Friday 16 May 2014

On Ian Brady

Ian Brady, the surviving Moors Murderer, has been in prison since 1966 and is reported to be showing signs of dementia. Intense media interest surrounded last year's public tribunal to assess his request to be transferred from a high security hospital to an ordinary prison. Brady is always the object of scrutiny and speculation because he was, and remains, unknowable - not least, one suspects, to himself.

It was the first appearance in public since his trial almost half a century ago for the murder of five children aged between 10 and 17 - Pauline Reade, John Kilbride, Keith Bennett, Lesley Ann Downey and Edward Evans. There are almost certainly other victims - perhaps as many as ten in all. Anyone who has read Beyond Belief , Emlyn Williams' harrowing 1967 account of the crimes, will know what it was that Brady and his accomplice Myra Hindley did. Although Williams spares us the grislier details (of which there are many, many), there's still more than enough to give any reader sleepless nights. Those of us who have read the book will find it hard to disagree with the trial judge, Mr Justice Atkinson, who described the accused as "two sadistic killers of the utmost depravity" and Brady as "wicked beyond belief". Whatever the outcome of the recent tribunal Brady will never be released from prison. Hindley died, aged 60, in 2002. Brady, at 75, seems to enjoy good health.

Is Brady mentally ill? Since expert opinion is divided on the subject I feel entitled to weigh in with a wholly unprofessional view. What Brady wants, and desperately, is a context within which his narcissistic dreams of omnipotence can be fully, or even partially realised. He craves recognition and endorsement. To this end he wants to be transferred to an ordinary prison where he reportedly plans to starve himself to death.

I believe that any future tribunal should determine what precisely it is that Brady most wants, and then flatly refuse to let him have it. Or alternatively agree to his demands to the letter and then, at the very last moment, when his hopes are high, withdraw the arrangement. The attraction of such an approach is that it keeps him alive (and let's assume that he is telling the truth when he claims he will starve himself to death). This is both a superficially humane thing to do and the thing he least wants. When he asks why he is being subject to such humiliating 'ill treatment' the official explanation should echo that of Marlowe's Mephistopheles, who blandly tells the damned Faustus when asked much the same question: 'To bring you to despair'.

Brady says he cannot bear the company of what he calls "stupid robotic" people and prefers "eclectic, intelligent conversation". Don't we all? He should, I think, as part of his treatment, be forced to spend long periods in the company of the most boring, fatuous, trivial, robotic and loquacious convicts currently serving time, and ideally at the end of each day so that he can't get it over with first thing. Chris Huhn M.P. has now been released from prison, but there's no shortage of other potential companions.

Brady has shown absolutely no remorse for the murders and is supposedly beyond rehabilitation. Or perhaps it's closer to the truth to say that the methods of rehabilitation available to to us depend for their effect on his full co-operation. And since for the past half century he hasn't co-operated at all his narcissistic personality disorder, if that's what it is, has remained unexamined and unchallenged. Perhaps despair (through boredom, or irritation, or frustration, or mockery) would lead him to co-operate with the psychiatrists he so condescendingly loathes. 

He spent twenty years of his incarceration (and I find this very hard to believe) creating books in Braille for blind children. I don't want to have to think about that, and only hope it was the kind of repetitive, mind-numbing and soul-draining task that picking okum or sewing mailbags used to be for nineteenth century convicts. He has reportedly studied German (although I expect this is prompted by his admiration for all things Hitlerian) and psychology, and has access to books, television and radio. He is a diligent letter-writer and has occasional visitors. The high security arrangements surrounding him do seem, to a remarkable degree, designed to accommodate his own self-regulation, his own nihilistic whims.

He has been on hunger strike since 1999 and force fed daily. In fact (as the tribunal  established to considerable public indignation), this 'force-feeding' is self-administered as he controls the machine that delivers liquid nutrition through a nose-tube. He also has toast for breakfast and makes himself instant soups in his cell, using hot water supplied by warders. It's hardly a balanced diet and it's not the most attractive of lifestyles. But it's also not  a hunger strike.

Apart from exposure to boredom and a constant thwarting of his wishes, something else I'd like to imagine happening to Brady is a continuous stream of minor, humiliating irritations that make him an object of ridicule to his fellow inmates. Nobody should take him seriously. He should never have a really good day, and every day should, so to speak, be better than the next. In that direction, conceivably, lies redemption. 

Monday 12 May 2014


Simulacrum (noun): the appearance of religious imagery in natural phenomena - you know the sort of thing: the prophet Mohamed on a slice of toast; Christ on a banana skin.

The Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared in the following contexts recently:

a fence in Coogee, Australia

a hospital in Milton, Massachusetts

a felled tree in Passaic, New Jersey

a rock in Ghana

an underpass in Chicago,

a lump of firewood in Janesville, Wisconsin

a chocolate factory in Fountain Valley, California and

a pizza pan in Houston, Texas.

A grilled cheese sandwich, a pretzel and a pebble said to resemble images of the Virgin Mary have been offered for sale on internet auction sites.

Make sense of this who will.

Saturday 10 May 2014

Post Office sexism shock

A press release from the Post Office introducing a new range of twelve stamps illustrating "some of the most popular shows from over 60 years of children’s television". You can see the stamps here.

The characters are, chronologically:

Andy Pandy and Teddy
Ivor the Engine
Dougal (from The Magic Roundabout)
Windy Miller (Camberwick Green)
Mr Benn
Great Uncle Bulgaria (the head of the Womble family)
Paddington Bear
Postman Pat
Bob the Builder
Peppa Pig and
Shaun the Sheep

The press release continues: "Stamps are designed so each character ‘breaks out’ of the border".

Up to a point; one border remains unbroken-out-of. Apart from Peppa Pig (who is, one can't help noticing, a pig) all the characters are male (although that's a term tested to breaking point in the case of Andy Pandy). This is reflected in their bilabially plosive names - Bob (builder), Pat (postman), Paddington (Bear), Bagpuss (bag, puss) and Ben (no first name, and a bit of an enigma).

We don't expect today's Post Office to be trailblazers in progressive social values - this isn't the 1930s - but surely even the dimmest Marketing wonk at Mount Pleasant could see that this is a Bad Thing.

Who might they have chosen? From The Magic Roundabout for a start there's Florence (the lead character, as I recall) and Ermintrude the trilling pink cow. Camberwick Green had a large cast of female characters (the dotty Mrs Honeybun comes immediately to mind); the Mitford-like Lady Rosemary from The Herbs; Little Weed, Bill and Ben's shrieking amanuensis; the psychedelic Crystal Tipps (who had a biddable dog named Alistair); Mary (of Mary, Mungo and Midge fame); Daisy the capricious diesel railcar (in the Thomas the Tank Engine books and films, although the female engines all tend to be temperamental and unreliable while the steam locomotives are all decent hard-working chaps - Edward, Henry, Toby, Percy and so on. Middle-class too. Thomas's carriages (Annie and Clarabelle) are female and all the trucks are grubby uncouth proles. Then of course there's . . . but enough already.

No. Not enough. Miss Zaza and Miss Kiki (cat and frog respectively, friends of the pompous hound Hector, who had a House); most of the Tellytubbies (I think); Tiny Clanger (although the Clanger gender isn't easy to establish and I don't care to speculate about their secondary sexual characteristics); Mrs Pogle of Pogle's Wood (and you'd be forgiven for not remembering that). And finally there's Looby Lou (Andy Pandy's rag doll companion) with her suggestive theme song:

Here we go looby Lou
Here we go looby Lie
Here we go Looby Lou
All on a Saturday night.

It really wouldn't surprise me if Looby Lou didn't prompt the rise of laddette culture in the 1990s. She's the prototype for the gobby 'post-feminist' Caitlin Moran.

And, come to think of it, how about Dora, the kohl-eyed and nervy stable girl from Follyfoot? Somebody once convinced me that Ted Hughes wrote the scripts for that overwrought Yorkshire drama, based on books by Monica Dickens. Admittedly Dora was played by a human being, Gillian Blake, but there's no reason that 'much loved children's characters' shouldn't be living breathing creatures. There's Rolf Harris, Jimmy Saville . . . 

Really enough already. Great piece here by Germaine Greer in the current New Statesman on the failures of new feminism. the failures of new feminism.

Thursday 8 May 2014

On the Hogarth Roundabout

The Hogarth Roundabout Flyover in West London will never be embedded in the landscape, never be softened by time and use and affectionate regard. It's likely to remain a permanent 'temporary solution' until the heat death of the universe, or at least until a local architect called Richard Gooden gets his way and the smoggy cacophony becomes an underpass beneath a serene water meadow.

In his scheme this stretch of the A4 would be buried, a new green space shielding local houses from the hubbub and we shall all be invited to enjoy (the heart sinks) a 'terraced landform'.  He proposes a new public space to be called the Hogarth Eyot, linking the riverside to the north side of the A4. This is Ian Nairn's derided Municipal Rustic with knobs on.

The flyover itself, which appears to have been bolted together overnight by a squadron of drunken sappers, employs something called the Bridgway system, the sole product of a company run by the then Minister of Transport, Ernest 'Ernie' Marples, a former miner and opportunist chancer who saw no conflict between the public good and his own single-minded accumulation of great wealth. Think Meccano on a Brobdingnagian scale.

