The racist murder of Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane on 17 May 1959 is the centre-point of this book, but it spins off in a lot of other directions. No one was ever convicted for the butchery but Olden makes a strong circumstantial case that a painter and decorator called Pat Digby wielded the knife that killed Cochrane. Digby denied that he was the culprit, and had he not died from a heart attack four years ago, then stringent British libel laws would have forced Olden’s book to take a very different shape to the one it has now. There is no smoking gun in this case, although this book suggests Digby’s bloody knife may still lie hidden under some Notting Hill floorboards. Olden’s text is in part a narrative of his attempts to identify the killer, and the naming of Digby represents its climax.
Murder In Notting Hill is much more than simply a true crime book, it is also a social history. There are uplifting paragraphs about the struggles of those who in the 1950s were newly arrived in London from the West Indies, and far less edifying passages about racist teenage gangs and organised fascist activists. Over the years it has been claimed by some commentators that either Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement or Colin Jordan’s White Defence League had a hand in Cochrane’s murder. Olden is dismissive of this idea and if his identification of Digby as the killer is correct, then he is almost certainly right on this score. The lives of all Notting Hill residents are portrayed as pretty grim in this paperback, so Olden hits on the fascist ideologues and a toff copper – Superintendent Ian Forbes-Leith (“The Governor in the Bowler”) – as figures from whom he can wring a little humour. Describing a fascist meeting in defence of a gang of teddy boys imprisoned for a series of extremely vicious racist attacks the year before Cochrane’s murder, Olden writes:
At a meeting at Oxford Gardens School, just off Ladbroke Grove, the campaign to free the nine young men was growing. A tall thin Welshman – rarely seen out of the same jacket and trousers – held aloft a newspaper with their grinning portraits. “Thugs. That’s what they were called,” he said. This was outrageous. “These,” he shouted, “are some of the finest faces you could wish to see in Britain.” He vowed they “must not be forgotten as they lie in prison during the best years of their lives.”… The speaker was Jeffrey Hamm. He was 43-years old, had lived in Notting Hill for the past six years and was Secretary of a far-right political party called the Union Movement.
There are laughs to be had from filthy fascists who always dress in the same clothes, and such amusements very effectively lighten the mood and prevent the reader getting bogged down in Olden’s serious and at times very depressing subject matter. Occasionally the jokes are recycled, such as the chapter heading “One Foot In The Grove”, which will be familiar to those who have read Tom Vague on Notting Hill (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Vague had filched this one-liner from an earlier source). For those that aren’t acquainted with west London and/or English idioms, The Grove refers to the area around Ladbroke Grove in Notting Hill, and Olden’s chapter heading is a play on the hackneyed phrase ‘one foot in the grave’. That said, ultimately Murder In Notting Hill makes for compelling reading because Olden deftly and very confidently walks us through his own investigation into Cochrane’s murder – as well as the failed police enquiry. The book works on one level as a whodunit, although obviously there is far more to it than that.
Murder In Notting Hill explores the long lasting detrimental effects of Cochrane’s murder on both the victim’s family and the killer (assuming, of course, Digby was the thug responsible for this repugnant act). It is also a timely reminder that neither institutional racism, police corruption, nor the old bill being in the pockets of the media, are anything new in London. Like the majority of historical works I read, Murder In Notting Hill relies a little too heavily on an established history to provide a backdrop to the main story. Olden writes well about the working class (both black and white) of Notting Hill but omits to deal with the hipsters who by the late-fifties were also an established part of the area. For example, Terry Taylor and his circle go unmentioned, despite the fact that Taylor provided the inspiration for the first person narrator of Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes.
Moving on, the dry as dust far-Right splinter groups Olden disinters are old news to anyone who is au fait with the history of post-war British fascism. Less well documented – and completely passed over by Olden – is the Spartacan movement, which was organised by a group of right-wingers associated with the angry young man literary scene; they lived together at 25 Chepstow Road in Notting Hill from the mid to the late-fifties. The Spartacans appear to have had close links to Oswald Mosley and his Union Movement. They are viciously satirised by Bernard Kops in his 1958 novel Awake For Mourning. Obviously only so much material can be included in any one book, but I was nonetheless disappointed that in sketching the backdrop to his story, Olden – like the overwhelming majority of writers working today – stuck to such a well-beaten historical track.
No author or book is perfect, and despite some slight and inevitable imperfections, Murder In Notting Hill is an impressive piece of historical detective work. That said, one of Olden’s footnotes really pissed me off:
Among the speakers at Kelso’s graveside was the Notting Hill hustler Michael de Freitas, who later re-styled himself into the revolutionary Michael X, aka Michael Abdul Malik, Britain’s supposed answer to Malcolm X. De Freitas finished up more like Charles Manson, his life spiralling into megalomania and murder in his native Trinidad, where he went to the gallows in 1975.
For all his faults – and clearly de Freitas had many – to compare him to Charles Manson is deeply obnoxious. De Freitas may have engaged in criminal behaviour but he was not a deranged maniac. Anyone who looks dispassionately at the de Freitas trial will see that it was a miscarriage of justice and he should not have been hanged on the basis of the ‘evidence’ presented in court. De Freitas may or may not have been guilty as charged, but he was not a complete nutjob like Manson.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!