Roald Dahl always had a gift for grab openings; dark, portentous first lines that yanked his young audiences by their shirt-collars, leaving them powerless to do anything other than nervously read on. (‘Until he was four, James had led a happy life.’) Introducing himself to me over the phone one lunchtime in May 1988 he was as macabre and arresting as ever.
“This is Roald Dahl,” he announced in his imperious, fork-bending bass. “I’ve just witnessed the most appalling incident in Hyde Park and I want you to report it.”
By the late 1980s Dahl’s status as one of the world’s favourite living children’s writer was secure. Anarchic, fantastical stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG and The Twits were firm favourites with children around the world. That year Hollywood was at work on a movie version of his best-selling book The Witches, starring Anjelica Huston. So, given that the entertainment world was my journalistic beat back then, it would be fair to say he immediately had my attention.
Dahl proceeded to describe what had happened an hour or so earlier that day while he’d been walking along the picturesque Serpentine in the central London park with his wife Felicity.
It had been the noise that had alerted them: first the screeching of tyres, the slamming of doors, then raised voices, a flurry of swearing and the crackle of walkie-talkies. Then the loud barking of a dog. A curious Dahl saw the commotion was coming from the direction of three vehicles parked on the kerbside. One was a battered looking white van, the other two – a car and a van – bore police markings. Pinned up against the unmarked van they made out the figure of a man, enveloped in a semi-circle of six or seven uniformed police officers, one of whom was restraining a large, German Shepherd. Even from a distance Dahl could see the driver was offering some kind of protest. He could also see that he was black.
Moving closer Dahl watched the scene take a sinister turn. He saw the dog handler let his animal jump up at the terrified prisoner. “They turned the dog on him, there was no reason for it whatsoever,” he told me. When the captive man tried to defend himself, lashing out at the dog, the officers started raining down punches. The beating continued even when the man collapsed to the floor. Eventually the, by now bloodied, figure was unceremoniously tossed into the back of the police van.
Even down the telephone, I remember the mix of distress and barely repressed anger in Dahl’s voice.
“I tried to ask them what he’d done but they just ignored me,” he said. “I stepped in, asked for their name and numbers and told them what they’d done was outrageous but I was just told to mind my own business.”
Minding his own business was not something Roald Dahl tended to do, particularly when – rather like one of The Witches picking up on the distinctive whiff of a child – he sniffed injustice.
His distrust and distaste for authority figures coloured the view of the world he presented in his children’s stories. As the literary critic Mark West, who interviewed Dahl at length about the roots of his writing, explained: “In almost all of Dahl’s fiction–whether it be intended for children or for adults — authoritarian figures, social institutions, and societal norms are ridiculed or at least undermined.”
Dahl himself had hinted at the key to this in his autobiographical book, Boy, published just four years earlier, in 1984. He wrote how, having already been traumatised as a three-year-old by the loss of his older sister and father, he was sent away to boarding schools in Wales and England at the age of nine. The account of his peripatetic education was dominated by his recollections of a succession of beatings he suffered, in some cases on totally false charges. His hatred of authoritarian injustice never left him.
The sight of a black man being attacked in broad daylight for seemingly no reason would have brought those memories to the forefront of his mind once more. Hence the subsequent events and a little-known episode that, in the final throes of his life, shone a small but revealing light on the flawed but formidable character of a literary giant.
After my conversation with Dahl, I wrote the story and the brief piece ran on the inside pages the next morning. (Its lack of prominence says much about British society in the 1980s. Three years later, in California, the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD, would become a seminal moment in the troubled history of US race relations. In the UK, an attack on a black man by the Met Police in broad daylight was worthy of a few paragraphs on an inside news page.)
The story didn’t go un-noticed in the offices of Goodmans, a small firm of West London solicitors. The previous evening a solicitor there had been asked to visit a client, a 27-year-old plasterer from an estate in White City, Augustus Errol Barton, under arrest at Gerald Road police station in central London.
