‘Towards Hope’) and Clementine E. Burnley (‘Novena for Impossible Requests’) reclaim the ground on which David stood in a parallel vision of haunting temporal locators, Ozge Gozturk finds the irrepressible flowering of hope in the seed whose growth is a precondition of its instinctual memory, and whose leaves reach out ‘and mark(s) our existence’ as unforgettable (‘A Seed’).

But most, in this fine volume of not forgetting, is a beautiful poem of love as manifested in simple acts of kindness. Here, at the ‘Pay-as-you-feel’ café where volunteers offer food for the hungry, the homeless, the scarred, we hear echoes of David Oluwale’s voice seeking alms and brief shelter. And in ‘God Has Come Home’, Hannah Stone’s narrator gives comfort where she cannot give redemption:

‘Docketed, his meal adds to the stats: another number pasted on his back.
A Eurycleia in Armley, for today, I mix
hot and cold water in a bowl, and, since I cannot
wash the feet of the honoured guest, and rejoice
in secret at the homecoming, I slide his smeared plates
below the bubbles in the sink.’

Oluwale Now: An Anthology of Poetry, Prose and Artwork Responding to the Story of David Oluwale, edited by Emily Zobel Marshall and Sai Murray, is published by Peepal Tree Press (2023)

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