August, 1958: London is hot and tired, and nowhere more so than in Notting Hill, where DI Stratton has just been posted.
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Stratton’s new manor is dirt poor and rife with racial tension. The end of the war saw a flood of Caribbean migrants. Now, a decade later, working-class Teddy Boys are showing mounting hostility towards their black neighbours.

Notorious landlord Danny Perlmann, a Polish refugee, is taking full advantage of others’ reluctance to rent to the immigrants – or to prostitutes – and is making a fortune from the high rents he charges. Caught in the middle of this turf war is Irene, a young runaway on the verge of going on the game.

When Perlmann’s rent collector is murdered, Stratton is called to investigate. Notting Hill is a cauldron, soon to be the scene of the worst racial violence England has ever known, and Stratton is right at the heart of it.

Writing The Riot

As well as being a crime series, the D. I. Stratton books deal with various aspects of social history – Stratton, a London policeman, is not only a crime-solver, but a useful ‘viewing platform’ for change – and, as I’d just completed a book set in 1956, against the background of Suez, I felt that the time had come to move my protagonist from West End Central to Harrow Road and give him a storyline about immigration, using the 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots. I have made use of the known facts (and some of the fictions), but as always, I’ve treated them as a novelist, not as a historian. Some of the characters are – in a few cases recognisably – based on real people, but others are entirely made up and have no basis in reality.

When I began to research the book, I had a rough (and actually, now I think about it, pretty crude) idea of what had happened back in 1958. What I discovered turned out to be far more complex than I’d expected.

I’ve always liked Notting Hill, although, wandering through it last year after God-knows-how-long while writing this book, it seemed so gone over and done to and generally tarted up as to be, in parts, almost unrecognisable as the place where I went to school in the 1970s. In the 1950s Notting Hill and its neighbour, Notting Dale (postcodes W11 and W10), were described, with some justification, as ‘the worst slums in London’. By the time I was attending school in a building just off the Portobello Road, these districts had improved quite a bit, but they were still a far cry from the middle-class-Boho-chic-cum-millionaires’-row places that they are today.  On my way to school I’d see the wrecking balls smashing down the mid-Victorian terraces along the Westbourne Park Road, and many of those left standing were so neglected that they looked, with their scabby paint and flaking plaster, as though they were suffering from some weird systemic plague. Others had been painted in hippie colours – purple and orange were the favourites, along with crude skyscapes, usually featuring improbably solid-looking clouds – and they sported sagging tie-dye sheets or banners painted with the Om symbol in the windows. In the summer, on Saturday mornings (we had lessons until midday), marijuana fumes would drift through the open windows from the head shop next door, noticeably mellowing our normally irascible teacher who, I’m quite sure, didn’t want to be there any more than we did. A group of Rastafarians and their girlfriends squatted the large house opposite and, for a month or so, enlivened our dull days with their steel band. They were very friendly and we were sorry when, one hot afternoon in the middle of geography, the police stormed the place and arrested them.

The Notting Hill Race Riots were not, of course, the first of their kind in Britain. In the summer after the First World War there had been dramatic racial unrest in both Cardiff and Liverpool, as well as disturbances in other dock areas such as Tyneside, Newport and Glasgow. There had also been some disturbances in dance halls and the like during the Second World War and, after it, small-scale outbreaks of rioting in Birmingham (1948), Deptford (1949), and Camden Town (1954).

On the 23rd August 1958, the week before the Notting Hill Gate riots began, a fight between a white and a black man outside a pub in Nottingham had led to several nights of violence. In West London, tensions had been mounting for months, with a series of assaults by local white youths on black people and incidents in which black-owned cafes and clubs were trashed. Files recently released show that, despite the testimony of both perpetrators and beat coppers to the contrary, senior police officers had assured the then Home Secretary, R.A. Butler, that there was no racial motivation behind these disturbances. Contemporary social theorists – in the course of researching The Riot, I read through a slew of blue-edged Pelican books with titles such as ‘The Colour Problem’ – disagreed. That particular book, incidentally, is as great deal more enlightened than its title might suggest – the subtitle is ‘A study of colour prejudice, racial discrimination, and social separation, with an account of racial relations and the “colour-bar” in Britain and Commonwealth territories in Africa and the West Indies.’ As the author of this book and others suggest, unrest between the ‘old’ (ie, white) and the ‘new’ (mainly but not entirely black) communities was caused not only by prejudice but also by anxiety over resources that were perceived to be scarce (jobs) or where actually scarce (decent housing).

