Sunday 10 May 2015

London Wanderings #4 - Whitechapel murders and "bad boys"

I was in WH Smiths the other day, and saw their new Jack the Ripper magazine/bookazine thing (which still feels more comfortable to say than just using the term 'bookazine', which feels completely unnatural). It had a sticker on the front making it clear this was a 125th Commemorative publication.

That's stuck with me a little bit. I suspect it was the 'least bad' wording choice, if anyone had second thoughts about it. It maybe lacked the obviously disrespectful connotations of 'celebration' and added at least an element of memorial over 'anniversary'. But it was still clumsy and still stuck with me.

My feelings about it are partially influenced by the amount of media that does celebrate crime. Especially London crime.

I've seen two trailers recently that made me think about this particularly. One of them was a trailer for the new Krays movie with Tom Hardy playing both of the twins. And the other was for London Live's "Bad Boys" real crime season.

They're very different propositions. Almost purely based on the fact that Tom Hardy's involved, I expect the Krays film to be a bit more thoughtful and interesting. Whereas, based on the way it was sold, I expected the London Live series to be a bit more Danny-Dyer-style "proper naughty", and primarily looking at just how cool various gangsters were.

This glorification irritates me. I get it, to an extent. With Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper being such culturally defining points to Victorian London, it's difficult not to think about crime with London. And it's difficult, any time you discuss crime, to do so in a way that's not glorifying in any way. It's interesting, it's fascinating.

It's a fascination that I understand as well. I've been fascinated with the Jack the Ripper murders from a very young age (as a natural consequence of my childhood fascination with Sherlock Holmes). But as I've grown up, I've become more interested with the society of the time, and the lives led by the murdered women than in the mystery behind the case. If you have interest in this area, I strongly recommend Philip Sugden's book, the Casebook of Jack The Ripper, which is an in-depth and utterly fascinating look at the murders, victims and London at the time (see below).

If you've ever seen the League of Gentlemen (and if you haven't, you absolutely should), you may remember the two young film fans, judging films by how many killings there are. When crime is glorified, and the victims glossed over, I think we lose something. We create a myth that is seductive and cool, but misses the deeper understanding. Rather more than the gangsters of the 50s and 60s, I find the society of the time interesting and why they gained such power.

I don't particularly believe in honour amongst thieves and murderers. I don't particularly care whether the Crays "may have been bad boys, but they loved their mum". These things make simple stories, and London is more fascinating when you look at the complexities.

Crime used as a way to explore London can be fascinating. The Whitechapel murders as a filter to view London of the time can be fascinating. The Krays and the like as a way to look at London in decades past, and understand how these things worked, is fascinating. And the psychology behind the murderers is fascinating.

Reducing it down to hard men, bad boys and cloaked men in top hats and knives isn't fascinating. It's fetishistic and simplistic. And I think there's more to the people involved, more to the city involved and more to all of us than that.


If you're interested in learning more about the Whitechapel murders, I'd recommend reading the following - and while I'm linking to Amazon, if you can pick these up at your local bookshop, it's always worth doing so.

The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sugden. This isn't just the best book out there on Jack the Ripper. It's also one of the best books about Victorian London. Its very in-depth, but Sugden makes it relatively easy to read. A great book.

From Hell by Alan Moore. This graphic novel is astonishing, and a completely different beast to the movie (although I enjoy the movie). It's an exploration of the murders, the victims, the nature of murder itself and an occult take on London.

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