Ian Thomson

Dark days in the Dale

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Murder in Notting Hill

Mark Olden

Zero Books, pp. 196, £

One of the great books to have come out of the British-West Indian encounter is Journey to an Illusion by the Jamaican journalist (and former London bus conductor) Donald Hinds. Published in 1966, the book is made up of a series of interviews with Jamaicans and other West Indians resident in Britain. Throughout, Hinds is haunted by the ‘race disturbances’ that swept Britain in 1958. Tensions erupted first in Nottingham then, more grievously, in west London. White youths (‘Teddy Boys’ to the tabloid press) beat up blacks and Asians in Shepherd’s Bush and the area then known as Notting Dale between the factories of Wood Lane and the newly claimed middle-class streets of Notting Hill Gate. Sir Oswald Mosley’s Union Party rallied support for the ‘Keep Britain White’ cause. So began four days of the worst rioting the United Kingdom had ever seen.

The following year, on the night of 17 May 1959, a young black carpenter from Antigua, Kelso Cochrane, was fatally stabbed in a street off Portobello Road. With Machiavellian adroitness, Mosley held a meeting at the murder scene (today marked by The Grove gastro pub on Southam Street). To cries of ‘So say all of us!’ Mosley declared that the time had now come to admit that there was indeed a ‘coloured problem’ in the British midst. Kelso’s funeral in Kensal Green cemetery was attended by over 1,000 mourners, black and white. The show of white support did little to prevent the notion, fast growing among West Indians, that Britain was no longer so welcoming to Commonwealth subjects. As Hinds put it: ‘After Cochrane’s death we had to rethink everything — we had to revise our faith in the Union Jack.’ To this day, Cochrane’s killer has not been found.

Murder in Notting Hill, a hybrid of social commentary and police detection, grippingly recreates the killing and looks at its legacy today. Mark Olden, a London journalist, displays a terrier-like devotion in locating elderly Notting Dale inhabitants for interview and trawling public archives for information. In pages of atmospheric reportage he brings 1950s Notting Dale vividly to life, with its boozers, nightclubs and cinemas frequented by the likes of Colin Mac Innes. Kelso was last seen walking to his bed-sit at the northern end of Portobello Road, when a ‘gang of white youths’ set about him. A scuffle ensued and Kelso was left for dead. Within days, his name was made famous across the world. Moscow Radio announced: ‘There is no quiet in London these days.’

Half a century on, attempts have been made to identify the killer. Pat ‘Diggo’ Digby, a Moseleyite living in Notting Dale, was well known locally for his inflammatory racist views. If the police hesitated to arrest and charge him, Olden suggests, it was because a white man mounting the gallows for a black man’s murder might provoke untold heights of ‘nigger-hunting’ and all London be engulfed by riots. Digby died in 2007, of heart failure, having strenuously denied all involvement in the murder (though the ‘weight of testimony’ rests against him, Olden demonstrates convincingly). Any lingering hope of justice has now apparently gone. In the meantime, we can read this superb work of social history, in all its gritty actuality.