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