Shortly after becoming a junior government minister in November 1951, Marples resigned as Managing Director of Marples Ridgway but continued to hold most of the firm's shares. When appointed Minister of Transport in October 1959 he undertook to sell his shareholding in the company as he was now in clear breach of the House of Commons' rules on conflicts of interest, but for no doubt honourable reasons he failed to do so. When the press reported that his firm had won the tender to build the Hammersnith Flyover (the Ministry of Transport's engineers having endorsed the London County Council's rejection of a much lower tender) Marples was caught on the hop and sold his shares to his wife, allowing him to buy them back at the original price after leaving office.

In 1959 Marples opened the M1 motorway with some wild-eyed observations to the gathered press that could have been scripted by Peter Cook for Beyond the Fringe: 'On this magnificent road the speed which can easily be reached is so great that senses may be numbed and judgement warped. The margin of error gets smaller as speed gets faster. New motoring techniques must be learnt. So here are my two suggested mottos: First: take it easy, motorist! And second: if in doubt, don't!.'

Such thoughtful caution was entirely out of character for Marples, whose political career and social standing came to a sudden end in a collision of tax fraud, Rachmanism, sleaze and tarts. He fled to Monaco on the night ferry in 1975 and eked out the rest of his life in a Rhône château with a vineyard and happy memories of a selfless public service and personal enrichment. His legacy is substantial, if largely ignoble: he introduced parking meters and the MOT test, single yellow lines, double yellow lines and traffic wardens; he dissolved the British Transport Commission (which oversaw railways, canals and freight transport) and paved the way for a Tory crony called Dr. Beeching to wreak havoc on the nationalised railway system.

The Chiswick Flyover (a few minutes to the west of the Hogarth Roundabout) has a special appeal, and  not only as the concrete resting-place of East End villains who fell out with the Kray Twins. It was opened by the lavishly-breasted Hollywood starlet Jayne Mansfield, who was in England to film Too Hot to Handle at MGM's Boreham Wood studios. She arrived in a limo to a chorus of workmen's wolf whistles, cut the official red ribbon with a pair of gold-plated scissors and patted the contractor's bulldog on the head. 'Sweet!' she was reported as saying.

Letters to the Brentford and Chiswick Times complained about the choice of the American star. The organisers replied that they had approached both Donald Campbell and Stirling Moss, who were unavailable. One can only marvel at the line of reasoning that led to extending an invitation to la Mansfield, or the incentives that persuaded her to accept. The organisers, stung by the criticism, retorted:

'We felt […] that 30 months work and the completion of Britain’s first flyover deserved a little celebration”,  […] We could see no reason why any politician or fuddy-duddy should be invited. We feel that Miss Mansfield did a first-class job in a very charming manner.'

Mansfield died aged 34 in 1967 when her Buick Electra 225 ploughed into the back of a tractor-trailer. This led to a change in American law requiring all such trailers to be fitted with a metal underside guard, known to this day as a Mansfield bar (see below).

But back, again, to the Hogarth Roundabout. You can circle the site in a quarter of an hour or so, savouring the yeasty belch of the nearby Fuller's brewery. You'll at some point come to a low gate on your left, set between iron railings leading to a public courtyard, at the river end of which an elegant three-story Georgian house stares blankly at the fuming havoc of west London's traffic. On a wall to the left is a small plaque marking the site where Vanity Fair's heroine Becky Sharpe flings her improving book - a copy of Dr Johnson's Dictionary - out of her carriage window and into the garden as she leaves. The constant doppler roar and the toxic emissions aside, this is a serene Georgian enclave (below), set improbably amid the continuous racket of eastbound traffic humping over the flyover, and westbound traffic grinding and growling underneath. It's a place like no other, but you'll need earplugs. Nearby is Hogarth's house, his 'Little Country Box', a museum since 1909. In the garden a 300-year-old mulberry tree from which Jane, his wife, made mulberry tarts for  local children. 


Something very similar to the Hogarth Roundabout Flyover can be found in Essex: the Army and Navy Roundabout, built in1978 on the A138 - 'one of the most famous roundabouts in Chelmsford' as one website winningly describes it. This combines two features that may at first sight seem incompatible, being both single lane and bidirectional, traffic heading citywards until 2:30pm and in the opposite direction after that, until the thing closes down nightly at 9pm. Head-on collisions are commonplace. What would Ernie Marples say?

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Salvete redux

My first blog since January, and with good reason. I wanted something special to restart Salvēte, so here's a link to my interview with Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, in the current online issue of The White Review.

Her debut novel was the subject of two earlier blogs. It's now published by the mighty house of Faber, has been shortlisted for many big prizes (having won the inaugural Goldsmith Prize last November) and will be coming out in the States in September from Coffee House Press.