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Bleak Midwinter

Friday 2 January 1981, the last day of the Christmas holidays, was cold and drizzly in South Yorkshire. There was, however reluctantly, a possibility of taking a walk that day. My head hurt from being cooped up indoors, reading Jane Eyre and Julius Caesar on a manic loop: gothic imagination fused with ancient Roman law. Late in the morning, sundry family members, along with visitors from overseas who’d been staying for new year, descended on Haworth, just over an hour’s drive away. At the Brontë Parsonage Museum I would see for the first time the dresses, gloves and shoes belonging to Charlotte, Emily and Anne displayed in their glass cases, marvelling at how grown women could be so tiny; and the preserved miniature books containing the tales of Gondal and Angria that the sisters had dreamt up with their brother Branwell to while away the intense, interminable hours of childhood – stories they would become obsessed with, inspired, and, in some indefinable way, ruined by. 

I was shocked and morbidly impressed by the immediacy of the churchyard, not expecting it to be so oppressively close to the house, the long, doleful slabs of its tombstones the only view from the front-facing, obstinately small square windows; the dark shadow of the moors looming suddenly up at the back. I remember all of this clearly – almost forensically – because of what would happen next.

It was growing dark and beginning to snow as we left Haworth to drive home to Sheffield across those same moors. The Monday, 5 January, was to be the start of the new term, but my school was unexpectedly closed. A man had been arrested that Friday night, after we made our way back to the city through the silence of the midwinter darkness. At 4 p.m., around the same time we were departing Haworth, the man had left his home in nearby Bradford to drive first to Leeds, then on to Sheffield. By 10 p.m. his car, a brown Rover with stolen number plates attached with black tape, was cruising the red-light district around Broomhall, close to where my sister and brother-in-law lived, an area of student bedsits, squats and cramped terraces just around the corner from incongruously large, beatifically-beautiful Victorian villas, such as the original Broom Hall, where the cutlery designer David Mellor and his wife, biographer Fiona McCarthy, lived and worked. 

The man picked up a young woman soliciting on Havelock Square, and drove with her to nearby Melbourne Avenue, the quiet tree-lined cul-de-sac directly behind my all-girls’ school, a complex of gloomily imposing Victorian buildings and playing fields. They agreed on a fee of ten pounds for sex with a condom, but after ten minutes gave up as the man was unable to sustain an erection. At 10:30 p.m. the headlights of a police car on patrol abruptly illuminated the two people inside the Rover. Three evenings later the whole world would know the man’s identity – Peter William Sutcliffe, the so-called ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, a serial killer who had, since 1975, attacked and murdered women across the region, mostly in the towns and cities of West Yorkshire, not far from the Brontës’ Haworth – Halifax, Bradford, Wakefield, Leeds. Sheffield, the largest city in the extreme south of the county, was simply the next stop in a sick tour of terror. 

In a sense, we had been waiting for the Ripper to visit for months, even years. 

By early 1978 West Yorkshire police’s ongoing investigation had reached breaking point. Then, in March, a letter arrived at headquarters addressed to George Oldfield, the assistant chief constable heading the inquiry. Over the course of the next year and three months two more letters were sent, signed ‘Jack the Ripper’, and, most significantly, a tape, all purporting to be from the killer. The police changed course and, without any concrete evidence that this was not a hoax, focused on Sunderland, from where the communications originated.

In late June of 1979, the recording of ‘Wearside Jack’, his soft, wheedling Geordie accent taunting the beleaguered Oldfield, was broadcast over and over again, on buses, in shopping centres, in university halls. It became seared into public imagination and memory. It played over the airwaves of our local radio station in Sheffield almost as nightly entertainment. ‘I’m Jack. I see you are still having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord! You are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started. I reckon your boys are letting you down, George. They can’t be much good, can they?’ 

As a pre-teen I was more used to the Top 40 than listening to recordings of supposed killers. From my bedroom window I would stare, transfixed, into the blackness of our back garden, imagining that ‘he’ was somewhere out there in the darkness.

My earliest memory of the case, and a visual image that persists, is of a group of men – they are always men – standing over the motionless figure of a woman, lying dead on the ground, on wasteland, parkland, a children’s playground. Most of the injuries inflicted on the Ripper’s victims were implemented with routine domestic tools such as hammers and screwdrivers – frenzied, brutal attacks that would leave one survivor requiring over fifty stitches in the back of her head – and were too horrific to be detailed in full until the trial. But everyone, even children, could guess from where the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ soubriquet came. Jack the Ripper, the unidentified man who had murdered at least five women working as prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London’s East End in the late summer of 1888, had been the bogeyman of myth for nearly a century. The police who soon dubbed this latest serial killer with the Ripper moniker often referred to him almost with affection, even as the case became more baffling, terrifying and drawn out. ‘Our friend’, ‘the lad’, or ‘chummy’: this cheerful linguistic diminishing of the crimes – even as the killer was simultaneously built up to achieve folklore horror status – was made in public and to newspaper and television reporters, who printed verbatim what the police told them. 

