An incumbent US President loses office and goes down in history as a one-termer. No, I don’t mean Donald Trump; I mean Jimmy Carter. The same fate that has just befallen the Donald befell the Georgian peanut farmer exactly 40 years ago; and though, on the surface, the two Presidents have little in common, both swept to power as populist outsiders challenging a Washington orthodoxy in which the American electorate had lost faith – Carter in the wake of Watergate and Ford’s pardoning of Nixon, Trump appealing to the ‘deplorables’ left behind by the metropolitan political class and its queen regnant, Hillary Clinton. November 1980 came too soon for the personable Carter; the botched, aborted rescue of the US hostages in Tehran had damaged his popularity and reputation just a few months before and Ronald Reagan exploited it on a wave of patriotic, God-fearing fervour. Had Carter received an additional year’s breathing space, he may well have recovered; but unpredictable events can unsettle a political career right at the very moment when sailing appears plain; just ask Boris Johnson.

In November 1980, Americans and the rest of the West may have found the contest between the man in the White House and his born-again, movie star opponent intriguing, but many were more fixated on what was happening in the US city of Dallas rather than Washington. Wealthy oil magnate JR Ewing had just been gunned down by an unknown wannabe assassin and the world asked the question ‘Who Shot JR?’ Weirdly enough, the shots turned out to have been fired by Bing Crosby’s daughter, and that’s the point when we remember we’re talking about an entirely fictitious crime that nevertheless proved to be an early example of global water-cooler television. Less than 20 years earlier, a far more successful assassin had changed the course of American history in Dallas, but the imaginary shots fired in the city that November ricocheted around the world with a speed that suggested an appetite for violence was fine as long as nobody got hurt.

Just a matter of weeks later, a pop cultural giant who had emerged from self-imposed exile was on the receiving end of real gun crime; but there was precious little hint of the tragedy around the corner for John Lennon in November 1980 as he released and began to promote his first new recordings in five years. A decade less than twelve months old was still at that fascinating stage new decades stand at when their character has yet to form and there remain several optional routes to choose from; if the world of 1980 belonged anywhere, it was the late 1970s, with a hangover of stories from that era retaining their relevance. A murderous spree that had served to cast the North of England in a chillingly dark light, one which undoubtedly feels characteristically ‘1970s’, had spilled over into the 80s as the odious spectre of the Yorkshire Ripper continued to haunt women of that sprawling county – and 1980 saw a barbaric last hurrah for this hideous reign of terror.

The man behind the insidious myth seemed to taunt the police in the same way his Victorian namesake had a century earlier simply by evading capture and carrying on killing. His twelfth known victim, 47-year-old Marguerite Walls, was killed on 20 August; he then tried – and failed – to kill three other women: Uphadya Bandara in Leeds on 24 September, Maureen Lea in Leeds on 25 October, and Theresa Sykes in Huddersfield on 5 November. Peter Sutcliffe’s final grisly addition to a roll-call of 13 known murders came on 17 November when he killed Leeds University student Jacqueline Hill, leaving her body on waste ground behind a shopping parade in Headingley. The initial narrative perpetuated by West Yorkshire Police that this grotesque urban bogeyman primarily targeted prostitutes had already been contradicted by the 1977 murder of 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald in Chapeltown, Leeds – a girl who was a shop-worker rather than a sex-worker; the fact that what turned out to be his final victim was the second student he had attacked within the space of a month confirmed every woman in the region was a potential victim – though every woman in the region already knew it.

It took just over a month after the murder of Jacqueline Hill before Sutcliffe was finally caught. Arrested in January 1981 when the car he was driving was found to be bearing false number plates, he was taken to Dewsbury Police Station and was questioned – not for the first time, it turned out – about the Ripper murders simply because he fitted the profile. The discovery of murder weapons discarded at the scene of the arrest when Sutcliffe had been allowed to go for a pee by the arresting officers implied this was more than just another cruising punter; two days later, he confessed he was indeed the Yorkshire Ripper and he was charged within 24 hours. An appalling catalogue of killings spanning five years had been extended into the new decade not only by the blinkered ineptitude and prejudice of the police, but by the inadequate systems for storing and collating information as well as the undeniably damaging red herring of the ‘Wearside Jack’ tape.

It seems hard to believe now that Sutcliffe could have killed as many as he did and got away with it for so long; but one could say the same of Harold Shipman, Fred West or Dennis Nilsen, his contemporaneous serial killers. Along with their equally awful predecessors Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, all are now deceased, with Peter Sutcliffe joining them in that rather hot location reserved for the worst mankind has to offer as of – perhaps fittingly – Friday 13th. We have Covid-19 to thank for the killer blow, by all accounts. His death also comes just four days short of the 40th anniversary of Jacqueline Hill’s murder. Sutcliffe lived the 40 years he robbed her of, 40 years in which she could have enjoyed a dozen wonderful life experiences whilst he was shuttled from prison to prison and a gory industry sprouted around him. To be fair, though, the media generated that industry when he was busy killing by giving him such a salacious nickname; it was no great surprise it thrived during his lengthy incarceration, but the region he terrorised for five years didn’t buy into it. His name remains one spat out rather than spoken and he is just as loathed there now as he was when finally nicked for his crimes. The sense of disgust and hatred towards him there is no less vociferous than in January 1981. Time doesn’t heal everything.

I pass the site of Jacqueline Hill’s grim resting place most days; without knowledge of what happened there, few would give this undistinguished plot of land a second glance. Up until around a decade ago, it still looked the same as it did on the day Jacqueline Hill’s body was discovered, no different from the film footage that turns up in the endless documentaries, the overgrown and untendered spot packed with police furtively looking for clues. Then it was eventually converted into a private car-park for employees of the various businesses lining the shopping parade it stands behind; as befits lockdown, there are no vehicles parked on it today, and I fully expect someone to anonymously leave a bouquet of flowers at the gates next Tuesday; they often do periodically, though next Tuesday has a particular poignancy. That Peter Sutcliffe should exit a mere four days beforehand perhaps gives it an additional emotional punch. But if doesn’t really need one. The accompanying photograph I took this morning on the surface says nothing, but knowing a gruesome chapter in the history of the region drew to a bloody close there says something. After all, the fields where some of the nation’s most brutal battles took place centuries ago are similarly placid places today, giving no hint of the terrible tales they could tell. But there remains something in the air there, for sure.

© The Editor


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