Here’s a sentence you don’t hear very often: I watched a drama on ITV last week and it was actually rather good. There, I’ve said it. As confessions go, I’ve heard worst – like the one that spilled out of Dennis Nilsen when he arrived home from work one evening in 1983 and found the police inspecting his drains. The remarkably versatile David Tennant played the man responsible for some of Britain’s grisliest murders in ‘Des’, capturing both his chilling indifference to the 12 known lives he took and his narcissistic craving to broadcast the fact (once caught). The Muswell Hill-based Scot, ex-army and (much to the Met’s embarrassment) ex-police, was working at a Job Centre when arrested; one of the many unemployed men whose cases he dealt with in the early 80s was future novelist Will Self. But the men Nilsen preferred were the drifters he often picked-up in gay bars, the ones who were amenable to his invitations to join him back at his place.

After watching this well-handled and refreshingly un-sensationalistic dramatisation of events following Nilsen’s incarceration, it struck me that Nilsen’s killing spree (1978-83) for a period coincided with that of the country’s two other most notorious serial killers, Peter Sutcliffe and Fred West. All three were simultaneously murdering under the radar in different parts of the country, yet all three had targeted the kind of victims whose status within society at that time enabled them to carry on killing without detection for so long. The majority of Nilsen’s victims were gay men, a demographic then regarded by many police forces as unsympathetic perverts; the majority of Sutcliffe’s victims were prostitutes, another group whose welfare wasn’t seen as especially important; Fred West and his missus, meanwhile, had a habit of luring teenage runaways into their house of horrors. The body count attributable to Nilsen, Sutcliffe and West (and, yes, I know that sounds like an early 70s Country Rock act) comprised some of society’s most unloved and invisible misfits, the little people whose lifestyles in some cases were seen as an affront to that society; it was no wonder the outcry was so belated.

40 years on, society as a whole is far more enlightened towards gay men – many now absorbed into the LGBT collective, albeit some vocally resisting their sexuality branding their entire identity; prostitutes have reclassified themselves as ‘sex-workers’, which has less negative connotations as a term and has served to at least elevate the world’s oldest profession back to the semi-respectability it last had during the twilight age of the courtesan 200 years ago. As for the victims preferred by that nice Mr and Mrs West, they remain very much on the margins – easy prey for drug cartels as ‘County Line’ couriers, as well as handy ‘damaged goods’ for unscrupulous grooming gangs and various dubious predators. One of the few saving graces of the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ over the last year or so has been Katie Razzall’s ongoing investigation into unlicensed halfway houses for troubled adolescents too old for regulated children’s homes and too young to be legal adults deemed capable of looking after themselves. These confused kids, it would seem, remain unseen and unheard by the wider society to whom they appear an uncomfortable embarrassment.

At the other end of the scale, I suppose society’s other durably neglected and invisible demographic is the elderly; that particular group was catered for during – and beyond – the activities of Nilsen, Sutcliffe and West by Dr Harold Shipman. The world’s most murderous GP is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of around 250 of his patients between 1971 and 1998, though – as with Dennis Nilsen and Fred West – the actual number of victims may never be known. Unlike his infamous contemporaries, Shipman’s motive in many cases would appear to have been financial gain; in contrast to Sutcliffe and West, he doesn’t seem to have derived any sadistic sexual kicks from delivering the fatal blow, and nor did he adopt the cadavers of his victims as honorary flatmates to watch the telly with as Nilsen claims he did before chopping them into pieces small enough to flush away. But what four of this country’s most outstandingly prolific population controllers all managed was to exploit the indifference and ambivalence of the public and society in general to figures on the fringes – sexually-promiscuous gay guys, prostitutes, adolescent waifs and strays, isolated old biddies.

As much as prominent politicians might generate impassioned and disproportionately heated hatred in certain circles – and a localised strain of Trump Derangement Syndrome has certainly manifested itself over here post-Brexit – there’s probably a reason why only one Prime Minister of Britain has ever been assassinated (Spencer Perceval, 1812); such a person would be immediately missed and his assassin instantly apprehended. Beyond immediate family members, could it be said that any of the victims of Nilsen, Sutcliffe, West and Shipman were similarly missed or their killers proclaimed Public Enemy Number One when the kiling spree was in its early stages? Society’s invisible men and women are precisely that – unnoticed when alive, un-mourned when dead.