I also read novels and works of non-fiction by Caribbean writers such as Samuel Selvon, George Lamming, V.S. Naipaul and Michael X (Michael de Freitas) and many memoirs and accounts by those who arrived in Britain during the post-Windrush years. The overwhelming impression, unsurprisingly, was of a group of people reared on the idea of the ‘Mother Country’ and encouraged – officially – to emigrate by the promise of work, who, on arrival, were understandably dismayed to find that racial prejudice made it very difficult to find either accommodation or employment (the trade unions, early on, were, as one commentator put it, ‘ambivalent almost to the point of schizophrenia’).

Another book I found very interesting (not least for the spelling, which is reproduced uncorrected), was a memoir, ‘Jungle West 11,’ by a Swedish woman called Majbritt Morrison, who had come to England and subsequently married and worked for a Jamaican pimp. It’s generally thought that the assault on Morrison, during which white youths threw milk bottles, shouted that she was a ‘black man’s trollop’ and laid into her with an iron bar, marked the beginning of the rioting on the 29th August. In all the contemporary studies of the causes of this riot – and there were a great many – much is made of the tribalism of the white inhabitants of the area, many of whom had lived there for generations, and of the anxiety over housing and jobs, but very little of sex, or, to put it more crudely, ‘them taking our women’. Sitting in the National Archives at Kew, trawling through statements from white perpetrators of racially motivated assaults, I noticed that these words, or variations on them, came up nearly every time.

These fears and prejudices were fomented by organisations such as the White Defence League, which had its HQ in Princedale Road, W11, and later by Sir Oswald Mosley, who campaigned on an anti-immigration platform for the Kensington North seat in the 1959 general election.

The rioting, which immediately became front-page news, lasted for a week, petering out on the night of the 5th September. Over 140 people were arrested, the majority being white youths. A Metropolitan Police report stated that, of the 108 eventually charged with crimes such as affray, grievous bodily harm and possession of offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36, black. Incidents included fighting in the streets, attacks and counter-attacks, and houses set on fire or bombarded with bricks and milk bottles.

In response to the riots, Trinidadian journalist and political activist Claudia Jones proposed a Caribbean carnival, in order, she said, ‘To wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths’. She organised a gathering in St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959 which, despite being held indoors, was considered a huge success. Other indoor carnivals followed, and after Jones’s death in 1964, community activist Rhuane Laslett organised an outdoor event, culminating in an August Bank Holiday parade. Over 1,000 people attended, and the Notting Hill Carnival as we now know it was born.

A rather different tale of immigration is that of slum landlord Peter Rachman, whose story seems to me inextricably intertwined with that of the riots. He has interested me ever since a chance encounter, some years ago, with an elderly lady who had been one of his tenants. To my surprise, she spoke highly of him, saying that he was nothing like as bad as some of the other landlords she’d had dealings with during the 1950s and 60s. When I began researching Rachman, I discovered that many others of his former tenants, both black and white, were similarly well-disposed, and I began to think that perhaps he had been judged unfairly at the bar of public opinion (as well as providing the English language with a convenient label for bad practices by landlords).

Rachman, himself a post-war immigrant, had experienced racial prejudice in its most appalling and brutal form, being the only member of a Polish-Jewish family to survive the Holocaust. Certainly, he wasn’t a saint – the reason he came to public attention was that he was the lover of first Christine Keeler and then Mandy Rice Davies, who he billeted, successively, in a smart Marylebone flat – but neither was he the rich, powerful and ruthless tyrant of popular belief. The ‘rich’ bit is certainly a myth – when Rachman died in 1962, aged only 44, his estate was valued at only £8,008 (using per capita GDP as a means of calculating relative worth, this would be the equivalent of £355,000 today – a decent enough sum, but not much for a man who was reputed to be worth millions). His widow soon discovered that not only was their large Hampstead house mortgaged to the hilt but also, when the hire purchase company came calling, that the Rolls Royce in the drive wasn’t her husband’s, but theirs.

