Brutish Necessity. A Black life forgotten.
Posted on September 27, 2022
Here is a taster for my new book, Brutish Necessity which is on sale from Friday 30 September. It’s on sale from all bookshops, online and is available as an e-book. If at all possible, I’d prefer you to buy it from a vendor who doesn’t avoid paying tax.
This is a book with a terrible event at its centre. The sort of event that no longer happens. It’s not a book reliant on lurid, graphic description, but much of what follows will often make the modern reader wince. And occasionally smile. And think – I hope.
It’s a book about race, immigration and prejudice. It’s about how some attitudes have changed while others remain stubbornly the same. The central, terrible event has a downtrodden victim, but the book is not about victimhood. There’s no argument here about the inevitability of discrimination. There are tales of agency, determination and joy. But it’s most definitely about swimming against a tide.
It’s a book about class, values and attitudes. It’s about how the great bodies of the state – parliament, the law, police, press and broadcast media – reflect ideas that look to the past and which rarely threaten to challenge the status quo.
There is mystery and there are shocking tales. Shocking whether they take place in down-at-heel bedsits or shocking when they’re in judges’ chambers. Some of the central characters have disappeared untraceably; others died well-fed and contented in their beds.
Every fact has been checked, every quotation is real and attributable. All statistics and figures are a matter of public record. This is a book about finding some truth: its own credentials are impeccable. There may be opinion here, but there is no fabrication.
It’s a book about the city in which I grew up, blissfully unaware of the physical roughness of my surroundings. The blunt dismissiveness from adults, whose stoic post-war refusal to be easily impressed – or shocked – was just normal behaviour. Like the city I come from, nothing that follows is sentimental.
It’s an attempt to save a name from total obscurity.
And so, to the terrible event………
The evening paper and the return of the blood-stained man.
It begins with a childhood memory which turns out to have been false.
This is what I thought I remembered from a gloomy afternoon in November 1962.
Some context to begin with. I was nine years old and lived in Institute Road, King’s Heath in Birmingham. I was the youngest of three children. I lived with my two teenage sisters and my widowed mother. My sisters went to grammar school and college and I, of course, was still at primary school. My mother worked full-time, usually in a minor bookkeeping or accountancy capacity. Like many people of her generation, she had left school at 13 with few official qualifications, but her quickness and certainty with figures ensured she was always employed.
I was always the first one home. I had a key and, once in, I was entrusted to light the coal fire in the living room and to get on with any homework I might have been given. More often than not though, once the fire had taken, I’d go into the back yard and thump a ball against the wall, enjoying an hour or so before any nagging neighbour returned to cluck and moan.
On this particular evening, my mother returned as usual at about 5.30 and, just as usual, carrying the local paper. And now the memory goes wrong. This is what I thought I remembered.
‘Anything good in the paper, mom?’ reaching out to grab a look.
And at that point, my mother snatches it away from me.
‘Don’t go looking in there today. Nothing in there for you.’ And then she says, seemingly out of nowhere, ‘A crowd of them waiting outside. What did they think they were going to do?’ I’m used to her returning from work frayed and impatient, but this time her irritation has a different quality.
And, of course, I’m totally foxed.
‘Who, mom? Where was there a crowd?’ And at this point, my younger sister, in her mid-teens, comes into the kitchen – the natural meeting place, notwithstanding the fire now blazing in the living room.
‘Do you mean the hanging?’ she asks. ‘At Winson Green?’
I know there’s a prison in Birmingham and I know it’s at Winson Green and the reason I know is that when we’re in the playground and someone’s been particularly bad, somebody else will pipe up that you’ll have to go to Winson Green. But to be honest, it might as well be on the moon. It’s actually less than six miles away, so, as I say, to a nine-year old in Birmingham in 1962 – the moon. But a hanging? What? Outside? Like some of those dreadful history-type things I’ve read? It might just have been that distorted image, cooked up in a childish imagination – a public execution on the streets where I lived – that accounts for this whole thing lodging so firmly in my consciousness.
‘Was it a murderer?’ I want to know.
‘Was it the blood-stained man?’
‘Oh, you and your blood-stained man.’ And now, with some relief, my mother has reverted to the much more familiar and comfortable role (for me) of exasperated, impatient parent.
