The period when Sutcliffe was walking the streets still haunts the collective zeitgeist. In many ways, his reign of terror was just as much a part of the collapse of post-war Britain that was happening in the late 70's alongside the Winter of Discontent, the rise of the National Front and the endless strikes, leading to the rise of Thatcherism.
Sutcliffe's ability to remain at large for so many years and run rings around the police's cockeyed, grotesque shambles that passed as an investigation coincided with the end of a certain type of policing which had been based on skill, local knowledge and hunches. What we got post-Ripper were police who relied on computer databases to tell them the necessary information.
In retrospect, it was a fascinating period that could tell us about the state of England at that time. And various authors have done so.
A young child during the Ripper murders, author Carol Ann Lee has put together a tome that is intended to focus and honour the women whom Sutcliffe attacked and murdered. Lee sums up their current legacy as being:
Relegated to a monochrome grid of faces and stripped of individuality, they are usually defined by a single dynamic; 'good-time girls' or prostitutes, and those who were 'respectable.'
Considering some of the horrendous commentary that still emerges from officers of that period about how "the feelings are deeper" whenever someone who wasn't a sex worker was killed, it's hard not to disagree with Lee's observation. Although the likes of Michael Bilton have discussed aspects of these ladies' lives, Somebody's Mother... is the first book where each chapter is intended to focus on the likes of Vera Milward, Helen Rytka and Jean Jordon.
A very honourable and genuinely fascinating concept.
Unfortunately, it does not live up to expectations. This is down to a number of reasons. Most of the research has been published elsewhere and, as a result, while each section is both heartbreaking and horrifying to read, there is really nothing new. It would have been a coup if Lee had been able to persuade some of the children of people like Vera Milward to come forward and speak about their memories and offer up their accounts. Sadly, this has not been the case.
Understandably, Lee is very protective of these women and how they have been treated by history. However, it leads her into situations where she either conceals or downplays certain elements of their story. For example, she bemoans that Joan Harrison has been reduced to an alcoholic in the grand narrative, but then, a few paragraphs later, admits that Harrison "...depended on alcohol." So, she was an alcoholic then?
Likewise, when discussing Jean Jordan, she relies on the recollections of her partner, Alan Royle. Yet she does not mention that someone, claiming to be Jean's eldest son, has written that:
none of us have seen Alan Royle since the day we were put into care by his then wife. Alan was locked up in prison at the time for car thefts. Alan Royle treated us all like excrement and has only ever cared about himself. We were locked in our bedroom for days on end and also, on one occasion, locked Jean in a cupboard for a week. please don't listen to a word this man says...
Of course, that might be complete fiction. But surely, with the author's desire to explore the casual misogyny of the period, it would make sense to put this claim to Royle?
Irritatingly, like Bilton's Wicked Beyond Belief, there is no mention of how two of the most senior officers in the Ripper investigation had framed innocent people (Oldfield - Judith Ward, Holland - Stefan Kiszko) and, as a result, saw them being parachuted into the top positions in the investigation.
Finally, and this is a crucial one, Lee barely scratches the surface when discussing the impact that the Ripper murders had on feminists in Leeds, who organised 'Reclaim the Night' marches. Instead of looking at the camaraderie it inspired and its lasting legacy on people like Julie Bindel, she spends most of her time linking this radicalisation with elements of popular culture which supposedly reflected the misogyny of the period and helped hinder the hunt for the Ripper.
One such example is Thin Lizzy's 1980 single 'Killer on the Loose.' Ostensibly based on Jack the Ripper, the video (screened on Top of the Pops) shows Phil Lynott wandering around a dark set with various women while headlines appear with supposed victims faces censored.
It's easy to see why people were upset with Philo and co. at the time of release but the material is more sensationalist than a genuine attempt at promoting misogyny.
Another example, although passed off quickly, is a tale of organised feminist groups attacking a cinema showing Brian de Palma's 1980 slasher/Hitchcock homage 'Dressed to Kill.' Although not discussed by Lee, Michael Caine (the star of the film) once claimed that the film was levelled with the charge that it would gee up the uncaught Ripper to kill again. Of course, Sutcliffe made no such claim at his trial or since.
Finally, a concert by "...the Iron Maiden band...." at Leeds University was also picketed by feminists, presumably because they saw a link between the band's 'Sanctuary' single and the Ripper attacks. Like Thin Lizzy, it was obviously a cheap publicity stunt and it can certainly be called exploitative in the context of the times. However, all three examples are low hanging fruit that Lee goes for.
At that time, Leeds had a vibrant art school (which spawned numerous bands like Gang of Four, Scritti Politti, Mekons and Delta 5) and a thriving underground for dub and reggae in Ripper haunting grounds like Chapeltown. It would have been interesting to read about how this fuelled the 'Reclaim the Night' marches and the tension between creativity and knowing that someone out there was killing people at random in the student territory.
A missed opportunity.
Carol Ann Lee, 2019, Somebody's Mother, Somebody's Daughter: True Stories from Victims and Survivors of the Yorkshire Ripper. Michael O'Mara Books Ltd ISBN-13: 978-1789290394
⏩Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.