Adventures of a video vigilante

Why would a 58-year-old choose to spend his evenings among drunken brawlers in London's West End? Ed Caesar joins Ian Wilder on a late-night mission to find out how he plans to clean up the streets - armed only with a digital camera
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The Independent Online

"This is it. This is where he was kicked to death", says Councillor Ian Wilder. It is 2.15am on Sunday morning and we are standing in the road on Whitcomb Street, near Leicester Square's Swiss Centre. Almost a week before, Saad Mohiuddin, a 24-year-old bank manager, died here following a savage attack. The glow of a Pizza Hut illuminates the spot where the attack took place, but there are no American-style chalk lines demarcating the precise location of the incident. For that we need Wilder and his video footage, which made for such gruesome viewing last week.

Wilder has been out on his own, recording scenes of violence in the West End, for the past six years, normally venturing out two or three times a month. His footage, he says, is all ballast for his campaign to convince the council, the Metropolitan Police and ultimately the Government that liberally granting late-night licenses is destroying the West End. Tragic though it was, capturing Mohiuddin's murder on camera has given Wilder's cause real momentum. Such is the nature of the media, it is also the reason I am trailing him on his Saturday night patrol of the West End streets.

Our night starts at 11.30pm. We are sitting outside the plush Embassy Club in Mayfair with the owner, Mark Fuller. The flashbulbs of the paparazzi pepper the night sky as Jordan and a host of other "slebs" walk through the club's doors. It seems an improbable spot in which to meet Wilder, a grey-haired, 58-year-old accountant. The image of a one-man vigilante unit does not tally with the affable, unremarkable-looking man sitting in front of me.

"My grandparents arrived in this country from Poland", he says. "They set up a tailor's in Dean Street. My parents lived in Soho like them. I've got an affection for the place as a community. So I have this vision for the West End - I want it to be the gleaming centre of the greatest capital in Europe. The West End is responsible for 80 per cent of the tourism dollars that come into this country. We have to protect that, and violence on the street, late night no-go areas, that does not attract tourists."

Both Wilder and Fuller agree that a huge part of the problem is the rapid rise in the number of late licenses that have been granted. Wilder tells me that in 1994, the West End had a late-night drinking capacity of 37,000 - it is now in the region of 190,000.

But doesn't this implicate Fuller and his Embassy Club as part of the problem? "Not at all," says Fuller. "This club has strict door policies. Out of a 400 capacity, 110 of them will have eaten three-course meals at the club, so it's not just drinkers. There is a frequently reviewed membership system. This is also a great spot because it's predominantly non-residential."

And does he support Wilder's campaign? "Absolutely. Ninety per cent of the problems you have with clubs in the West End are to do with irresponsible owners, who either aren't there, or aren't careful," says Fuller.

What both Fuller and Wilder object to, it seems, are the more raucous bars and clubs. When the clientele of such establishments spill on to the street, they argue, you have a problem with public order.

"They've really cleaned up Times Square in New York, and I'd be happy walking through there with my kids", says Fuller. "But I would not walk through Leicester Square on a Saturday night with my children. Something has to be done."

"It's not that music is responsible", says a colleague of Fuller who does not wish to be named. "It's that many of the problems in the West End are centralised around different types of music. So, for instance, UK Garage attracts a fairly nasty black crowd on X [ecstasy] and crack, as does Bashment [a type of Jamaican party music] - and the music fuels the violence. Ragga, on the other hand, is mostly puff [cannabis], so it's generally harmless, except that those guys become easy targets. We only play very commercial R&B in this club, and I would tell DJs to turn off any tune that was remotely underground."

It is 1am. Wilder and I step aboard the moped he uses for his night-time patrols. Everywhere we pass has a story. "Used to be a strip joint down there," he says. We drive on. "Favourite alley for pushers down here. We'll come back later." We arrive at the offices of the parking attendants who police Wilder's Westminster ward at night. The councillor wants me to hear their stories.

"We've already had a Code Red tonight," says Oky, the head of the NCP late night team. "One of our guys was attacked in D'Arblay Street - they abused him and poured beer on him and everything."