The women who were murdered were categorised at best as ‘good-time girls’, at worst ‘whores’, or otherwise ‘innocents’, depending on their reputation or profession, never mind that they were mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. Working-class women, living in inner-city poverty, almost overwhelmingly single parents, who worked the streets to provide for their children, were treated with contempt, arrested and fined so that their only option was to go back on the streets again. A total of twenty-six children lost their mothers at the hands of Sutcliffe. In October 1979, Jim Hobson, a senior detective on the case, made a direct appeal to the Ripper at a press conference: 

‘He has made it clear that he hates prostitutes. Many people do. We, as a police force, will continue to arrest prostitutes. But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls. That indicates your mental state and that you are in urgent need of medical attention. You have made your point. Give yourself up before another innocent woman dies.’

 

*

 

Growing up in this atmosphere of fear and hatred towards women, of shame, secrecy and violence, with a body that was changing and a sexuality that was burgeoning, was confusing and challenging. The messages I received about where women fit into British society were decidedly mixed. I remember Debbie Harry, confident and sexy in figure-hugging electric blue and sunshine yellow, Poly Styrene in her baggy clothes, Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux and The Slits, all of whom appeared to me to be strong, independent women. I loved their music, wishing I were older and able to go to gigs, or understand the references in my brother’s weekly edition of the New Musical Express. They appeared – superficially, at least – worlds away, and yet were somehow connected to the women who campaigned against things like Page 3, and who were characterised by large parts of society and the media as joyless ‘libbers’. 

Margaret Thatcher was elected the country’s first woman prime minister in 1979, but she was hardly trailblazing for the UK’s female population in general. ‘The battle for women’s rights has been largely won’ she commented in 1982, while only appointing one woman – from the House of Lords – to cabinet in her eleven years as premier. The Conservatives had come to power on the back of the Winter of Discontent of 1978-9, a season of strikes, mainly by public sector workers which, as uncollected rubbish piled up in the streets, had led to a vote of no confidence in Jim Callaghan’s Labour government. Labour would be out of power for the next two decades. 

My family was adjusting to a new situation, too. When I was nine my father had left my mother after starting a new relationship, and moved away from Sheffield, at first to nearby Derby, then Nottingham. The affair and its aftermath had been traumatic emotionally and financially. My parents’ initial split and subsequent divorce had bankrupted their business – a bookshop they had set up together in Broomhill in 1975, the year Sutcliffe killed his first victim, Wilma McCann.

Who knows what goes on in the lives of our parents? As children, they are simply our parents. As the youngest of four I was used to being told very little of grown-up matters. A couple of years earlier, my father had been involved in a near-fatal car crash on the motorway. His car, a pistachio-coloured Citroën, had turned over three times with him inside it, and he had, miraculously, walked away from the accident, shaken but somehow physically unscathed. For a second he had temporarily lost concentration at the wheel. Who wouldn’t reassess their life at such a moment? He was forty-seven. In my most wicked – to me – contemplations in the months after Dad had gone, I would wish that he had died in that accident, because then I would understand my suffering, and, most importantly of all, he would not have left us by choice. Instead, my father was there but not there, or not there but there. His coats continued to hang in the hallway for years, and I would bury my face in them to breathe in his smell, which remains overpoweringly the smell of loss – Old Spice aftershave, Imperial Leather soap, the leather of his sports jackets and the dense, sharp animal scent of his sheepskin car coat, which used to lie on top of my purple candlewick bedspread as an extra covering at night during the cold northern winters. 

Wherever he had gone, it would appear that he did not need anything from his former life, including his children. His books – he was an academic, lecturing in history, the reason we’d moved to Sheffield – filled the bookshelves, emphasising a love of European and Russian literature and the Potteries novelist Arnold Bennett; his records – Frank Sinatra, Charles Aznavour, Diana Ross, Glen Campbell, Shirley Bassey – were stacked by the record player. The house contained everything that he and my mother had assembled together and carried back and forth across the globe: their 1950s’ wedding china we still used every day, the dining-room set with the rosewood table and matching chairs, the paintings on the walls that they had selected as a couple. The green leather Scandinavian 1960s’ tulip armchair in which, as a six year-old, I used to spin around until I was giddy, is today dilapidated, sitting like a rebuke from the past in the corner of my own living room. Dad was a voice on the end of the telephone, weeping because he missed tucking me into bed at night. He was the cruel father who wouldn’t send money for a new winter coat, even though my old one was too short and my knees were cold. He was, ever more frequently as the years passed, a remote, almost mythic figure I still remembered and longed for – until I didn’t.

