As the days begin to shorten and Autumn rushes upon us with its promise of crimson sunsets, foggy evenings and the damp crackle of leaves underfoot, I find my thoughts turning away from Versailles and floating away to Whitechapel and my other big interest, Jack the Ripper.
Now, I am aware that this is lowering the rather rococo tone of my blog somewhat but hear me out. I don’t know precisely when or why I became fascinated with Jack the Ripper but can definitely state that I was a little Ripperologist in training at just fourteen, possibly thanks to the rather bizarre ‘Hey let’s rather inappropriately celebrate the centenary of a series of really quite ghastly murders’ that occured in late 1988, the high point of which was the rather dreary serial starring Michael Caine and Jane ‘Ubiquitous’ Seymour.
I’m sure that I was interested long before this though. I distinctly remember visiting relatives in the East End as a little girl and feeling a thrill of excitement when the underground train passed through Whitechapel, pressing my face up against the cold, metallic smelling, dirty window so that I could stare upwards at the grim Victorian buildings that loom over the station.
Much later on I would get a boyfriend in Wapping and force him to walk with me through horrible Shadwell and up to Whitechapel. We went into the Ten Bells for celebratory gin and as we stood by the door I either felt or imagined a pair of cold hands encircling my waist, even though no one was standing near us. This freaked me out enough to send us back out into the cold, to seek comfort in a curry house in Brick Lane.
I have spent many happy hours in Whitechapel since then, drinking gin in the gloomy warmth of the Victorian pubs, staggering up the long, still grim streets, soaking up the lively atmosphere and spicy scent of Brick Lane and harassing the Jack the Ripper tours that wend through the damp streets every evening.
I have been on a couple of Jack the Ripper tours but don’t really need them any more as the streets of Whitechapel are now so familiar to me that sometimes I fly there in my dreams and wander them either as my modern day self or, terrifyingly in Victorian garb where a faceless, dreadful unknown chases me down the cobbled alleyways.
This is a picture of me standing against the amazing original tile work at the back of the Ten Bells on Commercial Street, where Mary Kelly used to drink. It is a noisy, busy trendy type of place now.
Of particular fascination is the dreary service road, White’s Row which is sandwiched between a hideous multi storey car park and a row of garages and storage bays. This nasty little street is always empty and eerie at night with the sound of distant revelry fading to nothing as you slowly walking down it, your eyes fixed on the Victorian buildings at the far end. In Victorian times it was the site of Dover Street, which was said to be the worst street in London: a grim, heaving, ugly mass of poverty, want, destitution and misery.
Number 13 Miller’s Court, the horrible home of Mary Jane Kelly, the Ripper’s last victim was located at the end of a narrow alleyway leading off Dorset Street, just one of hundreds of mean little dwellings rented out to the indigent citizens of the area. You can’t see where Miller’s Court used to stand, other than a slight dip in the pavement edging where the entrance was once located but there is something in the atmosphere of White’s Row, something nasty and wrong that still pervades the air so that even though you can’t see the houses and their unfortunate inhabitants, you can still feel them.
I don’t know why Jack the Ripper fascinates me so much, or indeed is of interest to so many other people. Would he be so interesting if the case was solved, I wonder? There is something about the Ripper that makes amateur Sherlock Holmes of us all as each of us wonder if we will be the one to finally solve the riddle and received the ultimate accolade.
There is something both romantically compelling and also sinister about the setting too – Victorian London, a city at the height of its Imperial and industrial powers where the gulf between rich and poor has never been greater. We Ripperologists thrill to the imagery of the gas lit cobbled streets with swirls of thick fog, the cries of the flower girls, the rumble of carriages and the garishly dressed, rouged and painted whores who stand on street corners and accost passersby. It might not strictly have been anything like that in real life but I for one am unwilling to relinquish the mental imagery that the mere mention of Jack the Ripper conjurs up in my mind, complete with the swish of his cloak as he vanishes swiftly into the fog.
Luckily for us, this lush mental imagery has been an inspiration to writers, artists and film makers as well. The most notable example being the amazing graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, which is one of the most fabulous, moving and powerful pieces of writing that I have ever encountered. The film version starring Johnny Depp and an excorable Heather Graham is much maligned and criticised but I actually rather enjoy it despite the ridiculous ‘action’ sequences the and bizarrely sanitized appearance and character of Mary Kelly (she was a prostitute, get over it). Mind you I would watch anything with Robbie Coltrane in is so am probably biased.
Those of us in the UK were also treated to the television series Whitechapel earlier this year, a modern day take on the Ripper murders starring the frankly gorgeous Rupert Penry-Jones with a copycat killer cutting a literal swathe through the dank streets and crack dens of East End London. It could have been a load of schmaltzy, embarrassing nonsense but by employing an edgy soundtrack, flashy editing and a cracking and suspenseful script, it managed to lift itself head and shoulders above most crime drama.
Thanks to my interest in Jack the Ripper I have enjoyed many, many insalubrious gin, tequila and curry soaked evenings in Whitechapel (special mention here goes to my friend Tish and our drunken competing to ‘touch the pavement’ where the entrance to Miller’s Court once lay and also to Sarah for lying down on the spot that Catherine Eddowes was discovered and arranging herself in the same position whereupon an entire gleeful Jack the Ripper tour group took photographs), a bizarre evening at the cinema on the release night of From Hell, a frankly surreal but highly entertaining visit to the London Dungeon dressed up as a Victorian Prostitute, a couple of weird afternoons spent wandering around a St Patrick’s Catholic cemetery in Leytonstone in search of Mary Kelly’s grave (we reverently placed a bottle of gin there amongst the flowers) and even thrown a couple of amazing ‘Gin and Whores’ fancy dress parties in London. It’s probably not entirely sympathetic or appropriate but I am sure that most other Ripperologists can share much the shame experiences.
One day I would like to live in Whitechapel, in a lovely Victorian flat with windows that overlook the Jack the Ripper tour route. I want to be able to sit there with my windows flung open and smile to myself as they pause outside and gasp at the tour guides monologue. In the meantime, I visit whenever I can and make the most of the unusual atmosphere.
If you are interested in reading more about Dorset Street, then I recommend The Worst Street in London by Fiona Rule, which is a study of the area.