What is the fascination of murder trials? I like to think it isn’t just ghoulishness, or there-but-for-the-grace-of-God. A big trial, reported in loving detail, tells you how someone died. But more revealingly it tells you how they lived. You find out what they did at 9 and 10 and 11 o’clock that night (and perhaps every night) up to the point when, on that particular date, they were killed.
Similarly with the killer. You learn exactly what his or her life consisted of, apart from the moment of picking up the axe, the gun or the carving knife. Nowhere else do you find such a precise light shed on the everyday secret world other people inhabit (and that you inhabit for other people).
Fiction attempts it, but less precisely. Or at least the realistic school of thriller writers does: Ian Rankin, for example, with his Inspector Rebus series, set in the grimier streets of Edinburgh; or Michael Dibden, with a book like Dead Lagoon, set in the even grimier back alleys of Venice. Most contemporary fiction, written in Britain is tempted off into fantasy (Salman Rushdie), history (Pat Barker) or sentimentality (Joanna Trollope). Gorden Burns’s book on the Yorkshire Ripper, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, is the best account you’ll read of life on the grey side of Yorkshire industrial cities. It’s much better than his later excursions into fiction.
Nor do film-makers help much. For some mysterious reason of national psychology, British films are almost always set in the past. (The honourable exceptions usually win prizes but not audiences.)
If, like me, you have this weakness for reading crime reports, you don’t get much help these days from the popular press. Even the News of the World is devoted almost entirely to the minor misdeeds of film, television and rock stars. The classic place for crime reporting is now the Daily Telegraph. But fans had a narrow escape. When he took over almost ten years ago, the now departing editor Max Hastings is said to have wanted to scrap the paper’s famous Page Three-renowned for headless corpses, not topless lovelies. It was as if the College of Cardinals, meeting in conclave in the Sistine Chapel after the departure heavenwards of a reigning pontiff, decided that the best thing would be not to have a new pope. Some things are central to any institution. Page Three stayed.
More fully than any other newspaper, the Telegraph chronicles the shadowy world of squalid provincial bedsits, and of runaways from council care, which is the backdrop to the sensational Rosemary West trial at Winchester crown court following the gruesome discoveries at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester.
For those of you who haven’t been there recently, or who only made a flying visit to the magnificent cathedral, Gloucester has a very Trollopian sound (both Anthony and Joanna). No one can take away the historical importance of the cathedral, one of the first places-perhaps the very first-where, in the early 14th century, the classic English architectural style, the Perpendicular, emerged in all its eccentric glory. But the cathedral, at the far end of Westgate Street, is now an enclave in a city of a very different kind. Gloucester’s historical importance has drastically dwindled. Most of the town has sunk into shabbiness.
Cromwell Street, where the Wests lived, is a slum, a dog-leg of 19th century houses running down to a park. In a city with any economic vigour to it, these houses would have been gentrified. Far from it. Most people walking in the street carry either a can of beer or a baby. At the end of the street stands a statue of Robert Raikes, the founder of the Sunday School movement, one of Gloucester’s great-and-good. The civic fathers of the more recent past gave their energies to demolition, thinking that this would create a better present. (They were thus acting out, unconsciously, Bakunin’s anarchist slogan, “The act of destruction is also a creative act,” which for years was graffiti’d on to a wall near my home in North London.) But the economy of Gloucester, based on engineering and the docks, couldn’t be restored.
When I was last in the lacklustre city centre, New Age travellers were busking with didgeridoo and drums. A more traditional cadger played Amazing Grace on a portable Yamaha organ. A kiosk sold samosas to lunchtime secretaries, and a man in a string vest and tattoos stood staring at their bare midriffs. Two threatening-looking Rastafarians hung around outside a building society branch office. The Eastgate shopping centre, a little plaque told me, was built in 1972 (at the nadir of postwar urban re-development), and pedestrianised in 1991. As always, the new fad of closing streets to traffic makes them seem even sadder. Poundstretchers, Poundbusters: these are Gloucester’s characteristic shops.
Writing about New York a few years ago, Jonathan Raban decided that the city was divided into street people, who drifted around in penury at ground level, and air people, who paid huge sums of money for tiny apartments in the sky. In Gloucester you have street people and cathedral people. As soon as you enter the cathedral close you are surrounded by people in sensible suits and frocks-like going into a National Trust restaurant.
Only a few streets away from the Wests’ house, but a whole life away. Or a death. n