 

*

 

As the Ripper attacks and murders increased, there was a paralysing atmosphere of fear, along with pockets of defiance. The killer had originally targeted women working as prostitutes because they were vulnerable, and would be more willing to get into his car. They could be persuaded to travel to remote areas where they would be killed and dumped. Yet Sutcliffe murdered students, bank clerks, shop assistants, as well as sex workers. Every time a ‘respectable woman’ was killed, the police would insist that the killer had made a ‘mistake’. Their repeated assertion that the Ripper was on a mission to rid the North of streetwalkers would later be used as a line of defence by Sutcliffe, a gift from the police themselves.

In November 1980, after Sutcliffe murdered Jacqueline Hill, a twenty-year-old Leeds University student studying English, who was followed and struck down as she got off the evening bus to make the short walk to her halls of residence, I was no longer allowed to walk home alone from school. The fear of the Ripper was tangible. Where would he strike next? The question seemed to permeate everything: dank, mossy and slimy as Frog Walk, the narrow, unlit footpath which ran alongside the high walls of Sheffield’s overgrown, neglected General Cemetery in Sharrow. It slid, cold and viscous, into my dreams at night, like the mercury escaping from a thermometer. 

In Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood’s novel about female identity and turbulent formative years, she writes: ‘You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.’  Similarly, I resisted being sucked into the often dangerous vortex of the past, until I could interpret it on my own terms.

Every second Saturday during that period, I would, despite what I had been warned against, get into a stranger’s car. The difference was that the stranger was my father – known, and semi-known, just as his simultaneous presence and absence continued to pervade our house. Schrödinger’s Dad, half dead, half alive. My misery during these ‘access visits’, which had been enforced by court order following two years of me refusing to see him, was profound. My father would soon give up the veneer of small talk, and when he wasn’t goading me with questions such as, ‘What do your friends think about you coming from a broken home?’ (I had very few friends, a fact I was not especially keen to share), he would rage at my mother and invariably anyone else I dared to mention, plead with me to come and stay with him and his new wife, whom I continued to refuse to meet, or, as often as not, simply cry, so that I would end up comforting him over my own stubborn implacability. I would throw up before every meeting, and sometimes afterwards too. 

Looking back now, I feel desperately sorry for my father. He had changed his life, why couldn’t I accept it? But I didn’t want to. At home, my mother either vilified him or extolled the man he had been, before he was ‘led astray’. No wonder I never really knew who he was. I certainly could never tell him anything about myself. If I wasn’t getting on with my mother, who was loving and protective but also heartbroken and under huge stress, I was afraid that if I told Dad then he would take me away from her. 

When my parents’ marriage broke up, the girls in my class formed a circle around me – not a protective circle, but one of suspicion, and taunting. I was the first girl in my year whose parents got divorced, and this made me stand out even more than I did already. My mother wasn’t English and had a ‘funny accent’, (black mark), and, worse, was rumoured to be a member of the local Labour Party (another black mark). My father was an avowed agnostic, and from time to time requested that I not attend morning assembly. (A further black mark.) The parents of my classmates had also let the general gossip filter down to their daughters – because of the bookshop, my own parents were well known in the community. My ‘friends’ knew before I did that my father was now living just around the corner from our school, on the same road, in fact, with his girlfriend. 

My mother went round there one evening and broke a window. 

 

*

 

1980 had been a bad year, even without the Ripper. Early on, classmates discovered limericks I’d written about them, and when they removed the offending articles from my desk to confront me by means of an impromptu kangaroo court in the school library (where I’d somewhat melodramatically fled for sanctuary), they saw fit to replace them with a few dead birds. Wildlife was abundant in Sheffield, for such an urban place. We had old Victorian desks with inkwells, and teachers who seemed to us old and Victorian as well. It was decreed that I would be sent ‘to Coventry’ – i.e. not spoken to by anyone – for an entire year. I don’t recall any teacher intervening (pastoral care was non-existent), and I certainly never relayed the situation to my family. Perhaps I thought I deserved it. Two of the subjects of the limericks were actual friends, and for that I deeply regretted my actions, as well as the taboo subjects I’d written about, which reflected my current preoccupations: menstruation (I had started my periods that autumn) and masturbation (ditto).