It’s true that Rachman made money – or rather did a very complicated juggling act with it – by renting out properties with only the most basic of amenities to desperate people during the continuing post-war housing shortage. He took advantage of various loop-holes in the law as it stood regarding mortgages and the rental of furnished rooms, and of the fact that most private landlords, even if they didn’t admit it openly (usually with a sign in the window reading something like, ‘No Irish, No Coloureds, No Dogs’), refused to rent rooms to the new immigrants, who were also effectively debarred from seeking council housing. The qualifications for this varied from place to place, but Lambeth, where inclusion on the housing list required three years’ residence in the borough and where no applicant would be considered for re-housing until he or she had been on the list for one year, was fairly typical. It could, therefore, be argued – as indeed it was by the Caribbean social worker whose job it was to aid the new arrivals – that Rachman was giving, albeit at a price, a much-needed social service: ‘He’d ask for £6 a week for a flat that a controlled tenant would have paid £1 for, but the problem was more basic than rents, because elsewhere, West Indians couldn’t get rooms for any amount of money. Don’t expect me to run the man down. To the West Indian he was a saviour and people still have a lot of respect for him.’ A Notting Hill estate agent pointed out that, while other landlords were quick to evict for arrears of rent, Rachman was a ‘soft touch’ who would often give his tenants a hand-out. Another commented, ‘Rachman was no angel, but the press thing was ridiculous. Most of it was rubbish. It suited some people for Rachman to take the rap.’

Rachman was indeed a convenient scapegoat. Not only was he both foreign and Jewish (the newspapers went wild with the stereotypes), but by the time he came to public attention via his tangential connection with the Profumo scandal, he was – especially conveniently – dead, and so unable to defend himself.

I’m often struck, writing books set in the twentieth century, not how, as L.P Hartley had it, the past is another country where they do (or rather did) things differently, but how much – despite the best (and sometimes the worst) efforts of successive governments, regulatory bodies and individuals – things  remain the same. Immigration, it seems to me, is just as much of a political hot potato now as it was in the 1950s, albeit for rather different reasons. As for the housing situation, especially in London, with its insanely inflated property prices, its bought-to-let flats with their stratospherically high rents, and its gigantic waiting lists for what remains of the social housing stock… Well,  plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – but one thing’s for sure: nothing, past or present, fact or fiction (especially not that) is ever simple, however much we would like it to be.

© Laura Wilson, 2013

Reviews

“…as well as being a crime narrative of great authority, the texture of the piece is immensely evocative… The Riot takes us into a world of angry prostitutes and working-class Teddy Boys full of resentment at their new black neighbours. It’s an accomplished reminder that the Notting Hill of 1958 was not the chic place it is today.”
Barry Forshaw, Financial Times

“…offers startling insights into an unfamiliar world. A party goes disastrously wrong, ending in a riot, and the novel is a sombre reminder of just how poor and divided London remained in the 1950s.”
Joan Smith, Sunday Times

“Laura Wilson has recreated this era with an academic historian’s accuracy and a born writer’s imagination… This exciting and interesting murder mystery could also be a historical document; it is a most impressive piece of work.”
Jessica Mann, Literary Review

“The Riot is the latest in her award-winning DI Stratton series, and the tang of Wilson’s period detail pops off the page, whether she’s describing the slum buildings that West Indian immigrants were forced to rent or the careless extravagance of the city’s rich…. a richly imagined, compassionate story, rooted in a messily knotted historical reality that resonates today.”
Siobhan Murphy, Metro

“The police-procedural aspect of the novel is deftly handled, and Stratton makes for a likeably self-deprecating guide as he leads us through the rundown warren of 1950s Notting Hill, but the most fascinating aspect of the story is Wilson’s vivid recreation of the atmosphere of the time and place, as London sparks and flares in the run-up to the race riots that would change the face of Britain for decades to come.”
Declan Burke, The Irish Times

“With her usual impeccable research and elegant prose, Laura Wilson evokes a world that has almost completely gone now and yet still explains much about London sixty years on.”
N.J. Cooper, bookoxygen.com