In which The Author serves up some university leftovers
I don’t remember my dreams in sufficient detail to keep a proper dream diary. A couple of years ago, as you might remember, my friend Josie was doing her PhD on the psychology and neuroendocrinology of dream states. Because of my chronic insomnia and fragmentary recall, I had to decline her invitation to join the study. (On the other hand, maybe some time in a sleep lab would allow the researchers to figure out why I can get by on barely four hours’ kip every night.)
Anyway, the change of season seems to have ushered in a fresh wave of interesting – if fleeting – night-time adventures. With this in mind, I’ve decided to do what Carys and I talked about six years ago, and keep a notebook and pen on the bedside table. Even if I don’t come up with anything which Josie would have found useful, I can at least jot some notes down on first waking.
I always used to carry a small notebook with me, and I’d jot down ideas for song titles, outlines for stories, pithy observations about friends and strangers, bits of overheard conversations, and so on. This raw material gave rise to my early blog entries on MySpace, some of which are preserved in the Archives. I’ve got a number of these little red books, but I haven’t looked at them for ages.
When I went back to university in 2009, I started carrying a notebook again. I was doing a Creative Writing module, and I quickly got back into the habit of recording useful snippets for future reference. Some of them developed into decent ideas (that was how ‘Pit Stop’
, my Doctor Who/Torchwood fanfic story, came about). Others fell by the wayside when I was forced to abandon my studies.
On Sunday evening I dug out one of my old notebooks and took it upstairs with me. There were a couple of blank pages which would do for recording any bizarre or interesting dreams I had that night.
I found that it contained several rambling pages of notes for an essay I was writing about Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem
(my second-year assignment). I’d obviously been working on in the pub, and I’d made a couple of attempts to put my ideas on paper as they occurred to me. I’d already been to London to see the area for myself (see Limehouse Blues and Twos
), so I can only assume I was writing soon after my expedition.
I read my notes again, and I’d forgotten just how much work I’d put into this piece. There’s even a separate ‘mental map’ of connections between the various elements of the story and my own observations, which I drew to help and tie everything together, headed by the words How the fuck do I structure all this? Considering that we were supposed to submit our drafts as well as the finished piece, I was either on course for a decent mark or a psych assessment. You can decide for yourselves.
I know there’s no structure to it; I know I’ve repeated some parts; I’m well aware that I’ve drifted into a more personal reflection towards the end of the draft. It’s just a rough outline, not a finished assignment. It doesn’t even make sense to me any more; I was just putting ideas down as they came to me.
Where there’s a gap between paragraphs, that reflects my original writing style. As each new avenue became apparent, I separated them out, with the intention of putting them in order later on. I’ve inserted extra material in [brackets], indicating things which might need explaining from an outsider’s point of view.
Where I needed to check things later on, I made a marginal note to myself. I’ve set these marginalia in bold, so you can see where my train of thought stopped at the amber lights here and there. (You’ll also see the exact point where it was derailed entirely, and took a long time to get going again.)
It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get round to finishing this off properly, and even less likely that I’ll have a chance to submit it for assessment. But I thought I’d post it in case I lose my notebook, as I still think it’s worth preserving. (Well, I would think that, wouldn’t I?)
Fiction, History and Psychogeography in Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem
Ackroyd quote to start (Dark House Walk)
London’s ‘dark secret life’ lies at the heart of Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Ostensibly a Victorian murder mystery, this complex narrative is as much a meditation on late nineteenth-century morality, and an examination of our obsession with the most hideous aspects of our society. In true Ackroyd tradition, real people are woven into the story so deftly that one almost expects to find the contemporary news reports in the British Library archives.
At the heart of the story are Elizabeth Cree, a gender-bending music hall performer who learns her craft from Dan Leno, and her husband John, a journalist and (if his diary is to be believed) serial killer. Elizabeth’s account of her dysfunctional childhood and her reinvention as a succession of stage personae, is interwoven with extracts from John’s diaries. These describe in graphic detail the brutal murders which he has perpetrated in an attempt to emulate the Ratcliffe Highway murders.
In December 1811 the Marr family, who kept a draper’s shop on the Ratcliffe Highway, were slaughtered by an unknown assailant. This, and another multiple slaying a few weeks later, were arguably the most notorious crimes in an area infamous for poverty, vice and cruelty. Indeed, [T. A.] Critchley and [P. D.] James contend [in their 1971 book The Maul and the Pear Tree] that they were eclipsed only by the Whitechapel murders of 1888.
Thomas De Quincey’s essay ‘On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts’ was a satirical celebration of these most sublime of crimes – and it is this essay which apparently inspires John Cree’s killing spree. Cree is seeking his place in history, and it seems that by emulating (and surpassing) the sadism of the 1811 murders, his posterity will be assured.
That, on the surface, is the plot. But, as Ackroyd’s readers should expect, there is far more than this cursory examination reveals. Like a forensic pathologist, the reader needs to dig under the skin and gently peel away the layers of tissue beneath in order to observe the structure and determine the true cause of death.
Moving in various orbits around the Crees are the historical personalities who play minor roles in the story.