Barton told his solicitors he had been driving from a job in central London when he had been flagged down in Hyde Park by a policeman. He’d protested when the officer claimed to he was in violation of a bail order. Before he knew it a posse of policemen had converged on the scene and he’d been bundled into a van and driven to nearby Gerald Road police station where he had been charged with two offences, resisting arrest and assaulting a police dog.
Goodmans knew there were several reasons why Barton’s protestations of innocence would almost certainly fall on deaf ears when it came to court.
For a start, it was the late 1980s, even bleaker than usual times for young black men in London. Police were no longer allowed to use the notorious ‘sus’ laws to stop and interrogate people – or more usually black people – they suspected of crime at will. But the air of mutual antagonism between the Met and the city’s black population was at its height. In particular, the murder of PC Keith Blakelock on the Broadwater Farm in Tottenham in September 1985, had left relations between the Metropolitan Police and the capital’s black community poisonously charged. A little over a year earlier, in March 1987, an innocent man, Winston Silcott, had controversially been charged with the murder, sparking protests that were still continuing at the time.
To make matters worse, Barton had a history. He had served three months after being found guilty of assaulting a policeman a year or so earlier.
In normal circumstances, it was an open and shut case in the most chillingly literal sense: it would open at the local prosecuting court, Bow Street, and Barton, would be shut away for a long time, his life, probably, ruined.
Roald Dahl’s account of the attack offered a chink of hope.
Would he be willing to testify?
The files have been long since shredded, so it is unclear who contacted who first and how the connection was initially made. I have a memory of someone at Goodmans contacting me. I had, through a colleague, obtained a phone number for Dahl at his home in the village of Great Missenden, Hertfordshire and may have passed it on. Alternatively Goodmans may have tried to reach Dahl through his agent or publisher. Given his combative nature, he may even have been trying to reach them at the same time. However contact was made, the firm’s senior partner, Jane Goodman remembered vividly the phone conversation she had one evening in her west London office. “I was working late and the phone rang. It was Roald Dahl,” she said when I spoke to her a few years ago. “I thought he was a bit of a chauvinist actually. He said something like ‘I would have thought you’d be at home cooking your husband’s dinner’.” His determination to help Barton was unmistakeable, however. “It was to his credit,” Mrs Goodman recalled. “He was adamant that he wanted to be involved in the defence.”
The man selected to defend Barton was Edward Quist-Arcton, a sharp, combative south African counsel, one of the few black barristers practicing in London at the time. Quist-Arcton accompanied Barton for his remand proceedings at Bow Street Magistrates on May 20th, 1988. Barton was formally accused of assaulting a police officer and kicking a police dog. He was remanded on bail until September 8th. The proceedings were brief, a routine flurry of legalistic shorthand and diary dates. Until the end, that is. If Quist-Arcton’s intention was to ratchet up the interest in the case he succeeded. The next morning’s newspapers all reported that Barton told the court “he would call Roald Dahl the author as a witness”.
When the case came to Bow Street Magistrates in September that year, the Press gallery was crammed full in anticipation of Dahl’s appearance.
The hearing was spread over two days. The prosecution led off, calling to the witness stand a phalanx of officers involved in the incident. They argued that Barton had been driving with an out-of-date tax disc and a broken headlight. When they checked his car over the radio their station – erroneously, they admitted – told them he had an outstanding warrant for another offence. They’d tried to arrest him and he had physically assaulted them.
The officers were united in denying that anyone had landed a single blow on Barton. “At no time did I see any officer kick or punch”, the van driver, PC Stephen Jenkin told the court. The police dog handler at the scene, PC Douglas Tulloch, also denied that the dog had been used to attack Barton. Instead he had begun kicking out at it for no reason.
Quist-Arcton didn’t deny Barton had kicked the dog. But he suggested the decision to bring the dog in was “a deliberately provocative move”. The dog was “leaping up” and “trying to get at him”. Given this, his client had no option but to protect himself, he argued.
