Sunday, March 22, 2009

today : shadow of the ripper

I am really looking forward to seeing the Channel 4 TV adaptation of David Peace's Riding novels. I recorded all three films ready for a marathon. They are great novels. Today I listened to a bunch of TV reviewers talking about it and each had their own comments to make about West Yorkshire, even though none of them were from there. One guy seemed to throw in his Yorkshire birth as a way of legitimising his opinion that the County in the 1970s was as unrelentingly grim as the novels and films depict. All the reviewers seemed gleeful that the fiction buttressed their stereotype of the North as some grimy and grey hinterland to the Capital.

Using this logic, LA was unrelentingly grim, violent, corrupt and sickening in the 1950s. I know this because the novels of James Ellroy tell me so. I mention Ellroy because Peace's techniques are similar. He uses real streets, places, events and people from history to create a fictional documentary of the the times he is writing about. People often used the phrase imagined history. And like Ellroy his focus is the underbelly of violence, perversion lawlessness and psychological dysfunction that exists in any city.

The streets in the Red Riding novels are my streets. I grew up in Leeds in the 1970s. The events portrayed in the novels happen on playing fields where I played, roads I walked down and places I knew. It was, of course, from a junior school child's point of view, hardly grim at all. Although Peace's books reflect closely the geography of my childhood, they have little to do with my experience. The stories he exploits for his fiction - the missing children, the corruption, the vice and vermin were, at most, occasional headlines reported on Look North, the BBC local news show.

But there is one aspect of the Red Riding Quadrilogy (why Channel 4 have decided not to adapt 1977 I don't know) that was part of my experience, as it was part of everyone's experience. For many years we lived in the shadow of the Ripper.
I still often drive past the place where Jacqueline Hill was killed. It's near my childhood home where my parents still live. I still go by the playing fields where Wilma McCann was found, past the school where Jayne MacDonald was a pupil. I still drive by Peter and Sonia's house in Heaton. It stands out because of its elevation from the street.

My friend Jane grew up on the same street as the Sutcliffe family and knew both Peter and his brother Trevor for most of her young life. Her time living in proximity could even have crossed over with Peters first crimes - the ones that Keith Helliwell believes were committed by him. The normal seeming 18 year old would walk with her to and from the pub or the shops. They'd cut through the woods. She has a kind of morbid obsession with serial killers, devouring books and watching TV shows. It's understandable. I, conversely don't have an obsession. Yet each time I drive past these places they exert a strange power.

Jacqueline Hill was killed on a patch of overgrown land off Alma Road in Headingley. It's behind the old Arndale shopping centre, about half a mile from the test cricket ground. I use the road as a short cut and also like it because of the elegant 1930s art deco style houses. From a very early age I always wanted to own one, but never got round to it. Like all the sites where the Ripper took his victims, it's unmarked and has returned to being just a patch of overgrown land. When the murder happened it was so physically close to my home and to some of the places I hung out that it was kind of exciting. Part of this was the fact that we drove past there on the way to the supermarket and saw the police cordons and the portable cabin used as a police incident room; then we returned home and saw the same scene on the telly. There's something about seeing familiar, but not famous things on the TV. Years later, David Jason as Inspector Frost sat on a bench in Leeds where I once clumsily kissed a girl. I found it thrilling seeing the bench, knowing that my own secret history was on the TV.

But superficial childish excitement was fleeting. It seemed that the whole city was gripped by horror. The local papers and TV news were saturated with only one story and there seemed to be only one topic of conversation. More than once I can remember listening to my female Primary school teachers discussing The Ripper as they stood supervising us in the playground.

The Ripper actually changed peoples' behaviour. Certainly, as a child I was made aware of risk: the notion that some people were simply bad. As 13 year olds we went to the school youth club, and there was an interesting sense of community. Even at 8 or 9 at night when the youth club closed, we would walk home together in groups. As boys we'd take a route that meant that every girl was accompanied to their door. It was probably an over-reaction, but I suspect I made better friends with many more girls at school because of it. Later, in sixth form, our gang was made up of the boys and girls who'd walked home together years before.

