YORK writer Kester Aspden has brought alive one of the darkest stories in the history of Leeds: the police brutality inflicted on Nigerian down-and-out David Oluwale, whose battered body was pulled from the River Aire on May 4, 1969.

Kester’s book, originally entitled Nationality: Wog, won the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for non-fiction and has been adapted for the stage by Oladipo Agboluaje, whose premiere is running at the West Yorkshire Playhouse under the title of The Hounding Of David Oluwale.

Kester, who lived in York from the age of five until completing his university studies in the mid-1990s, came across the vagrant’s story while undertaking a project at Leeds University.

“One of my jobs was to edit the history of the university, and the less said about that project the better as it went pear-shaped, but I’d read a tiny article about David Oluwale, a cutting from The Leeds Student, no more than two columns, but it must have stuck with me,” he recalls.

“I’d had an interest in true crime since I was 11 when me and my brother set up a detective agency in our attic in Monkgate, after reading this book How To Be A Detective.”

He recalls following the progress of the Yorkshire Ripper and being attracted to the stories of gangland London in Soho.

“I just have this macabre interest in crime,” he says. “I liked the seediness of Soho and the opposites that it had there, the extremes of behaviour when the nightclubs sprang up at the time of the bright young things.”

Kester found himself drawn to the story of David Oluwale when he was contemplating moving on from Leeds.

“The job wasn’t going well and I felt a bit lost at that time in my life, spending time in the low-down pubs in Leeds, but then I thought maybe it’s meant to be, maybe I should write the book about David Oluwale.

“No one had looked at these police files before, released under the 30-year laws. If those files hadn’t existed, you could have produced an impressionistic piece but without the solid ground of the facts of the investigation. Otherwise it would have been floating in the air.”

Instead, Kester was able to talk to many of the people involved in the case, a process that continued after he started the book in January, 2004.

“I thought that getting the police world right was the key to it, but it was also important not to go into it in a horribly judgemental way, so I would start by saying, ‘Tell me what it was like working in Leeds at night’, ‘Why did you join the police?’, to get them to open up about their police life,” Kester says.

“I realised that they may not open up about David Oluwale, but it was more interesting for me to get stories about what policing in Leeds was like from the 1950s onwards, the golden era when the police were supposed to be like Dixon Of Dock Green.”

His research paid off. “The book has been popular not just because of revealing an injustice, but also because of revealing the world of the police at that time,” says Kester.

He also spoke with lawyers and friends of David Oluwale.

“One friend from Lagos had come here as a stowaway, and if I couldn’t speak to David Oluwale, who had done the same thing, then it still gave me a picture that I couldn’t get from the investigative files of a time when people came to Britain as it was the mother country.”

The book required two years of research and a year of writing.

“Having taken five years over a PhD, this seemed quite quick, and having got an agent and a book deal earlier, that was part of the encouragement to keep doing it.” Kester says.

He was not tempted to adapt his book for the stage himself.

“Outside of football and pubs and those laddish things, theatre is my great love and that’s probably the reason I didn’t want to do it myself, because I respected it and knew what a difficult task it was to be a playwright. As I loved theatre, I was too scared to take it on myself.

“You can’t write history just like that; you have to build it up, and similarly you have to train up for playwriting, so instead I sent the book to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, as Leeds was the stage where the story took place and it was the stage where the play should be played out.”

This in turn led to British Nigerian Olapido Agboluaje doing the adaptation.

Kester recalls his own first attempts at playwriting during his schooldays at the Bar Convent in York.

“When I was 12, I used to write plays set in the convent, pieces of juvenilia where the Reverend Mother would turn out to be the murderer,” he says.

Reflecting on the challenges of playwriting, Kester says: “You need your dialogue to be natural, and when you’re a historian it’s difficult to do that, and it’s also difficult to listen to a multitude of voices when you’re used to a single author’s voice driving through the narrative.

“In my book, David Oluwale was a shadowy subject of complaints and problems, but in Oladipo’s play he is right at the very centre as a living, breathing character, not just the whipping boy of certain police officers.”

Kester is at present writing an alternative history of Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, and undeterred by a sense of his own limitations, he is attempting to write his first play too.

“I would kick myself if I didn’t do it,” he says.

• The Hounding Of David Oluwale runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until February 21. Box office: 0113 213 7700.