. . somebody's husband, somebody's son': The story of Peter Sutcliffe Gordon Burn (Heinemann £9.95)
Un Homme Nomme Zapolski Nicole Ward Jouve (Des Femmes, Paris 82fr) Blow Your House Down Pat Barker (Virago £2.95) It is three years now since Mr Justice Boreham pronounced sentence on Peter Sutcliffe, 'the Yorkshire Ripper'. 'It is difficult to find words that are adequate in my judgement to describe the brutality and the gravity of these offences, and I say at once I am not going to pause to seek those words. I am prepared to let the catalogue of your crimes speak for itself,' he said, recommending that Sutcliffe should not be released for at least 30 years. Others have sought adequate words. There were two books published about the murders before the 'Ripper' was caught, three more im- mediately after his trial, and the reverbera- tions continue, moving outwards.
Gordon Burn's book, put forward as 'the definitive account of the man and his Cranes', is instead, as its title suggests, an attempt to let those around Sutcliffe speak for themselves. It is a restrained produc- tion, its only photograph being of the author fingering his chin. It is based on two years of investigation
Sutcliffe's home town, Bingley, and its Principal source is his family, but not his Wife, who has had a disclaimer stuck in every copy. There is one significant re- search find here, that Sutcliffe used to visit a gory waxworks museum in Morecambe. Bum pushes this too hard, ending his book With a return to it, as if to suggest that it somehow constitutes a key to the crimes. However, the place's other patrons no doubt resisted its promptings. Similarly, he turns up an incident in which one of the Staff at the cemetery where Sutcliffe work- ed for a while was killed by a car 'fracturing
the back of his skull like an egg'. Burn's words echo those of a policeman at the time of the attack on Olive Smelt (who survived), so pointing the reader to another prefiguring.
This is surely to make the man's dark inspiration too plainly derivative. The real strength of `. . somebody's husband, somebody's son' lies in the portrait it gives of Sutcliffe's family and friends, in their own words. Indeed, it ends up being principally about them and not about him, whom Burn appears never to have met. Analysis is diligently avoided in favour of direct and indirect speech (given in an attempt at an impression of a Yorkshire accent, reminiscent of J. B. Priestley). When Burn appears to deliver himself of an opinion, it is artfully concealed in a section of reported speech: 'There was something in all of them that, even when they didn't need to, made them evade telling the truth. They always kept every- thing in.'
As a picture of a milieu, the book is vivid. In particular, the double standard and its concomitant aggression against women are strongly presented. 'Women are for frying bacon and screwin' is one notable résumé. Of Sutcliffe's brothers: `Socially, Carl was less of a liability than Mick, whose idea of "chatting up" a girl was to eye the front of her dress and tell her, "You wouldn't get many of them in a bucket" '. Of the father, John: 'He's like that wi' girls. He mauls 'em . . . If he's in pub an' any woman comes anywhere near, he'll always grab hold an' touch them, pretending to be joking an' messing around.'
One of Sutcliffe's friends, Trevor Bird- sall, was with him, both when he attacked a prostitute with a brick in a sock before his marriage — the police pressed no charges and later when he smashed in Olive Smelt's skull with a hammer. He did not report his suspicions to the police until shortly before Sutcliffe's chance arrest. But then he him- self, we are told, repeatedly beat his one-legged wife.
This is all so nasty that it is easy enough to see the slide from routine violence against women into what Sutcliffe did as never crossing any distinct line. And cer- tainly given the evidence of the Leeds football crowds chanting 'Ripper eleven, police nil!' and 'There's only one York- shire Ripper!' that conclusion is hard to resist. Auberon Waugh's belief that the Ripper was simply a particularly bad exam- ple of a Yorkshireman looks less outré, not amusing. One of the shocks of this book is finding what passed for normal where Sutcliffe was brought up. Yet the step from that to repeated murder remains. Although the form of an evil may be determined by its surroundings, its true source is not sufficiently accounted for in this way.