There is the ageing scholar and revolutionary Karl Marx (now pursuing his first love: poetry). There is the struggling young writer George Gissing. These two gentleman sit daily in the British Library, at neighbouring desks to John Cree, each unaware of the other’s existence.
There is the spectre of Charles Babbage, whose ‘Analytical Engine’ stands in a Limehouse workshop, a mighty mechanical consciousness capable of reducing even human fears and desires to mere numbers.
And there is Dan Leno, the shape-shifting genius of the London stage, who takes Elizabeth under his wing and (by the flimsiest of evidence) finds himself implicated in one of the murders.
In 1888, twenty years after the events of Ackroyd’s fiction, an American actor named Richard Mansfield was appearing in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. His transformation was acclaimed as one of the most remarkable performances ever seen on the London stage. Within a matter of weeks the first murder attributed to ‘Jack the Ripper’ took place in Whitechapel. Some popular newspapers called for Mansfield to be investigated. Surely, they reasoned, anyone who could so completely reshape his physical form must necessarily reconfigure his mind at the same time.
The folklore of the Jewish emigrés who have settled in the area informs the public fears which erupt as a result of the first murder. The ‘golem’ – a clay statue supposedly animated by some malevolent spirit – becomes the prime suspect. As with the Whitechapel murders, the Londoner’s deep mistrust of the ‘outsider’ (ironic in this most diverse and cosmopolitan of cities) is never far from the surface. When an elderly scholar of the Talmud is murdered (by mistake – Marx himself is the intended victim), the message is clear: nobody is safe. The city itself is responsible for the killings.
The Qabalistic tradition of Adam Kadmon – the so-called ‘Universal Man’ embodying both male and female characteristics – is also invoked. Leno frequently assumes female roles on stage. Elizabeth has a habit of wearing a man’s ‘duds’ and prowling the streets at night, at a time when a young woman alone would have been greatly at risk of attack.
Ackroyd himself has refuted any associations with the psychogeography movement. (Insert [Barry] Hugill [Observer] interview quote here) Even so, his lifelong study of London leaves the reader with little doubt that he has at least a passing acquaintance with the notion of ‘place memory’. John Cree’s psychosis, he suggests, is fuelled by his proximity to the Ratcliffe Highway.
The area today bears only a passing resemblance to the Victorian warren of slums, doss-houses and low taverns, home to an ever-changing population of seafarers and the associated trades necessary to support London’s role as the heart of the Empire.
Even the streets have been renamed. The road east from the Tower to Limehouse is simply the Highway, a dual carriageway Red Route to the millionaires’ playground of Docklands. Number 29 is no more – just one of a dozen or so house numbers subsumed into a modern block of luxury flats.
Yet, in a quirk of fate which Ackroyd cannot fail to have noticed, almost directly opposite is a small open space named Swedenborg Gardens. [William] Blake, who first investigated the psychogeography of London, was a follower of Swedenborg. (Coincidence? Maybe.)
As I write this, the news bulletin leads with the ongoing investigation into the murder of Jo Yeates. The tabloids have been full of surmise, half-truths, rumours and speculations since her body was found on Xmas Day. De Quincey’s phrase ‘the crimes that delight us’ seems as relevant now as when he wrote it, some 150 years ago. Maybe Ackroyd was right: between the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 and the Whitechapel murders of 1888, London itself was hungry for victims. His fictional account fills that gap.
It is interesting to note that neither 29 the Highway, nor John Christie’s former home at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, nor 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester (where the bodies of the Wests’ first victims were found) still exist. The Wests’ house was demolished; the official line was that it was attracting ghoulish sightseers. Yet it is possible to meet ghoulish sightseers at Whitechapel tube station on a Friday evening and (for a small fee) retrace the last known movements of Jack the Ripper’s victims. The Whitechapel killer was never caught.
John Williams was executed for the Ratcliffe Highway murders. Christie was executed. Fred West took his own life in prison. Their former abodes no longer exist. It is as if the murderous impulses which drove them would return to earth if their familiar stamping grounds still existed. On the other hand, Jack’s old ‘manor’ is still fertile territory for historians, tourists, conspiracy theorists … Maybe Jack the Ripper is just another golem, waiting to be reanimated.
BEING BORED SHITLESS BY A PISSED OLD TWAT WHO REALLY CAN’T UNDERSTAND THAT ‘I’M BUSY’ MEANS JUST THAT!
The Reading-born songwriter and musician Karl Blake hit the tabloid mentality on the head in a song called ‘Bad Samaritans’:
Smut park rumouring ankle-socked dead
Discarded bike and satchel
A wet-lipped expectant fear.
We are gravel pit lovers
Fed them as a treat
Over cornflakes, toast and jam
We are gravel pit lovers
All day, every day
In our sexy Vietnam
(Reproduced by kind permission of the composer)
I still have my copy of the Autumn 1984 Time Out Guide to London, which was given out free at the Brunel Uni Freshers’ Fair. While I was working on my long-abandoned novel I referred to it regularly, to make sure I wasn’t name-checking closed pubs or tube stations which didn’t open at weekends. I’ve always been a bugger for accuracy. Ackroyd’s ability to reconstruct Victorian London is a testament to the volume of research he’s undertaken throughout his career. He’s the foremost historico-fictional chronicler of that city. He leaves me breathless at times.