Some time before this incident – which did take place, notwithstanding my imperfect recollection – I had seen a TV news item about a crime committed in Birmingham from which the alleged perpetrator, a blood-stained man, had escaped on a number 8 bus. Now I knew about the number 8 bus because it was one that I sometimes caught. What’s more, the picture accompanying the news item showed a bus seat – and I’d sat on one of those too. So, the blood-stained man had caught the number 8, like I did, and had sat on a seat, like I did. That was as close to real-life horror as I wanted to get. I was an avid reader with an over-active imagination: for a few weeks, I became worried and obsessed by the blood-stained man. I looked with lingering trepidation for any sign of his departed presence on every bus I got on – and I got on plenty. From the reflective distance of almost sixty years, I can empathise completely with my mother’s frustration when, thinking he’d evaporated, he made his reappearance on that dank evening. We’ll learn a little more about him in Chapter 3.
‘But was it him?’
‘It doesn’t matter who it was. He’s dead now and he won’t go killing anyone else, will he?’
‘That’d be students outside,’ offers my sister, for whom, no doubt, the very thought of students with their freedom and bohemianism represented the glamour that her teenage self craved so enthusiastically. ‘Protesting against the death-penalty’.
This draws some harrumphing from my mother who, in common with most people of her background and life-experience, has little time for such fine feeling.
‘Is that what’s in the paper, then? Can I have a look?’ Lunge.
‘No. Keep your hands to yourself.’ Her shortness sharpened, no doubt, by the prospect of more nightmares and fretful anxiety on my part now that the spectre of the blood-stained man has made an unwanted reappearance.
And so it was that my mother kept the evening paper from me, safeguarding me from the stark headline about an execution in my city, taking place against a background of righteous picketers.
Except that some of it can’t be entirely verified.
That I had such a conversation about a man being hanged at Winson Green prison is something I simply couldn’t have made up, not least because the memory of it, however hazy, has haunted me since. That it must be the one that took place in November 1962 has to be the case because prior to this execution, the last one in Birmingham was in 1958 when I was just five years old. What’s more, a murder did take place in Birmingham some five month earlier in June 1962 and the suspect was initially reported to have make his getaway on a number 8 bus – a detail which was to resurface at the trial of the man hanged in November 1962. But there is one crucial part of the story which I am unable to verify.
Memory has convinced me that my mother must have been sheltering me from a distressing headline. No such headline exists – at least in the extensive digital archives now available to us. On 20 November, the day of the execution of Oswald Augustus Grey at Winson Green prison, four local newspapers in the UK reported it briefly in the evening editions, only one of which, The Coventry Evening Telegraph, could be deemed to be remotely local. Its brief coverage, like that of The Belfast Telegraph, The Aberdeen Evening News and The Liverpool Echo, was tucked away in the middle sections of inside pages. In Belfast the story merited smaller headlines and fewer words than the revelation that the Senate had insisted on controls ensuring that water content in butter remain at no more than 15%. In Liverpool, train delays due to wire theft merited more attention, while in Aberdeen the new look for post offices was deemed more exciting. Maybe my mother was carrying the paper from the day after the hanging – 21 November?
But by then, Grey’s execution must, indeed, have been yesterday’s news because the only newspaper to report it was local – The Birmingham Daily Post. Here is the entire article which was, once again, on an inside page:
Hanged in Birmingham
Oswald Augustus Grey, a Jamaican baker of Cannon Hill Road, Edgbaston, was hanged at Winson Green Prison, Birmingham yesterday for the murder of Mr Thomas Arthur Bates, an Edgbaston newsagent. He was found guilty and sentenced to die at Birmingham Assizes for shooting Mr Bates, aged 47, in his shop in Lee Bank Road, Edgbaston on June 2. Uniformed and plain-clothed police stood on duty outside the prison gates as four students from Birmingham University paraded with anti capital punishment placards. Grey was the first to be hanged at Winson Green since August, 1958 and the youngest since 1949 when a 19 year-old soldier was executed for strangling a 14-year-old girl in Sutton Park.
This book will attempt to unpick the detail embedded in this piece of blandness. It is possible that my mother was carrying an evening paper for which records don’t exist in the British Newspaper Archives and that she was, indeed, offering me some protection. There may have been a screaming headline that can no longer be located and which, indeed, did become the next day’s fish wrapping. Quite how four students with some placards becomes a crowd is something we’ll never get to the bottom of – nor, indeed, why this detail so irked her. She’s not here to ask, so I’ll never know.
What is beyond dispute, however, is that the 117 words in a newspaper from the city where a young Black man was executed in 1962 is entirely typical of the scant, dismissive coverage of his alleged crime and eventual punishment. What follows attempts to illuminate an event that has lodged, however imperfectly, in the imagination of that nine-year-old and which still has plenty to tell us about race, justice and social attitudes sixty years on.