David Lawley Wakelin – film maker, protester about the war in Iraq – is a local hero. Depending on your viewpoint, obviously. He managed to find an unguarded back entrance to the Leveson Inquiry – Lord Leveson was appalled at the slack security – simply walked in and accused Blair not only of being a war criminal but also of being paid off by the investment bank JP Morgan where he is an advisor on an annual salary of £2.5 million. Blair was rattled, he even felt he had to give a public response where he claimed never to have had that conversation with JP Morgan. David was scuffled to the ground and arrested. He had his say though…
David used to live in Harlesden with his family until he and his wife split up. Now he visits his two children up here several times a week. From Portobello Road. On his bike. Today I’ve arranged to meet him at Akbar’s Jewel In The Crown cafe by the Jubilee Clock but in the turbulent, ever-changing shop scenario – it’s the recession and they have to pay the rent – it has already transformed into a mobile phone and plastic fabric shop. So we make our way to O Tamariz, my favourite Portuguese cafe instead.
“It’s still relentlessly grim,” says David looking at the Welsh Working Men’s Club and then the decaying 60s brutally brutalist architecture along Library Parade. I point out that at least Harlesden is still gritty unlike Portobello Road which has become investment banker-friendly bland. He concedes half-heartedly.
What did his children, 11 and 13, make of his protest? “Well, I think they were a bit embarrassed,” he explains, “but my son must have been a little proud because he took the Guardian with the report about it, into school the next day.”
David is speedy. He’s already onto the next subject whilst I’m lingering on the last one. He moves verbally and thought-wise like a bat at dusk flickering across the sky in sharp angles. He’s also boyish at 49, has a shock of sandy hair and a passion for his mission to make Blair take responsibility for his actions.
He’s full of regrets about that day. “I should have made a citizen’s arrest on Blair,” he sighs, “and I should have gone back and stood in front of the cameras afterwards. But I was emotionally and mentally exhausted.” One cannot underestimate the exhaustion of such a singular act carried out by a single person. No group back up. Just him and his lonely determination.
I love it when he admits that he phoned his mother at one point to see if she would approve of his actions. “I realised the night before that Blair was on the next day,” he says, “so I decided to go down there. I didn’t have ticket for the front door but I quickly realised that there must by another entrance where the participants come in. I went down some stairs, crossed a courtyard, went upstairs and found a door which was completely unguarded. For a moment, I lost courage, went downstairs, phoned my mum to see what she thought, she was fully behind me doing it. So I went back up the stairs and into the Inquiry. I didn’t actually look at Blair because I needed to focus on what I was saying, but I wish I had. I don’t think he can leave home these days without someone accosting him about the war in Iraq. I don’t mean because of me, I just mean that’s how people feel.“
Why did he get so angry personally about the war in Iraq? “I wasn’t working,” he says, “and I had time to reflect. When I was 19, I backpacked across all those countries like Iraq and I realised that that just would not be possible for my own children. That made me incredibly incensed. I also thought early on before the war had started, that the weapons of mass destruction was all lies. Blair is deluded by his religious beliefs, he’s as deluded as the dictators that he denunciates.”
In 2010, David went to Iraq – he wanted to ask ordinary Iraqis if they thought Blair should be indicted as a war criminal. “Ninety percent agreed that the war was about business, about construction companies and pharmaceutical companies making money from it,” he says. “It was tough being there for three months, it’s a poor country and people are not very friendly. There’s a lot of negative energy there, not surprisingly. I felt fearful but I had to challenge that fear and get over it. There are babies being born deformed in Faluja because of the effect of the fall out from depleted uranium in the bombs. In the end, the Iranian TV station Press TV bought the film and showed it there, and I showed it at the Frontline Club off Westbourne Grove.”
Since then, he has made similarly questioning films in Bahrain and the Yemen. “I stood up in Bahrain’s Parliament and questioned an MP about the massacre of fifty people there,” he says proving that he’s not just a protester in the UK, “that’s the sort of question that the people there would be too scared to ask. I really liked the people in the Yemen and would like to go back there. I’d also like to make a Tell The Truth About Afghanistan film to find out whether Karzai is a puppet and to examine why we really went there.”
At this point, I bring the conversation back to Harlesden. Does he use its resources at all? “I used to take my kids to the library in order to research their homework. I once bumped into Louis Theroux in one of the kebab shops. Does that count?”
No, definitely not. We finally leave O Tamariz and it starts to rain. David is towering over me. “You could call me Lord Haw Haw of Harlesden,” he jokes as we wander down Craven Park Road.
And then I spot the falling-part-not-in-a-good-way drinking club, Steps. It’s got this terrifying rough exterior with hints of past grandeur. So far on these walks, I’ve been too much of a pussy to cross the threshold. Fearing a totally male presence. But it strikes me instantaneously that here I am with a man who regularly films in places like Iraq. Surely, I’m being presented with ideal situation to actually go there.
David calmly takes up the challenge. It’s 11 am and the front door opens into a black hole. Sorry, no I mean it opens into a cavernous bar of the 1960s bare basics’ tradition. Polystyrene tiles on the roof and little cohorts of men imbibing beer. This is a bit like my worst nightmare at this time in the morning, or at another time in the evening.
Both David and I burst into journalistic inquisitiveness as a response. “How long has this club been here?” we ask the barman who is taciturn to say the least. He doesn’t know. We order orange juice and water. Strangers in a strange land.
And then a man with a barrel-like, distorted body comes across and asks David for money to put in the jukebox. “For the wife,” he declares. We don’t correct him, we just wonder non-trustingly if the money is going in his pocket.
“I wish I were a punk rocker with flowers in my hair,” laments Sandi Thom from the jukebox. I have got flowers in my hair. I guess I am a bit of an old punk rocker. In certain ways. That is so sweet. An act of magnificent kindness performed by a drunken man who I would probably avoid in the street. Scared that something untoward would happen. And here he is playing a song just for me on the Steps jukebox.
This is one of those rare human kindness in the most unexpected place moments. I am moved. And smiling.
Before David gets back on his bike, he asks me one question. “Do you agree with me?” he asks. “Do you think Blair is a war criminal.” I do. “I think most of the country agrees,” he says.