The Analytical Engine was never built ([Douglas R.] Hofstadter). Babbage’s Difference Engine was much easier to finish; the A.E. proved impossible for the mechanical engineers of the time. Yet in Ackroyd’s vision it stands like some pagan idol in Limehouse, ready to exert its power over the citizenry. In the grounds of St Ann’s Church, there is a stone pyramid engraved with the words ‘The Wisdom of Solomon.’ An odd thing to find in a Christian burial ground: London’s half-buried pagan past leaking through fault-lines in Time.
Psychogeography. Derek Beackon [a former BNP councillor in Tower Hamlets] (Hugill’s article). Far-fetched but relevant. East End.
(Josef Fritzl’s house is also scheduled for demolition, 22/1)
If evil manifests itself in a particular space and/or a particular body, does society seek to eradicate it by physical extermination? Without a physical body to which ‘evil’ can be attributed, do the buildings remain as a conduit to the underworld?
[This is the point where I completely changed mental gears and started addressing my tutor directly.]
What was intended as a critical essay on Peter Ackroyd’s novel has become something darker and more introspective. It’s your fault. You told us we could use the authorial ‘I’ to reflect on our own creative processes.
Please see the preceding pages. They were written under the influence of various painkillers and pints in between buses to and from the surgery. I didn’t have the source books to hand, so I’ve had to vamp it for the most part.
Psychogeography. I’ve got the original Guy Debord definition at home. It’s to do with the way your surroundings affect your psychological condition. I’ve enclosed a photocopy of part of my Great Unpublishable Novel so you can see where I’m coming from.
Fiction. That’s what we’re supposed to be studying this year. I’ve only done one full-blown completed work of fiction ever – ’47 Minutes’ – and I worked long and hard over that. I downloaded computer software and consulted textbooks and journals to make sure my historical info was spot-on. Not many novels come complete with a Reference List.
Peter Ackroyd’s novels probably should. Who else would have the audacity to weave a Victorian murder mystery around the Ratcliffe Highway murders of December 1811, while Karl Marx, George Gissing and Dan Leno float freely through the slums, doss-houses, taverns and chop-houses of London? Using Thomas De Quincey’s satirical masterpiece ‘On Murder’ as a springboard, Ackroyd’s psychopath fills the vacuum between John Williams (convicted, executed – some doubt remaining over his guilt!) and John Christie (convicted, executed).
The problem is that London always wants its sacrificial victims. Between Ratcliffe Highway (1811) and Whitechapel (1888) there is nothing to satisfy the blood-lust of the teeming mass at the heart of Empire – the voracious deity for whom everyone is a potential victim. Ackroyd’s fictional murders fill the gap. No more. It’s a bone in the gaping maw of the city of Man.
A month ago, the body of landscape architect Jo Yeates was discovered by walkers near her home in Bristol. My brother railed at the TV coverage today: ‘Why is she always a landscape architect?’
A professional person has contacts. Her parents are no doubt well-connected, wealthy, respectable. If the body found in a snow-filled ditch had been that of a prostitute or a junkie, she’d have merited a couple of paras in the local paper and then been shoved aside in favour of the next cat up a tree or smiling golden anniversary couple.
And that’s the nature of the media. Peter Ackroyd’s fabricated news reports are so authentic that I feel tempted to seek them out in the archives of the British Library. But it’s the psychogeography – the spirit of place – that permeates his novel. The fact that Karl Marx and George Gissing and John Cree (who may or not be the killer) cross paths regularly without even knowing it is irrelevant. The fact that they meet under the great dome of the British Library is the key. The pyramid in the grounds of St Ann’s Church, Limehouse, (a most odd monument to find in a Christian churchyard); the non-existent pagan idol of Babbage’s Analytical Engine (never constructed according to Hofstadter); the avenues and alleyways of Limehouse – these are the focal points which Ackroyd’s characters orbit. The city itself, in its two-thousand-year evolution, exerts its malevolent influence over the hearts and minds of its inhabitants, with hideous results.
And that’s where it ends, abruptly, with no resolution. I think I made some progress towards typing up my notes, but it made no difference. My long-standing back injury took its toll about a week later, and my university career reached an even more abrupt end than this notebook entry does. I don’t know how the hell I was going to try and make sense of the whole thing, but I was definitely making progress.
There’s an intriguing postscript, though.
At this stage I hadn’t encountered Ben Aaronovitch’s books. Therefore, I had no idea that his first Peter Grant novel Rivers of London would explore vaguely similar ground. The spirit of riot and rebellion rises up in London and possesses unfortunate passers-by, who then commit awful crimes which they can’t remember.
While I was in London doing my own psychogeographical investigation of Limehouse, I realised that the spirit of riot and rebellion is still alive and well; that the city still needs its human sacrifices. Look at this newspaper placard I found on the day, barely an empty wine bottle’s throw from the dossers’ shelter behind St Ann’s Church.
The greedy ghosts of London, it seems, are always with us.