For quite a number of our local councillors, the business of representing a local community boils down to one of two things — a particularly rotten and unreliable rung on the way up the ladder of their chosen party-political cursus honorum, to be skipped across swiftly, sustaining as little damage as possible in the process — or, conversely, a sort of subsidised long-stay car-park for the local association’s more troublesome old bangers, offering just enough polish and maintenance while keeping them out of the way of those younger, faster models, revving through quickly, leaving an odd smell of opportunism in their wake.
The career of Cllr Ian Wilder, who died this week at the age of 62, reminds us that local representation can be a sort of quasi-sacred vocation, as opposed to a burden or safe berth.
A chartered accountant, Cllr Wilder represented the West End ward — Mayfair, Chinatown and Soho — on Westminster Council from 2002 onwards, having represented Baker Street 1994-2002. He sat as a Conservative. In truth, though, more often than not he surmounted faction through a highly individual combination of charm, unfailing energy and an absolutely passionate commitment to his locality. Wilder had deep roots in Soho, and he was proud of them. His grandparents, having arrived from Poland, promptly established a tailor’s shop in Dean Street which was later run by Wilder’s own parents — a family connection which doubtless shaped Wilder’s view of what the West End could and indeed should be. His Soho childhood inoculated him against the belief that the West End exists primarily for the benefit of the many millions of tourists — the suburban revellers as much as the international travellers — who pass through it each year, similarly rendering him as suspicious of ‘nice’ corporate blandness as he was intolerant of squalour, nuisance, exploitation or violence.
Given the West End’s high profile, Cllr Wilder occasionally made the papers with eye-catching schemes and dramatic pronouncements. The eccentric grandeur of his proposal to stage a F1 Grand Prix in London — an F1 test run down Regent Street did, in fact, come to pass — was hardly diminished by a certain lack of success, in the short term at least. The same could be said for his plan to build a monorail, soaring 50 feet above the heads of shoppers in traffic-free Oxford Street. Wilder was also, from what I can see, an implacable opponent of the expensive, badly-thought out act of urban vandalism that is Crossrail.
Passionate self-belief can, of course, come across as mad, even slightly scary, but in Wilder’s case, good humour and an evident interest in the views of around him rendered it inspiring. As tributes in a local newspaper suggest, he had a gift for making firm friends, even in cases where the proliferation of enemies might have been much the more obvious outcome. He worked hard, too.
It is in his use of the video camera as an instrument of urban activism, however, that Cllr Wilder will doubtless become the stuff of local legend.
Most councillors, I suppose, feel confident that they are doing their bit, sitting through endless meetings with aggrieved and vociferous residents, over-worked and defensive police, bureaucratic functionaries of more or less useful sorts. Cllr Wilder, in contrast, didn’t stop there. For years, from 1999 onwards, he roamed the roughest spots of the wild West End from closing time on through the wee small hours of the morning, video camera in hand, documenting the sort of inconveniences, outrages and real tragedies that other councillors might well know only as anecdote or reportage. It is easy, I suppose, to laugh at stories of hours of videotape recording out-of-hours rubbish tipping in all its abundant, visually pungent glory. Much less funny, though, were the films of drunken fights, the racial and physical abuse of traffic wardens, the bleakly criminal and coercive penumbra of the sex trade, the degrading and deeply sad consequences of a particular strand of illegal drug use, the squalour and pointless violence.
Famously, in 2005, Cllr Wilder filmed an attack in Whitcomb Street, just around the corner from Leicester Square, in which Saad Mohiuddin, a 24-year-old bank manager, was killed. At the time, Whitcomb Street was a place I passed every day, making my way down past the National Gallery to enjoy the shade-dappled decorum of St James’s Park with my baby son. And this, in a sense, is the paradox of the West End — a decent, welcoming, historic, diverse and often delightful area in daytime, often warm and welcoming after dusk, yet always ready to collapse into something far too much like mob rule in those hours straddling midnight — the ‘bad’ sort of anarchy, in other words, where public policy fails to rise to the challenge of defending public spaces.
This, I think, was what Cllr Wilder wished to convey to those who might, conceivably, be able to do something about it. This was why he felt compelled to bear witness in a way that could no more easily be refuted than ignored or sidestepped. And this, I guess, is what I mean about a ‘semi-sacred vocation’. There was real, selfless service in what he was doing — a quality not invariably present in our political life. Others, perhaps, will sneer at this. Personally, I hugely admire it.
Cllr Wilder’s journeys into the heart of West End darkness required not only energy and persistence. They called for physical courage, too. This article captures plenty of local colour, but crucially, while the journalist in question ended up feeling ‘nervous’, Wilder was ‘unshaken’. He knew what to expect, which was why he was there in the first place. Quite correctly, Wilder realised that media interest — for which images are, invariably, the most effective lure and food — could deliver the sort of power that a mere democratic mandate could not. And what a treasure-trove those tapes will be for future social historians!
There is, though, something poignant about this story, is there not? Today, we are quick to associate the use of new media and its burgeoning applications with protest, counter-culture, the struggle of the disenfranchised against authority — we think of the G20 protests, the death of Ian Tomlinson, anti-government demonstrations in Iran and Xinjiang, a curiously photogenic martyr bleeding to death on the streets of Tehran. Yet as early as 1999, a Conservative councillor was wandering streets just a few minutes’ walk from the political and administrative heart of the United Kingdom, seeking to defend the civility, decorum and basic safety of the neighbourhood in which his grandparents had found a refuge and a home — seeking, in other words, to ensure that the fragment of London he so very clearly loved was a place where decent people could walk in peace.
The last time I saw Cllr Wilder — a couple of years before cancer finally killed him — he was, in fact, walking down Whitcomb Street late one evening, at the same time I was walking up it. Recognising a vaguely familiar face, he stopped, greeted me, asked me all sorts of questions, delivered a bright little firestorm of opinions, listened, laughed a lot and went on his way, camera in hand.
My certainty that he’ll be missed, by his former constituents as well as by his family and many friends, is equalled only by my certainty that he won’t soon be forgotten in the parts of London he made his own. Ian Wilder, the West End’s friend and witness, rest in peace.