I can't remember what I age I was - probably 9 or 10, but stories about the murders led me to look up words like 'prostitute' 'mutilation' and 'semen' in the dictionary.

The Ripper introduced us all to the fact that outside our schools and gardens the city possessed another side.
But my one abiding memory of the time comes from when I was almost fifteen. . When it came to the start of fifth year at school we had a careers week. It was made up of talks and visits to local employers. My school was, socio-economically, not of the highest echelon, which meant we didn't get to visit the University or the civil service. For us it was pretty much factory work plus the the army for boys and nursing for girls. The one trip I signed up for was to visit the police. I had no interest in becoming a policeman, but having already been to the tannery that still stands at the bottom of Scott Hall Road, and was literally a dark stench-filled satanic mill, seemingly unchanged since the industrial revolution, I didn't really want to visit any more factories.

So a bunch of us headed off into town to visit Millgarth Police Station. It was Millgarth that appeared on the proper BBC news whenever it reported on the hunt for the Ripper. George Oldfield himself would stand outside giving interviews, his bloated, stress-reddened face skewed against the wind blowing down the Headrow. Sometimes the reports would show the inside of his drab, strip-lit office.

Everyone was givena safety talk which was aimed at girls, and was about not going out alone in case of getting hideously killed. We sat and I remember it being a mild day and we were over-dressed, having sensibly worn coats on a school trip. We were shown around a police car (everybody wanted to use the siren but we were inside the garage and only allowed to switch the blues on and off, which was pretty anticlimactic) and then given a talk about the police. It wasn't really much to do with joining the police, but the generic talk to youths about not getting into trouble and, as we all lived in the shadow of the Ripper, there was a special bit delivered by a WPC, again warning the girls not to go out alone and get murdered. We sweated and fidgeted our way through it all. Our teachers yawned.

That was more or less it, apart from on the way out. The inspector showing us around stopped us on a green-tiled corridor and said "There's one last thing I want to show you." He gestured and we went in through some double doors. I'd seen this place on the TV and it was talked about in news reports and interviews.

We were in The Ripper Room. I remember it being quite large - high ceilinged and maybe 40 feet by 30, about the size of a couple of classrooms at my school. One wall was lined with filing cabinets, and piled on top of them were more file boxes, teetering in shambolic towers. There were several desks, one or two occupied by detectives. All the desks were piled high. Overwhelmed with stacks of paper. The floor was littered with yet more piles of file boxes and lever arch folders. Even with only one or two people working in there, it was utterly chaotic.
The inspector pointed at the filing cabinets and told us that they contained records of cars and car journeys. The idea was to cross reference all the cars travelling between the red light districts of Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield and Manchester. There was mention of using a computer in London (this was when computers were extremely rare, room sized collections of cabinets with large spinning tape reels, and restricted to secret warehouses run by men in white coats).

He seemed proud of the Ripper Room, yet even I and my schoolfriends, at fifteen, could see that it was totally dysfunctional. The room actually gave off a feeling of hopeless panic. We could see the psychological trauma the inquiry was inflicting on the West Yorkshire police. The Ripper room was all anyone needed to work out that the search for Britain's most wanted man of all time was failing and entirely out of control.

On the way back to school, the bus went past Scott Hall playing fields, where Wilma McCann was dumped, past the street where Jayne McDonald had lived, past the places where the next victim could be found at anytime.


  1. Point one; 1977 was not filmed due to the usual - MONEY. They decided to make 3 high quality 2 hour films rather than drop the quality to make the fourth.
    Point two; Alma Road has always figured high in my musings on life and death, otherwise known as teenage awakenings! As I walked past the deco houses (which I too hoped to own one day) I would consider the irony of the road named after a battle in the Crimea. A Crimean battle, how appropriately Victorian for Gothic Leeds. The road starts and ends with death, Jaqueline Hill's sorry dumping ground at one end and the more predictable deaths at the other where Wheatfelds Hospice is to be found. It continues with youthful hope passing the same halls of residence that Jaqueline failed to return to. A strange road that seems to summarise the stories to be found in suburbia, it still makes me reflect to this day nearly 30 years on from the Ripper's genuine reign of fear.

  2. You pretty much replaced the paragraph that I cut.