Current circumstances have had the unexpected effect of rendering a far higher proportion of people as invisible men and women than is usual, many of whom would ordinarily not regard themselves as such. The traditionally overlooked demographics have continued to suffer – with care home residents top of the coronavirus hit-list; but the abandonment of the city centre workplace and consequent relocation to the home environment has shrunk the landscape for thousands who would normally be at the heart of the nation’s industrial engine; and whereas this measure was viewed as temporary enough to be discouraged as recently as last week, our U-turning PM has now decided most may as well stay at home after all. Shows such as Radio 4’s veteran consumer rights programme, ‘You and Yours’, have become regular platforms for the concerns of desperate small business owners and proprietors of pubs, bars, cafés and restaurants that are now faced with impending extinction despite rearranging the furniture to fit the ever-changing edicts of a Government making up the rules as it goes along. A lifetime’s investment in the kind of individual enterprise once lauded and applauded by politicians has now been written off along with those whose lives were invested in it – and for what?

The initial nationwide lockdown was a surreal novelty whenever one ventured outdoors for the permitted 60 minutes to be confronted by eerily quiet streets devoid of traffic; but turning every house in Britain into the Ecuadorian Embassy and every householder into Julian Assange was bound to take its mental toll on those unaccustomed to such social alienation. Outsiders and those excluded from mainstream society generally fall into specific and familiar groups – the ones often exploited by our busiest serial killers – but when the rest of the population experiences the strange existential detachment that is the norm to such groups, the effects can be disastrous. They are not equipped with the survival armoury one acquires over decades in order to cope; they were dropped in at the deep end overnight and are now confronted by the prospect of another six months of this at the very least – probably six years north of the border, if Adolph Krankie has her way, I should imagine. The mythical salvation of a vaccine is this century’s fool’s gold, stashed in that pot at the end of the rainbow flag. Now, more than ever before, the people have realised just how dispensable they really are to their lords and masters. A few isolated and immoral individuals realised that a long time ago.

© The Editor

6 thoughts on “OUTSIDE IN

  1. Call me naive, or just normal, but I really can’t put my mind into the same place as those who conduct such chains of serial killing. On the grey-scale of mental abnormality, those folk who can maintain an apparently innocent external appearance whilst murderously eliminating random, or selective, members of their locality, must be the scariest, if only because of their public unscariness.

    I was living within the area of Peter Sutcliffe’s ‘reign of terror’ at the time and, in one aspect, he was different from Nilsen, West and Shipman in that everyone knew there was a woman-killer on the loose, which impacted on the outdoor conduct of most women in the area for a considerable time, also on their menfolk who suddenly started to demonstrate much more caring for their ladies than was normal for the place and time. When he was eventually, almost accidentally, captured there was a palpable sense of relief for all in the locality.

    You draw an interesting parallel with the lack of value placed on the lives of some vulnerable members of society, comparing this with the high-handed approaches towards all the population evident in the ruling elite’s ongoing conduct of the Covid situation. Sadly, I fear your astute comparison may be as revealing as it is disturbingly valid.

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    1. I actually live about two-hundred yards from where the body of Sutcliffe’s last victim was found. They turned it into a car-park about ten years ago, but up until then it was still the same waste-ground as it appears on the news footage where the coppers have sealed it off the day after. Every now and again someone leaves a bunch of flowers tied to the fencing around it, and I have to admit it is impossible to walk past (as I have to every time I go to Sainsbury’s) without thinking about what happened there. Amazing how long these grisly events leave a thumbprint on the scene of the crime.


  2. Off the top of my head, I reckon that atomised societies, like the UK and US, produce a higher rate of serial killers, whereas in more traditional family-based cultures, as found in the Med, serial killers are much rarer (I think, can’t say I’ve researched the matter in any depth). But then the family can be a prison and a place were all kinds of abuse fester, so…”I have no solutions, so get used to it”, to quote Mr Weller. In my country, those inclined to try their hand at the serial killing mullarky joined either the Provos or the LVF/UFF/UVF, depending on place and family of birth.

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    1. Yes, it’s interesting when serial killing is wrapped in political ideology it ceases to be recognised as such. Attach the compulsion to a cause and dehumanising the victim is legitimised in the eyes of some, justifying the act in a way the act of the apolitical individual working in isolation is never justified by anyone other than himself.


      1. It’s possible that, as we now have an entirely voluntary military, not conscripts, then some of those folk with a bent towards killing may initially join the army on the off-chance of encountering a convenient war, like Iraq or Afghanistan, when they would hope to be able to give exercise to those inhumane personal traits with some cover of respectability.

        The post-conflict revelations from those events, although indeed prevalent in all warfare, suggest that some degree of unnecessarily excessive and brutal vioilence was not uncommon, circumstances perhaps brought about by the unconventional personalities of those troops themselves.

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      2. Yes, makes you wonder what those responsible for the likes of the My Lai massacre would have been doing on Civvy Street had they not been in Vietnam; warfare, at least on the surface, appears to offer some sort of cover.


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