Ultimately, `. . somebody's husband, somebody's son' is a book with a hole in it where Peter Sutcliffe should be. The sound of the voices around him only makes his silence and absence from the scene ever more apparent. None of those near him, with the possible and ominous exception of his wife, understood him. If a journalist asks the acquaintance of a convicted mass- murderer if they ever noticed anything odd about him, he is unlikely to be told, 'No, nothing', I think. But what they have come up with is often not very substantial: 'The truth was that there was something about Peter that Christine found eerie; she couldn't put her finger on it, but there was something about him that seemed to be not quite right.' As a retrospect, this has the virtue of understatement, but it is not illuminating.
The main characteristic Sutcliffe is shown here "as possessing is a 'daft' smile, supplemented by a peculiar high laugh. `He'd shout out like a right shrill shriek an' the whole pub'd look round.' And when he was silent, 'You felt he was laughing inwardly all the time.' Sutcliffe's smile reappeared in court.
This gives no clue as to what went on inside. We are told two of Sutcliffe's favourite songs were 'Spider and the Fly' by the Rolling Stones (lump right ahead in my web') and 'Rainy Day Women Num- bers 12 & 35' by Bob Dylan (`Everybody must get stoned'). This information has a readability, a reference to commonplace meaning, that is immediate as little else said about him here is. But then we find his favourite author was James Herriot.
Burn doesn't commit himself about Sut- cliffe's diminished responsibility plea. John Sutcliffe, the father, is reported as making 'no bones about the fact that he thought the "voices from God" story was "bunk- um". He thought the best thing all round would have been if Peter had been hanged.'
Anyone who saw the television program- me about the Hillside murders in America is likely to agree with the jury's verdict that bunkum it was. Nevertheless, what Sut- cliffe said about his fantasies retains great interest, even if it was a calculated fiction (and perhaps it wasn't entirely — after all, , the guilty verdict didn't say that neces- sarily).
Sutcliffe claimed that God had spoken to him from the grave of 'Stanislaw Zipolski' (in fact Bronislaw Zapolski). Nicole Ward Jouve, a French feminist teaching in York, has published in Paris a 400-page investiga- tion into the sense of Sutcliffe's deeds and words. As she says, it is investigation into this that has been lacking, and was so disastrously absent from the West York- shire police force's obsession with garner- ing all possible facts — `No reading of the clues took place. No interpretation.'
Her book is not investigative but almost entirely an analysis of the available in- formation. Oddly enough, and although it is eccentric and too long, it gives, in many ways, a better understanding of Sutcliffe and his world than Burn's solid study.
Does she believe Sutcliffe's story then? Yes and no — mostly yes. 'It is not Sutcliffe's degree of consciousness that seems to me to matter here, but the meaning of everything he did. To know to what extent he is guilty or responsible seems to me to be a false problem, designed to exonerate the social body. Even if Sutcliffe invented his experiences (which I don't believe), what he was able to invent, what he chose to invent, is significant in itself. It is even possible that here the fictive may be as revealing as the "real".'
This is an equivocation, but perhaps a necessary one. The either/or terms forced upon the jury by the psychiatrists were unnecessarily limiting. (' If he heard the voice, then he was not responsible.') They have a rigidity, designed perhaps to put anyone hearing any voices at all beyond the pale. Yet St Augustine, for example, believed as a matter of course in the existence of malevolent demons; he equal- ly believed it was our duty to shun and resist them. The notion that their appear- ance could only be met by complete submission would have appalled him. But this is no doubt incomprehensible to the psychiatrist.