The prosecution case took up most of the first day’s proceedings. When the court resumed the following day, Quist-Arcton wasted no time in calling his prime witness.
When Dahl entered the court room the first thing that hit me and everyone else there was his sheer, physical presence. He was 72 by then and in declining health. His six feet six inch frame was slightly stooped; he was wearing a baggy jacket and woollen tie and the few strands of electrified hair that protruded from his balding head looked as if they had been squiggled on by his long-time illustrating partner, Quentin Blake. But it still seemed like the crowded court room at Bow Street Magistrates was too small for him. As he began his testimony, Dahls’ voice – so grave and sonorous it seemed to make even the air vibrate – left no one in doubt he was a serious witness. The evidence he produced was devastating.
Quist-Arcton made sure his star witness’ anti-authoritarian streak didn’t offend the Magistrate. Prompted by the barrister’s questioning, he said he had always supported the police. What he’d seen in Hyde Park, however, was behaviour that no one could condone.
Guided by Quist-Arcton, Dahl then began painstakingly describing how he’d arrived on the scene as Barton was confronted by the policemen and the dog. He said he’d watched in horror as five officers formed a semi-circle around Barton who was backed up against a van and handcuffed. Reverting to the language of the amateur boxing ring, Dahl then told the court how he saw one of the officers start “delivering straight lefts” into his face.
“When the punches were being delivered, he was trying desperately to protect his face with his handcuffed arms by raising them,” Dahl said.
As the punches rained in, Dahl said he snapped. “Another punch was delivered to this extremely bloody face and I shouted: ‘What has he done for heaven’s sake?’.”
He said his protests were ignored as the beating continued. “After another punch or two the man sank slowly to the ground, almost certainly unconscious, but I cannot vouch for that,” Dahl said. “Immediately four or five policemen pounced on top of him and a rather repulsive melee took place, a sort of punching and kicking of an object beneath them.”
Finally, as Barton lay limp and bloodied on the floor he was picked up. With a flourish fit for a scene from one of his books, Dahl said they threw him into the van like a “sack of cement”.
I can vividly recall the blood draining from the faces of the policemen present as Dahl spoke. They must have known their testimonies were being publicly ridiculed by the giant figure in the witness box. Yet, like everyone else in court, they seemed quietly mesmerised by Dahl.
Closing his testimony Dahl, who served with distinction in the RAF in north Africa during World War II, told the magistrate the feelings the attack had provoked were as deep and emotional as he had ever felt in his life.
“I have been through the war and seen some nasty things but still don’t feel that I have ever seen anything quite as nasty as this. I thought I was probably in South Africa or somewhere.” he said. (This was 1988, the emotive era of Biko and Soweto, of Nelson Mandela still incarcerated on Robben Island.)
The Magistrates’ decision must have been an easy one. Dahl’s defence was eloquent, emotive and dignified. Above all it rang true. In comparison, the case for the prosecution seemed shifty and suspiciously over-choreographed. One look at the policemen’s faces during Dahl testimony would have told the members of the bench all they needed to know.
Within minutes the court announced that both cases against Barton were dismissed.
The reaction to the verdict was low key. There were no Hollywood air-punches, no spontaneous outbursts or applause, merely an acceptance of justice having been done, or more to the point a grave injustice having been avoided.
Whatever emotions were flowing around the courtroom, Errol Barton didn’t seem to grasp the magnitude of what had happened. I have a memory of Barton briefly shaking Dahl’s hand after the proceedings were over. But he seemed slightly baffled by what had occurred.
“He was not a particularly literate person, I doubt he read much. I don’t think he quite comprehended how marvellous it was to have someone of that stature giving evidence on his behalf,” his solicitor, Mrs Goodman, told me.
Dahl and Felicity made a quick exit, heading back to their home at Gipsy Cottage in Great Missenden. I spoke to him briefly again outside court but telephoned him later that evening at home for a lengthier, post mortem. There was no triumphalism, more a sadness that such a thing could happen.
