Custom Search 1

Roddy Kentish: Bidding farewell to a true community hero

LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS FOR A BETTER FUTURE: Roddy Kentish, right, with Roman Catholic
Cardinal Basil Hume who paid a visit to one of Roddy’s community projects

RODDY KENTISH was born and grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. He would recall a tough childhood, where, as the eldest, he would cook for and look after his younger siblings, with few memories of school days.

Yet, as a teenager, he would read the newspapers to clients at the local barber shop, bringing them up to date on the Second World War efforts overseas.

He thus not only gained a comprehensive grasp of international affairs, but also a shrewd interpretation of the colonial mind and its priorities.

He trained as a welder and car mechanic, and left Jamaica for London in 1957.

Along with many from Jamaica, he enjoyed a lively social life and despite the housing barriers and well-documented racism of those days, jobs were easy to come by.

He recounted travelling miles to West End entertainments, such as the Q club, where new Caribbean rhythms were enjoyed by Londoners of all backgrounds.

And he thought nothing of walking three or four miles home in the early hours of the morning to his lodgings in Notting Hill.

Roddy’s main passion, however, lay in politics. Indeed, his Jamaican nickname had been ‘Nansi’, after Brer Anansi, the scheming politician spider of Jamaican legend.

However, this would be quickly dropped, as it did not mean the same thing in England.

He simply became known by some as ‘Politician’, getting involved in desperate struggles for better housing and living conditions, and laying the foundations for the Notting Hill Housing Trust.

He met Londoner Sylvia Webb, and their daughter Sophia was born in 1961. Life took a dramatic twist when, in 1970, he helped organise a protest against the frequent police raids of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill.

Purportedly suspecting drugs, the police were simply harassing the black community, causing many activists to take to the streets with placards and chanting.

Along with eight others, Roddy was arrested for incitement to riot and brought to the Old Bailey, for what would turn out to be the longest criminal trial to date.

The nine defendants used a radical legal strategy in this high profile trial. Darcus Howe and Althea Jones Lecointe defended themselves, arguing that this was a political trial, since the prosecution conflated black radicalism with criminal intent.

During the 55-day trial, Jones Lecointe described police persecution of Notting Hill’s black community. Howe exposed inconsistencies in police testimony, The British Black Panthers organised pickets and distributed flyers to win popular support. Ultimately, the jury acquitted all nine on the charge of rioting.

When Judge Edward Clarke stated that there was evidence of racial hatred on both sides, this was the first time a British court judge had acknowledged racial discrimination and wrongdoing by the London police, and the Mangrove Nine gathered broad public support for the fight.

Bruised, though energised by the outcome of this battle, Roddy threw himself into the lively local politics of Notting Hill, which had erupted into febrile attempts to rebuild community after the devastating effects of extensive housing demolition in a bid to construct the Westway flyover.

Projects proliferated, both negative (the dumping of horse manure to block a street so as to get a community garden opened), and positive – a campaign to renovate the Tabernacle church for community use.

LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS FOR A BETTER FUTURE: Roddy Kentish, right, with Roman Catholic
Cardinal Basil Hume who paid a visit to one of Roddy’s community projects

Roddy would be out each night at meetings or cooking large Jamaican meals for many in the neighbourhood.

He is also recorded as a member of the founding Not- “It was the first time a British court judge recognised racial discrimination by the police” ting Hill Carnival committee. Through all of this, he managed to read The Guardian from cover to cover most days, being more up-to-date on current events than many better-educated acquaintances.

Having separated from Sylvia, he met me, a church development worker, and we married in 1975.

A hectic creative programme began when we built up a community project to train young men of Caribbean background, most of whom had spent time in prison and wanted to ‘go straight’, but could not find a way forward.

Roddy’s goal was to build up apprenticeship schemes, with older men like himself as mentors, to give the youngsters a trade and a stake in the community.

From 1975 to 1980, we would be fundraising, recruiting and operating the teamwork training scheme, living and working in Notting Hill.

Roddy’s vision was expressed in the pithy declaration, “What they need is a sense of belong”, (he retained his Jamaican syntax to the end), a vision which would resonate with all, those targeted and those helping.

Popular with craftsmen like himself, who could see the value of training this next alienated generation, his humour and deliberate use of Jamaican expression also caught on with many visitors who came to inspect, fund or publicise.

“That machine there don’t know you is a Rasta,” he admonished one young man whose long Rasta locks were a source of pride and display, but potentially lethal if entangled with fast-moving belts and cutters.

For half a decade, we were able to build and maintain two workshops under the Westway flyover, employing around 10 tradesmen and 30 or 40 young people.

The scheme was opened by Roman Catholic Cardinal Basil Hume, newly arrived in London, who was intrigued to meet young people so different from those he had taught in his northern public school.

Around a quarter of a million pounds were raised, and Roddy could have been proud of this initiative, had he paused for breath to review his achievements.

Alas, the stress of dealing with a troubled community with its troubled youngsters took its toll and he was forced to close the scheme after his own health broke down.

The council reclaimed the premises and redistributed the assets, but it remained for many a symbol of what could be done to integrate young ex-offenders: a community scheme run by the community.

The struggles of Roddy, of his co-Mangrove defendants and of those like them have surely played their part in paving an easier path for the next generation.

Their children have benefited from a better education, a more stable community and the opportunities their parents fought for.

Many people talk about a multicultural London as if it had happened organically. Nothing could be further from the truth. Roddy and his ‘comrades in arms’ have paid a high price for such peace, understanding and equal opportunities as exist today.

They deserve to be remembered and recognised.

Roddy is survived by his daughter Sophia, his sons Joseph and Martin, and me, his former wife.

Roddy Kentish, born 1931, died April 17, 2019

Read every story in our hardcopy newspaper for free by downloading the app.