CARDIFF’S Tiger Bay docklands is often romanticised and the attraction was obvious to Nadifa Mohamed - even amid the dark, sinister tale that had drawn her interest.

“I fell in love with it,” says the London-based author of the district that in the 1950s was already a long established thriving multicultural community. Her interest in the city was sparked by a 1952 murder which would ultimately lead to the execution of an innocent man, British-Somali sailor Mahmood Mattan.

The tragic case first came to Nadifa’s attention via a 2004 newspaper article and her father, Jama - like Mahmood a seaman from British Somaliland - revealed he had known the unfortunate figure when they both lived in Hull.

The story, and her personal connections stayed with Nadifa, who 11 years later, and following her father’s death, began talking to those who lived in 1950s Cardiff and their relatives, and trawling through archives, letters and official documents.

The research work became her novel The Fortune Men which was published earlier this year and is longlisted for the Booker Prize.

“I don’t think you could write something, especially that takes so long to write, without falling in love with the characters and the place, I fell in love with that romance.”

However, Nadifa would discover much of the district she was falling in love with had been lost, including Mahmood’s old haunts, such as a milk bar run by his friend Berlin. Visiting Butetown, the 1960s redevelopment of the old Tiger Bay, and much of which is now the gentrified Cardiff Bay was, says Nadifa, “a bit sad”.

She explains: “So little of it remains, the way it should be. Any other part of the country, like in London, I’m sure it would have been maintained as some sort of historical neighbourhood but very, very little of it has been protected.

“You’re following the ghosts of people, of places. I would love Berlin’s milk bar, it would probably be one of the first Somali-owned businesses in the country, but it doesn’t exist. It was part of the demolitions in the 1960s so much of it is down to people’s memories, and their stories, but the physical remains are few and far between.”

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The novel traces Mahmood from the gallows in Cardiff prison to his early life in British Somaliland and his journey to Wales with the Merchant Navy, where in the 1940s he would marry Laura Williams.

Reality of life for a multiracial couple, who didn’t live in the city’s docklands, didn’t match the sometimes romanticised image. Due to the discrimination they faced in Cardiff they had, for a while, lived in Hull.

“Mahmood and Laura left Cardiff for Hull and Laura described it as the best times of their lives but I think she got homesick and one day Mahmood returned home and she wasn’t there,” said Nadifa.

Back in Cardiff the couple separated for a while and Mahmood displayed some erratic behaviour. But his life took a fatal twist when police questioned him in March 1952 about the murder of Lily Volpert at her outfitters and unofficial pawnbroker’s shop in Tiger Bay. He would hang for her murder that September.

Lily was found in a pool of blood and her throat cut by a razor while £100, equivalent to about £3,000 today, was stolen. She was murdered while her family ate dinner in the next room.

“That was one of the most shocking aspects of the crime and I think what made the police so eager to frame anyone because it wasn’t a typical crime,” said Nadifa. “Tiger Bay had a bad reputation for prostitution and some drug dealing, but not this kind of murder. The police used all of this kind of film language, they called him ‘the shadow’, ‘the silent killer’.

“They really did try and fit Mahmood into this kind of film noir stereotype, of this dark, dangerous man, who is ruthless and able to do this and get away with it, or think they could get away with it, up until they stop him getting away with it.”

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Nadifa, whose two previous novels were also historical-based fiction, delved into almost every aspect of 1950s Tiger Bay: “I’m a historian at heart, I think I write these novels because I love the history behind them.

“This novel was twice as big before it was published, it was 600 pages, and the detail was about that community and the politics and the Communists and the anti-colonialists that were amongst their ranks. That was another reason the police were suspicious of them because they were seen as radical.”

Not that Mahmood, a smooth-talking, cocky, petty criminal, was political: “It’s often the case that the people who kind of disavow politics are the ones that feel it as hard as possible.

“I think Mahmood was naïve to begin with, he thought he could say and do as he wanted without the state punishing him. He didn’t believe how cheap his life would be and I think others would have known that.”

In retelling the story of Mahmood, whose conviction was eventually quashed in 1998 following years of tireless campaigning by Laura and their three sons, Nadifa also wanted to honour the life of Lily Volpert who lost in her life in a crime for which no one has been brought to justice.

“It’s a double crime against them because they were hurt in the first place, in Lily’s case murdered, and there’s no justice for them and their own trauma gets buried under another person’s which in this case is Mahmood’s. So I wanted to bring Lily back as a central person in her own story and her family’s story. It wasn’t just a dead body, it was a whole life there.

“There’s lots to fall in love with. Laura’s rebelliousness and Lily’s family were also interesting feminist women trying to live independent lives in the 1950s.”

The novel hasn’t shied away from Mahmood’s faults, though he was undoubtedly more sinned against than sinning, and Nadifa found a strong bond: “There’s the connection of him being Somali and someone that my father knew, that was of the same generation, almost like a parallel to my father, so there’s a strong emotional connection to him.”

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