But by the end of the year, my excommunication was to be lifted. And, unlike today, where there are myriad insidious means of bullying, the nastiness began and ended at the school gates. Out of school I was safe. At least, I thought I was. 

I cultivated certain methods with which to deal with uncomfortable situations, with swirling sadness. One was to play truant fairly regularly. I’ve realised since then that it is actually far easier to disappear on a temporary basis as a child then it is as an adult. There is the automatic assumption that you are being supervised somewhere else. Mondays were particularly bad days at school, with the obligation of having to confront my enemies after the weekend. If the Monday followed a Saturday with my father then the feeling of dread was worse. Considering the school micromanaged all of its pupils to within an inch of our lives when they had us in captivity, it was curiously lax when we didn’t turn up. I knew that I could have a day away without being checked up on, as long as a note from my mother appeared with me the next morning to explain my absence. I had kept a few of these notes and not given them to the school secretary, as was the rule. They were written on pale blue Basildon Bond notepaper with my mother’s cursive handwriting. She did not seal the envelopes: it was easy to slide the note out and change the date. There was always the chance that the headmistress would call her at work, but this usually only happened if she wanted to make a pointless complaint about me, or threaten Mum about the non-payment of school fees, which my father had ceased contributing to, just as he had stopped paying any maintenance. I had sat the scholarship exams which would have entitled me to a bursary, but of course had failed to get one, further ammunition for my classmates who were not supposed to know about it, but somehow did. 

On these mornings of illicit freedom I would leave the house via the front door as usual after breakfast, and instead of going out of the gate, would turn up the path which ran along the side of the house and was not overlooked. I would wait there until my mother left for work. Then I would let myself in through the back door with my key, run upstairs to my bedroom, change out of my school uniform into jeans, jumper and trainers, smear frosted eyeshadow over my lids, apply mascara (either purple or green, I considered myself to be post-punk) on my eyelashes and complete the look, or disguise, with blusher and lip gloss. I was getting tall; I could almost pass for fourteen or fifteen or sixteen, surely legitimate ages to be off school? I would leave the house again and run across the road to Endcliffe Park. These days – outside time – were solitary. I had no companion, no accomplice. Nor did I catch the bus into the city centre to roam among the stores whose offerings I coveted but could rarely afford – Topshop and Chelsea Girl on Fargate, Bradley’s Records on Chapel Walk – or the make-up counters at Boots for Miners, Maybelline and No 17 cosmetics. Instead, I took a book – usually one I wasn’t supposed to be reading – and trudged through the park, hoping no one would recognise me or my brown school duffel coat. Sometimes I attempted to smoke one of the cigarettes I’d ‘borrowed’ from my brother before he’d gone to university in London that autumn. My other brother, the older of the two, had booked a plane ticket to Australia the day after Thatcher had won the election in 1979; he’d been working as a long-distance lorry driver during the previous long winter and wanted sun and a new beginning. I hadn’t seen him for over a year, although he would write long airmail letters and send photographs of himself, the bush, and his motorbike and dogs. Despite our age gap he was the closest I’d ever had to a soulmate; I missed him terribly.

Endcliffe Park, with its stepping stones, its memorial to an American aircraft that crashed while attempting an emergency landing in February 1944, killing all ten servicemen on board, its two duck ponds and dumpy statue of Queen Victoria, usually covered in bird shit (an indifferent gesture from nature given that the park was opened in honour of her Jubilee in 1887), gives way to Bingham Park’s bowling green and tennis courts, hidden away at the top of a steep grassy bank which, as a small child, I would roll down for the thrill of it. In spring it would be the first place to be covered in daffodils. Heading up the path to Whiteley Woods, past the Shepherd Wheel at Porter Brook, I could be sure to be alone, walking unseen among the trees, watching the people on the path below me. ‘To walk invisible’, as Charlotte Brontë wrote to her publisher about the advantages of being a pseudonymous author. My limericks had been unsigned, but I had also not intended them to be read. Or had I? I determined to give up writing poetry forever. 

