True Crime

A mural in South London.

There are lots of problems with ‘true crime’ writing.

First, so much of it feels as if it’s been written by a sweaty Dennis Franz-alike wearing a dirty vest in a seedy hotel. As if the writers would actually like to be doing the kinds of things they’re writing about, and are writing for people who feel the same. Pornography for repressed psychos, basically, or at least the chronically morbid.

Then there’s the stuff that goes out of its way not to wallow in the gore and physical horror but instead attempts to ‘tell the stories’ of those murdered and of those left behind. Sometimes it has a noble purpose — to ensure that the true weight of the crime is underscored as justice is administered; to keep the story in the news so that the case won’t be closed; or simply re-balancing attention from killer to victim. Too often, though, this also feels like pornography, albeit of a more subtle kind: ‘I can’t imagine what it must be like…’ (But with a shudder that sits somewhere between fear and thrill.)

Still other examples turn the police into unblemished heroes (The Badge);  massage them into archetypes (crusading, compassionate) for the sake of a neat narrative. It is about strong men struggling with demons, refusing to give up. This is another kind of fantasy, albeit often a reassuring one.

I’m thinking about all this because I’ll admit I used to be one of those weirdos who is somewhat interested in the Jack the Ripper case. It was something I came to as a teenager via Sherlock Holmes, and I guess Hammer Horror — not the best route, I now realise. At first, I was more interested in Victorian London, and books about Jack the Ripper were merely a useful, easily available vehicle for accounts of, for example, Jewish social clubs in Whitechapel in the 1880s, or the lives of those who slept hanging in rows on ropes for want of a bed.

Later, I began to feel a nagging irritation at the fact the case offered no closure. How could someone kill six women (the number is debated) and get away with it? Surely some papers would turn up, or a DNA test, wouldn’t they? (There is a whole industry devoted to ‘startling new evidence’.) My theory — because one had to have a theory — was that ‘Jack’ would prove to be the most boring, anonymous 20 to 35-year-old living on or near Flower & Dean Street, and definitely not a mad doctor or prince or whatever else.

I can pinpoint the moment when I realised this was not a healthy thing to be interested in — to have as something even vaguely resembling a ‘hobby’, for goodness sake. It was when a friend booked places on a Jack the Ripper tour of the East End one autumn evening during which the guide, with, I thought, evident glee, declared: ‘…and cut her open from vagina to breastbone’. He made the motion with his hand as he said it. The Americans on the tour giggled but I thought, very Englishly, ‘Steady on.’ He was quite the showman, he had a living to make, I understand all that, but it wasn’t right, and it cast the whole business into sharp relief.

I still have a couple of books about the case on my shelf (both long discredited, I gather) which I catch myself dipping into from time to time, but I haven’t bought any more since. I have also read other bits of true crime writing such as David Simon’s Homicide and the Library of America anthology. I listened to the first series of Serial like everyone else on the planet. The fact that true crime podcasts so often include long-winded justifications for their own existence betrays that their creators doubt their own motives: corpses + grief = subscribers.

Some of the true crime writing I’ve encountered, I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, but some gave me that sick feeling. So much of it concentrates on the killing of women, accurately reflecting the sad ways of the world, no doubt, but leaving me queasily asking… Why am I reading this? And why did they write it?

In recent years, driven primarily by determined female historians, thinking around the Ripper case in particular has moved on. It won’t be solved and in talking endlessly about the murderer, and especially in depicting him as a semi-mythical satanic figure akin to Spring-Heeled Jack rather than a sad arsehole, we do the victims a disservice. So, the new thinking goes, let’s look at and talk about them as whole people, who lived long, full lives before they became merely ‘victims’, if we absolutely must continue to dwell on this horrible case. To which end, Hallie Rubenhold is working on a book about the victims of Jack the Ripper due out next year; and Dr Fern Riddell’s Tweet thread on the same subject, from 2013, is here.

If Jack the Ripper destroyed Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly, and got away with it, the best justice we can now hope for is to put them back together with greater completeness and reverence than their humble lives might otherwise have prompted.

War Still Echoes

Inside a shelter.
The Spitfire base at Perranporth, Cornwall.

The recent surge in the visibility of fascism and fascist imagery is depressing. It’s become a cliche to say it but here goes: we had a war and settled this a while back, didn’t we?

What I’ve been thinking about lately, in particular, is how that ‘while back’ doesn’t even feel all that far back.

Yes, that feeling is partly a result of my being a relic of the 1970s but, really, you don’t have to look far, even in the leafy suburbs, small towns and countryside of Britain, to see great concrete chunks of World War II just lying around, like tombstones.

I went for a run up and around Purdown in Bristol the other day. My aim was to get to the base of the telecoms tower I’ve been able to see on the horizon for the last few weeks. Once I’d got past that, however, I was amazed to find myself picking a path through what were obviously the overgrown remains of gun emplacements.

Officially known as the Purdown Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery this site was first militarised in 1939 and the concrete structures were erected in 1940. Locally it was the source of the legend of ‘Purdown Percy‘, a supposedly secret, supposedly massive gun that could be heard across the city.

Fantastic as I found this survival I wasn’t surprised by its existence because, honestly, it sometimes feels like a challenge to go for a walk or ramble without stumbling across something like this.

Spitfire base, Perranporth.

On the Cornish coast in April my other half and I found ourselves diverted through the remains of a Spitfire base at Perranporth — overgrown, yes, but so complete that a Battle of Britain fighter squadron could probably operate out of it by this time next week if need be.

In my home town of Bridgwater pill boxes surround the railway station and line the canal all the way Taunton — brutal brick and concrete structures designed for no purpose other than war and preserved at first, I’ve always assumed, because no-one quite believed the peace would hold with Russia rampant; and then just forgotten about.

Even in London, built on and overbuilt and developed to a high shine, you can still see painted signs on Smith Square pointing to air raid shelters, and the remains of shelters themselves in parks and on side streets. Just look at the Citadel in St James’s Park, as I used to do on the way into work most mornings for about a decade — a bunker so bullying and intrusive, like a beached warship, that it has almost become invisible.

The war is still with us, even as those who remember it firsthand slip away from us.

The war is still The War.

The warning still rings.