Remembering Ian Wilder

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.


Filed under London, politics, RIP, Tory things

8 responses to “Remembering Ian Wilder

  1. I think Oxford Street would be very well suited to an elevated walkway, perhaps a monorail too (though escalator type walkways might me better for people wanting to hop on and off). Entrances on two levels could help many of the busier stores.

    Much of the corporatist rubbish seems beloved of Tory councils (the Royal Borough of Kensington has wanted to turn South Kensington into something like the ugly, badly designed and alienating shopping centre on Hammersmith roundabout for 20 years).

    I think your comment about the type of person who uses “Cllr” as a line on the political CV is pertinent.

    There’s a type of suit worn by a certain sort of accountant, lawyer and banker that some Tory council candidates wear when they are going for interview. It reeks of “I’m only putting up with grovelling for your votes, you scum, because in five years I’ll have a shot at Westminster.”

    I’ve always thought such people should be invited to go out, dressed as they are, and not come back until they have signed up two members from the roughest council estate. They might still be unprincipled snakes, but at least they’d have some commitment and talent beyond self glorification.

    PS: a minor typo: Tehran.

  2. Tehran — fixed now. Thanks, Antoine.

    As for the monorail, or an elevated walkway, it’s hard to see how Oxford Street, particularly at its eastward extreme, could be made any worse — except of course by Crossrail, which has done so much to promote super-short-term leases and fly-by-night shops selling dubious goods, while at the same time thinning out London’s already diminishing stock of mid-sized independent music venues, blighting the north-east corner of Soho (has proximity to a railway station ever actually improved an area?) and achieving the near-impossible in rendering the whole St Giles / Centrepoint environment even more squalid, inconvenient and dangerous than ever before.

    Peter Ackroyd enthusiasts (a gloomy sort of ‘enthusiasm’, admittedly) may note something persistently ill-starred about this corner of London, variously home to lepers, a notorious rookery, the early phases of London’s Great Plague of 1665, a gibbet … all very romantic, but of limited practical value. Maybe I should just get used to doing my high street shopping in the King’s Road, which, oddly, is much easier to reach from my part of Soho than are the western-most reaches of Oxford Street.

  3. Gaw

    I don’t think Oxford Street is fixable. Best avoided.

    My signature memory of the St Giles end is watching a beggar break off from his pan-handling to hobble off to deal drugs which he kept in the hollow metal shaft of his NHS-regulation crutch. The other, Marble Arch, end – a barren and exposed strip of urban heath – is as depressing. But at least it’s no longer the haunt of footpads.

  4. Gareth, the story about the beggar really is Hogarth-for-our-times, the St Giles rookery setting included. Perhaps conservatives should treasure St Giles for its stubborn continuity, at least?

    As for Oxford Street, though, it’s one of the least happy illustrations of Antoine’s striking point here — whatever else the Romans may have done for us, there’s no excuse for Oxford Street, whether in its incarnation as a link between two places of execution, its function as a barricade preventing any form of traffic flow whatsoever, or simply the most resolutely boring high street our nation has to offer. Best avoided, indeed.

  5. Gaw

    Two places of execution? Tyburn, of course, but was there also one at the St Giles end? I had no idea. Or was it used as the route to travel west from the Fleet Prison and Smithfield ?

    Oxford Street seems to be one of those places that goes some way in justifying the psychogeographic theory.

    Re Antoine’s point, we’ve just come back from Vaison St Romain, a thriving Provencal market town with acres of remarkably well-preserved Roman remains right in its very centre. Seeing all the people and traffic bustling around the foundations is an impressive, almost moving, sight.

    BTW at the Roman museum on seeing the life-size statue of a very buff Hadrian, the eldest little boy asks: ‘why is the emperor naked?’. Getting to the point quite quickly!

  6. Gaw

    Vaison La Romaine, I should say.

  7. If your firstborn is going to start enacting Hans Christian Andersen stories, ‘why is the emperor naked?’ was a better place to start than most!

    Back, however, to the rather less wholesome stuff of Oxford Street’s local history. St Giles’ Fields, though lacking the big-name notoriety of Tyburn, was also a place of execution, famous largely as the site of Sir John Oldcastle’s grisly demise, illustrated thus in Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (and here’s a map for those who like that sort of thing, although one has to scroll right down to the bottom of the page to see it). Of course you’re also correct that Oxford Street was used as a route to Tyburn, too, from points east. In summary, then, not a very encouraging picture, is it? Even a monorail would struggle on its little raised metallic track to make up for that amount of ill-omen’d history …

    Finally, Vaison La Romaine: in the summer of 1989, in the course of a pleasant if somewhat meandering holiday in the south of France, my companion and I almost ended up going there, but for reasons I cannot now reconstruct (bus timetables almost certainly came into it somehow) ended up drifting in another direction. Regrets, eh?

  8. David Wilder

    Dear Ms Smedley,

    I thought your blog post (Remembering Ian Wilder, July 31) about Ian Wilder, my father, absolutely captured his integrity, sense of justice and indefatigable spirit.

    I just wanted to thank you for putting into words at least some of the feelings that Dora (his wife), my sister and I have been struggling to come to terms with these recent, difficult months.

    Some permanent memorials are being planned for the West End in the new year and it would be my pleasure to keep you posted about arrangements regarding their official unveiling.

    With kind regards,
    David Wilder