I rarely met anyone on these walks, but once or twice I thought I might be being followed. I figured it was my imagination. There was a big house through the trees on the other side of the stream, the Whiteley Wood Psychiatry Clinic. I knew only a little about psychiatric hospitals in 1980. (I did not, for example, know then that the hospital my maternal grandmother had died in a few years before was an institution.) At school they were referred to as ‘the loony bin’, or more generally by the catch-all term ‘Middlewood’, after Sheffield’s largest psychiatric hospital, opened in 1872 and eventually closed in 1996. Middlewood was enormous, the stuff of nightmares, and resembled a version of my school, which had been purpose-built around the same time, in 1878. Turrets and secret rooms, a deconsecrated church which served as a gymnasium – the only modern additions were the science block and the art building. Next door to the school was an ivy-covered private residence with ‘Thanatos House’ inscribed on the gatepost. Thanatos – in Greek mythology the personification of death. With this level of material at my disposal, I was primed to be Catherine Morland from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, ‘in training to be a heroine’.

It always seemed to be wet and wintry on truant days – perhaps I was happier in summer. If it wasn’t raining I’d walk out past Forge Dam and sit on a stile to read my book with the rooks cawing above me, waiting for the cafe, near what was once a boating lake and now sinisterly silted up with weeds and algae, to open at 10 a.m. The cafe was part of a group of former workers’ cottages; next to it was a playground with a giant steel slide built into the wall and accessed by vertiginous steps. As a nervous child I had to be coaxed on to it, but my father would always be there to catch me at the bottom.

My truanting ceased once my brother-in-law, and various male family friends, began collecting me from school each day. In the run up to Christmas 1980 women in Leeds were under virtual lockdown. After Jacqueline Hill’s murder a number of students had left their university courses. The police reaction to a situation which they continually mishandled was to impose a curfew: ‘Do not go out at night unless absolutely necessary, and only if accompanied by a man you know.’ My twenty-two-year-old cousin, newly arrived from Australia, refused to be dictated to, despite my mother’s pleas. Accustomed to wide-open spaces she would stride out alone after dark. 

Women had been fighting back against this sort of paternalism since 1977, when the first UK Reclaim the Night march was organised in Leeds by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, partly in response to the Ripper murders. ‘No Curfew on Women: Curfew on Men’ was the slogan the placards bore. Years later, as a first-year university student, I was reminded of the curfews when I opened my fresher welcome pack to reveal, along with the inevitable savoury rice and tub of Pot Noodles, a rape alarm. There was no attempt at educating men not to harass women: it was down to us to protect ourselves, to walk invisible. 

 

*

 

For Christmas, my father gave me a copy of Kate Bush’s album Never Forever, having first checked, as he said, that there was nothing ‘unsuitable’ on the printed lyric sheet.

The songs on Never Forever deal variously with incest, murder, infidelity, ghosts and nuclear annihilation, referencing François Truffaut and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw among other topics then way above my head. Perhaps Dad hadn’t been wearing his glasses. Never Forever was released in September, and made Bush the first female solo artist to enter the album charts at number one. The cover, by illustrator Nick Price, features an image of her in a dress printed with floating clouds, an abundance of animals and monsters emerging from underneath her skirt. Bush said that the album’s cover reflected its title: the good and the bad emerge from the self, in a torrent.

By the time Peter Sutcliffe came to trial on 29 April – which happened to be my birthday – there was no question among the press and public that he was the monster of all our nightmares. Within three weeks he would be convicted and sentenced to life in prison for thirteen murders. Joan Smith, who had been one of the few women reporters on the case, wrote in her groundbreaking book Misogynies that ‘police in the north of England embarked on a wild goose chase for a man they visualised as a reincarnation of Jack the Ripper. This is the terrible mistake, the appalling blunder, that lies at the heart of the case; this is the real reason why Peter William Sutcliffe was able to roam with impunity though the towns and cities of northern England for more than five years, restlessly searching out his victims: if you devote your resources to tracking down a figure from myth, if you waste your time starting at shadows, you are not likely to come up with a lorry driver from Bradford.’ 

The testimonies of a number of Sutcliffe’s victims who survived were ignored by a misogynistic police force, botching the investigation; others were maligned by a media obsessed with characterising women – particularly sex workers – as somehow complicit in their own deaths. Sutcliffe himself had been interviewed by the Ripper Squad an astonishing nine times. During one interrogation the same size seven Wellington boot that left a footprint at the scene of one of the murders – a crucial piece of evidence – was standing upright in plain sight in Sutcliffe’s garage.

Forty years have passed since our family day in Haworth and the Yorkshire Ripper’s arrest and trial. Early on the morning of 13 November 2020, a Sheffield friend texted me, ‘Sutcliffe has died.’ 

My father died, too, in 2009. We never reconciled, despite countless attempts. He left when I was too young to know him as a real person, to peer behind the myth that I created around him, or the feeling of abandonment he caused. Too many years spent starting at shadows. 

 

Image © Catherine Taylor

The post Bleak Midwinter appeared first on Granta.

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