Un Homme Nomme Zapolski is in part a product of the higher French obfuscation. For a glaring example, comparison of the names Sutcliffe/Zapolski sets off a zealous exposition of the mystical conjunction s/z, copied from Barthes. Artaud, Genet, Rim- band and Sartre are also variously con- jured. The chapter telling the story is titled with great Gallic hauteur, 'Les "faits" '. There are severe footnotes on 'les "fish- and-chips" ' ('un rite regulier dans la vie des classes travailleuses') and 'les "bangers-and-mash" ' ('l'appellation fami- here des saucisses: parce que, sans doute, elles &latent en cuisant. "To go, not with a whimper, but with a bang", c'est faire une sortie percutante . . .'). That Sutcliffe kil- led 'where capitalism was born' with in- dustrial tools — hammer, screwdriver, Stan- ley knife and hacksaw blade — is seen as specially suggestive — 'a mushroom on the rot'.
But the book is full of good things too. She sets out to take Sutcliffe's thinking seriously. This is a remarkable thing to do, and she carries it off, partly, let it be said, by her readiness to track him beyond ordinary sense. There is an affinity be- tween French theorising and more home- grown delusional systems, and it gives her writing a kind of collaborative grasp. There was system in what Sutcliffe did. He had a fetish about shoes; he always attacked from behind; he never described himself as 'the Ripper' but always as 'the head- banger'. She offers reasons for these and other things. Some of them are bizarre, but then his reasons were not good ones. She places him in a broader context than does Burn, seeing him as a kind of demented summation of the mob — 'Was Sutcliffe's madness the carrier of a collective sense?' She tries to show ways in which it was so. Tracing Sutcliffe's attempts to 'make him- self a man with his "body-building" ', she prints extracts from the Marvell comics he read, with their images of great strength and destructiveness (Thor and his ham-. mer). She does not accept that Sutcliffe's violence was a creation ex nihilo, and wants to find its cultural origins.
Sutcliffe told his younger brother, 'I were just cleaning up streets, our kid. Just cleaning up streets.' Ward Jouve repro- duces a poem Sutcliffe sent to the Sheffield Star (ignored at the tithe in favour of the Wearside hoaxer who crucially deluded the police). It is signed 'The Streetcleaner' too, and she subjects it to an effective if overwrought analysis. Again, she gives (as Burn does not) the notice Sutcliffe would put in the screen of his lorry (itself literally a vehicle of his intoxication with force): 'IN THIS TRUCK IS A MAN WHOSE LATENT GENIUS IF UNLEASHED WOULD ROCK THE NATION, WHOSE DYNAMIC ENERGY WOULD OVERPOWER THOSE AROUND HIM. BETTER LET HIM SLEEP'. This document is an effective glimpse into a mind (as were, for example, the unforgettable last words of the Dusseldorf monster, Peter Kurten, before being guillotined, that he hoped he would enjoy hearing his own blood gurg- le). Sutcliffe was not joking — this, I think, is how he saw himself.
Un Homme Nomme Zapolski earns part of its force from the mere fact of having been written by a woman (as is melo- dramatically put forward at the start — 'I am one who survived'). Pat Barker's Blow Your House Down is a further attempt to come to terms with the murders. It depicts the lives of £5-a-time North Country prostitutes assailed by a killer evidently modelled on Sutcliffe. As a novel, it is structurally unsound; its narrative falls off, and when one of the women stabs a man whom she believes to be the murderer, it is not quite clear whether she is mistaken or not. Since nearly all the women depicted are prostitutes and the men punters, it sounds excessively symbolised, but in fact it is sufficiently precise to avoid the pitfall. It succeeds as a plain study of what these lives are like and is no abstract metaphor.
St Augustine writes about evil as a
turning or falling away from the good — perversitas, aversio, defectio, lapsus, de- formitas, deviare. That Sutcliffe was de- clared to be guilty rather than mad was the more courageous decision, because it in- volves us. If we are to have good, we must recognise evil not as an independent aberration, but as the absence of good, to which we are all subject. And as Nicole Ward Jouve says, even in Sutcliffe's private life there is the germ of those horrors which we cannot now avoid treating as of public moment. The trial irretrievably made them so. For better or worse, the case of l'eventreur du Yorkshire' — includ- ing the disgraces the police and the press brought upon themselves — has become part of British public life.