I couldn’t help thinking that if it had been one of his children’s books, the policemen would have been turned to dust. Or perhaps transformed into dogs themselves. “I was just glad to be of help,” he said, resisting the temptation to develop his testimony in court. “I think I should leave it there.”
The Crown Prosecution Service may have had grounds to appeal, but the publicity surrounding the case and the damning picture it painted of the Met at work put paid to that. “The CPS had to drop the case afterwards,” Mrs Goodman recalled.
If anything it was Barton who had the best opportunity to take matters a stage further. “I told him he should get another solicitor and sue. I don’t do civil cases,” Mrs Goodman recalled. “But he didn’t do anything about it.”
Today such a case would have become a cause celebre. The combination of a Rodney King or George Floyd-style beating and a world famous author would have been irresistible in the era of 24 hour news and social media. But back then it was quickly forgotten. Errol Barton slipped back into obscurity as a plasterer in the White City area, while Dahl returned to completing two new books, The Vicar of Nibbleswick and a cookery book with Felicity.
He died two years later, in December 1990, aged 74, after developing a rare form of anaemia. His role in keeping Errol Barton from a lengthy prison sentence merited no mention at all in his obituaries. It was perhaps understandable. Compared with the long list of – sometimes heroic, occasionally controversial – achievements in his long and colourful life, it seemed almost inconsequential. An entirely forgettable footnote. But should it remain that way?
In the thirty years since his passing, while the world’s affection for his books has shown no sign of abating, his personal reputation has been tainted by tales of his cruelty, almost child-like irascibility and, most damaging of all, his flagrant anti-semitism. In December 2020, his family took the extraordinary step of issuing an apology, acknowledging historic remarks denigrating Jews. His widow and children were clear that “those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories”. They argued, in his defence, they represented Dahl “at his absolute worst”.
It is why this largely-unheralded episode two years before his death intrigues me. Was this Dahl at his absolute best? Does he deserve acknowledgment for averting what would have almost certainly have been another outrageous miscarriage of justice against a black man in London at that time? Does it justify a re-assessment, perhaps even in a partial re-habilitation of our view of the real Roald Dahl? Yes and no. First of all, was it really so heroic? Any decent person would have done the same thing, wouldn’t they? Maybe. It took considerable courage to confront and contradict the evidence of half a dozen police officers in court. I’m not sure many people would have attempted it, even those possessed of egos the size of Dahl. Of course there’s a chance it could have been all about that – his ego. He may just have seen it as a piece of self-publicity. But then why didn’t he ever talk about it again? That doesn’t ring true either. More persuasive, to me, at least, is the argument that it presented an opportunity to rail one last time at authority, to put the boot into the police in the same way the thuggish men in uniform had kicked and punched Errol Barton in Hyde Park. That was totally in character. He was an equal opportunities trouble-maker, a rattler of establishment cages. He couldn’t resist. The fact he saved a man from jail made it all the more justifiable – and appealing.
Of course that man, Errol Barton may provide a clue as to how it should be contextualised, how it fits into the biographical picture we carry forward of Roald Dahl. How did they interact before and after the court case? What did he make of the grand figure in the witness box that day at Bow Street Magistrates? What impact did his acquittal that day have on his life? He is, it seems, still working in White City, but is an elusive character. I have tried unsuccessfully to trace him. Edward Quist-Arcton would, of course, have been central too but he died tragically at a young age. But in the meantime I have begun writing a drama about the incident and the collision of unlikely characters at its heart. It hasn’t revealed its full shape yet but it will, of course, be book-ended by the dramatic scenes that occurred in Hyde Park and then later at Bow Street Magistrates in 1988.
At Dahl’s funeral in 1990, there was a reading of his favourite poem, a verse from Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night with its famous lines:
“Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
For whatever reason, at those two moments during the final phase of his life, he had felt motivated to burn and rave, to rage against the dying of his light. It was the last time he did so – publicly, at least. It had been the giant’s last stand. And it was unforgettable.
Copyright Garry Jenkins, July 2021