Are You Interested in a Murder?

Mark Olden, Murder in Notting Hill

Zero Books, 196pp, £11.99, ISBN 9781846945366

reviewed by John Green

‘Sunday May 17 1959. It was late when the phone rang at the Sunday Express. Frank Draper, a junior reporter on the night shift, reached for it. When he was interviewed by the police five weeks later, this was how he described the conversation that followed; “Are you interested in a murder?”’ That’s how Mark Olden’s investigative Odyssey begins. It could be the opening of a classic detective novel, but this is no fiction.

On that early summer day, a young Antiguan carpenter called Kelso Cochrane was stabbed to death on his way home in Notting Hill. Only a year previously the infamous race riots had given the area a new notoriety. Cochrane’s name, like that of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, soon became symbolic for the state of race relations in Britain as well as a rallying focus for campaigns to free Britain of race hate.

Kelso Cochrane’s murderers were never caught. Mark Olden, TV producer and writer, undertook the arduous task of trying to do what the police failed to: discover the truth about his murder. He had already made an investigative documentary about Cochrane’s killing for the BBC, but with this book he has now turned that into a more in-depth analysis. It is a compelling read and, like any good detective story, follows a riveting forensic trail. However, Olden does not just tell the story of a murder, but places Kelso’s killing within a vividly painted social and political context: of Rachman’s infamous slum landlordism in the area, in the wake of the Conservatives’ abolition of regulated rents, of police corruption, of youth unemployment and a heady mix of new black immigration into an already volatile social milieu.

As with many killings of black people before and since that of Kelso Cochrane, many black people believe that if these murder victims had been white, then the investigations would have been pursued with vigour and more prosecutions would have followed. The chief investigator on Cochrane’s case was Ian Forbes-Leith – an ex-RAF officer who wore a bowler hat to work and whose very traditional, upper crust background seemed particularly unsuitable for an investigator put to work in a deprived working class area of which he would have little understanding.

While much has changed in Britain since the late fifties – Britain as a multi-cultural society is now accepted by all, bar a marginal few, and the police have undergone serious race relations training – a latent racism is still deeply embedded in the psyche of our society. A deterioration of the present economic crisis, rising unemployment and an exacerbated housing shortage could at any time, one feels, awaken that atavistic racism.

Interestingly it was the Labour MP, Barbara Castle, who immediately spotted a possible connection between this racist killing and the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in Kenya: ‘If the British people are going to allow those responsible for the beating of 11 detainees to death in the Hola concentration camp in Kenya to go untraced and unpunished we shall have given the green light to every “nigger- baiting” Teddy Boy in Notting Hill,’ she said. Does that not resonate with Iraq and Afghanistan today, as well as the recent demands for compensation by Kenyan victims of Britain’s imperial brutality in the fifties?

At times, as Olden’s investigation proceeds, it reads as if he were really talking about today. Payment of the police by the media is not apparently, as some may believe, a recent issue. Olden’s investigation reveals corrupt and intimate liaison between top police officers and the media; there was also a refusal by the authorities to see this murder as racially motivated and a political elite was desperately trying to put a lid back on the tinderbox. Political myopia is also something common to most governing elites. Olden illustrates how deprivation, unemployment and disaffection by sections of white working class youth fuelled racial hatred and played into the hands of Moseley’s resurgent fascists and Colin Jordan’s abhorrent White Defence League.

Olden also shows how a small anti-racist movement was active even then, led by such figures as the black Communist Claudia Jones. He illustrates how the Conservative government, in cahoots with right wing Caribbean Uncle Toms, attempted to smear the left anti-racist campaign rather than damn the right over Kelso’s death. While Olden can’t quite prove who the murderer was – many witnesses had died in the meantime, including the prime suspect – the reader is left in little doubt as to his identity. This book is not simply a look back at the past, but a useful historical document that still has resonances for us today.
John Green is a freelance journalist based in London. He is the author of several books, including a biography of the radical artist Ken Sprague and a recent biography of Friedrich Engels.