What about Whitcomb Street? "No one wants to ticket anyone in Whitcomb Street. We're always threatened down there." Threatened how? "It's mostly mini-cab drivers, and they give us racial abuse mostly, but we've been threatened with knives and guns." Racial abuse for the predominantly black team who work the late night shift is so common that it passes unnoticed. "We prefer it to the physical violence," Oky says.

At 1.30am, we are back on the moped. By 1.45am, we've already found a major fracas. Just off Piccadilly Circus, a group of black and Asian men are involved in a scuffle with some heavily inebriated white men. None of them look over 21.

The incident looks to be fizzling out until a flurry of punches is thrown. Fifteen police officers break it up. Wilder is filming. We can not be more than 5ft away. I am nervous. "Put the fucking camera away!" shouts one of the men. We make our excuses and leave. Wilder turns round to me. "See?" He seems unshaken.

Feeling like a coward, I ask him whether he is ever frightened filming violent situations. "No, I'm just an old bloke. I seem to pass under everyone's radar. If I were a young bloke like you I'd probably get in more trouble."

By 2.10am, we are at the scene of last week's fatal fight. Wilder shows me where the pushers hang out. There is ample evidence of drug-dealing: we see at least five men waiting in recognised "scoring places", and in one back alley there is noticeable drug paraphernalia. In Leicester Square itself, thousands of late-night drinkers mill about. There is a huge amount of noise. Wilder looks up at The Thistle Hotel. "I don't know what you'd think if you'd paid for a room there," he sighs.

Wilder stands at looks at the spot on Whitcomb Street for a long time. "He died for absolutely nothing," he says. "There was no motive. But it's my job to make sure that he did not die for nothing. What will I tell the parents of the next kid to die in my ward?"

As we make our way back to Leicester Square, I ask Wilder, elected as a Conservative, whether he sees his battle as part of a political agenda. "I don't see it in those terms," he says. "I just can't see how this situation that we have every weekend in the West End can possibly be helping the city. I'm not a particularly political person - I've turned down places on committees. I just want to see through this vision I have for the West End. My plans are supported as much by Labour as Tory."

2.45am. Wilder shows me part of his "vision". He is seeking to knock down four massive blocks on the north side of the square and build one enormous new development including two five-star hotels, a rebuilt Empire cinema, residential property and the lion's share of a roof garden running from the Charing Cross Road to Piccadilly Circus.

Does he believe that he will see his project through?

"Absolutely. We've already got planning permission for the Swiss Centre. It's going to be something really special."

3am. We're back to the job in hand. Just off Leicester Square a fight has broken out. One young Asian driver gets out of a massive 4x4 and an exchange of blows and obscenities breaks out. Wilder is not sure if he has caught the incident.

"I think my tape's just gone on the blink", he says. "Bloody thing." I follow the protagonists as they disperse, threatened by the bumpers of other 4x4s. "Don't worry," says Wilder without looking up, "they're not finished yet." We do not, however, see them again.

3.30am. Wilder positions himself outside the Cirque nightclub on the Charing Cross Road, a place he calls "a favourite place for a knifing". But apart from the usual singing, cat-calling and boisterous behaviour, there is nothing doing. Wilder greetsstreet-cleaners and council officers, all of whom he knows by name.

Over coffee, we talk about why he wants to catch these disturbing late-night moments on camera.

"Nothing gets done unless the media's involved," he says. "If I show these pictures to a paper, something happens. That's why I'm out here three or four times a month. People think that, as a councillor, you click your fingers and something happens. It's just not like that. Sometimes you have to shock people with the reality of the situation.

"My job here is to change people's perceptions. We're not killjoys. But people being killed on the street - that's serious. You are not going to make London the greatest tourism centre in the world if you can't walk the streets."

4am. There has been another incident outside the Swiss Centre. A young black man has been attacked and has sustained significant facial damage. An ambulance and a police car are on the scene. Wilder asks the ambulance staff what happened, but no one seems to know. He records the aftermath for posterity, and we're on our way. "That's it," he says. "That's enough."