Striking Out

Underneath a motorway bridge.

One day when I was about 13 I realised I could just walk out of town whenever I liked, with the only limits being time and the weather.

My home town is really one big outskirt – not confidently urban, but not quite rural either; a place where you can stand surrounded by concrete and factories while enveloped in the stink of manure.

I was raised as a town boy – the countryside was a thing you sped through in a car on the way to the seaside or Taunton – but couldn’t help wondering what was out there, beyond the sign that announced our twinning with La Ciotat and Uherské Hradiště. What was on those hills I could always see in the distance, where snow sometimes sat while town was as grey as ever? What was up that lane? Where did the filthy old river go?

First, I tested the boundaries, walking a little further each time. The motorway felt like a barrier but I crossed that easily enough, my flat feet slapping their way across a pavement barely used. On the other side, just barely, I found the hamlet of Horsey and thought, well, there it is: I’ve walked to another place. I tried the same on the other side of town, passing under the motorway this time, and found Dunwear.

Then I really stretched myself, walking beyond the point where the pavement ended, past the absolute feathertips of town. Trudging alongside the A39 was dangerous which added to the thrill but I knew the rules (face the traffic) and there were verges to retreat to if need be.

A tractor on a country road.

It’s impure countryside out that way: stalked by crackling pylons, littered with fast food wrappers and fly-tippings, and with the constant sound of the motorway boring away like a dental drill. At certain stretches it feels as if there’s more roadkill than road. But compared to the estate it was open, wild and fecund.

That time I made it to the King’s Sedgemoor Drain, which looks like a river but was built by men. There was a path that I wanted to follow but it seemed as if I’d already gone too far from home so I turned back.

Next time, I did go that way, stopping to eat a sandwich with a view across fields of gaudy yellow rapeseed, with the tower of Sutton Mallet Church in the distance. I may have read some poems, which was the kind of thing done by the kind of person I thought I wanted to be then. It was warm and insects as big as shuttlecocks made ceremonial flypasts. I thought, ah, there it is — this England I’ve heard so much about.

I went out time and again, taking different routes, going beyond and beyond again, until one day I was taken with the most pathetic, suburban version of exploration mania you can imagine and didn’t turn back when I should have. Stranded in Huntspill as night fell I found a payphone and called to be picked up. In the car home, with aching feet and muscles, I felt like Edmund Hillary.

All of this, I suppose, was training for life, a kind of straining at the leash. Timid and reticent as I was, and am, I never wanted to stay at home forever.

First stop Bawdrip, next stop the world.

The Kid

A faceless ghost child.

My life would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to spend all day, every day, looking after this obnoxious kid.

I’m trying to live a life here – to have fun, get things done, make the most of my allotted time – but there he is, bringing me down, looking up at me with that pathetic expression.

And he’s a coward. If I think of doing anything messy or dangerous he gets into a terrible state, holding me back with all his petulant strength. He’s much happier when we do the same things, in the same places, with no chance of humiliation. Every now and then I assert my authority and take a risk despite the kid’s pleading and it’s almost always worth it, which makes me resent the drag he generates all the more.

When I want to make conversation with strangers he distracts me with constant demands for attention, pulling at my sleeve, in agonies of shyness so that I stumble over my words and end up only half-engaged. When I come away, I’m as angry at myself as I am at the kid.

Can you believe I have to take him to work, too? Have you ever tried to project dynamism and ambition when there’s a child standing next to you giving the old stage whisper: “We shouldn’t be here. You’re making us look stupid. These people are laughing at us.”

The kid likes me to keep my head down because he equates being noticed with being mocked. He makes me eat too much, and bad food at that. He won’t let me wear anything too smart or stylish, pointing mournfully at his own clothes – the cheap coat from the market stall, the hand-me-down trousers, the black daps. I end up watching the same old films, the same TV programmes, because he finds some comfort in them and shuts up for a few bloody minutes.

He has catalogued every time I’ve ever put my foot in my mouth or done something stupid and will suddenly remind me of those moments when I’m feeling at peace or content. How does he know the worst possible time? Does he do it with malice?

In his nastiest moments, the kid even tries to stop me writing, though he’s the one that got me started on all this. He knows the more I write, the less time I have to address his constant, petty neediness. In fact, the more I write about him, the more he fades into the background. He’s telling me right now not to post this, not to share the link on Twitter, listing reasons it will backfire on me.

Of course he’s not all bad. If it wasn’t for the kid it would never occur to me to stop by the waterside and skim stones, or sit cross-legged building sandcastles. Every now and then – this is when I like him best – he laughs, and it’s a lighter, freer laugh than mine.

And when I see the kids some other people have to drag around with them – bruised, broken, full of rage – I know I got off easy.

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.