|A Ripper Notes Interview|
|This interview originally appeared in Vol. 2 Issue 3 (January 2001) of Ripper Notes, the Quarterly Journal of Casebook Productions, Inc. Those interested in obtaining a subscription to the magazine may do so at the Casebook Productions website. Our thanks to the editor of Ripper Notes for permission to reprint the interview.|
Interview by Christopher-Michael DiGrazia
MARTIN FIDO is considered one of the world's leading authorities on the Ripper murders. A former visiting professor at Michigan State University, he has also taught at the University of Leeds and is the author of The Crimes, Detection and Death of Jack the Ripper, The Truth About Jack the Ripper (audiotape), The Murder Guide to London and The Chronicle of Crime, as well as The World of Sherlock Holmes, The World of Agatha Christie and a host of other books and talking tapes. With Paul Begg and Keith Skinner, he is co-author of the Jack the Ripper A-Z, and was caricatured as tour guide and would-be murderer Rowan Rover in Sharyn McCrumb's Missing Susan. We at Ripper Notes thank Mr. Fido for graciously taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us.
Which came first for you; interest in true crime or in the Ripper?
Interest in true crime. When I was about 13 I realized that the public library contained a section that was more exciting than any fiction. I was in my 20s by the time this acquired Tom Cullen's Autumn of Terror, which kicked off my interest in reading the previous (McCormick) and subsequent Ripper books as they appeared.
While believing the Ripper mystery is as 'solved' as the present state of information allows, what remains intriguing to you?
I should dearly like to see the recovery of two sets of documents (if they have survived). The Scotland Yard file/s on serious suspects, and the 'very full diary' that Dr Anderson said he kept at the time. The latter may well contain more preaching dates and Godbothering than useful matter on criminal affairs. The former may well prove that the police suspects were all as daft or inadequately based as Ostrog. But these are the crucial documents we need to go further forward along the only serious historical lines of enquiry directed toward identifying the Ripper.
Will there be a revised edition of The Crimes, Detection and Death of JTR?
Not unless some publisher wants one enough to pay for the revisions. I do this for a living, not for fun or glory.
Will there be a new edition of the A-Z?
There may well be. Whether I am contributing will again depend on some publisher wanting it enough to pay for the revisions. While there will be huge and hair-raising arguments between Paul and me about what to put in and what to leave out, I'm sure we'd find a way of accommodating important new material and keeping the general reference value of the book.
Was the progressively changing prose style of The Chronicle of Crime deliberate?
You bet it was! The fun of writing that book was parodying journalese, from stuffy Victorian moralizing to brashly vulgar 20th century tabloid style. The publishers were probably right to curb some of my vulgar excesses: 'Poofter Hoover Was Mafia Puppet', for example, was pitching it a bit too hard at the appalling J.Edgar.
Most readers of Ripper Notes know you only from television appearances or through your books' jacket copy. Can you tell us a bit about how you spend your leisure time?
When in Cornwall, long walks over the moors (a preferred 10 miles minimum daily). When on holiday, visiting old buildings and monuments as well as museums and art galleries. I enjoy theatre and ballet (though I don't care much for Italian opera: my wife says it's hard to find straight men who do). My musical preference is for classical music (especially chamber music and baroque music) and jazz. Reading is an addiction rather than an amusement: I read between two and four new books every week, and will read the label of the HP Sauce bottle if there's nothing else available. Reading poetry is a better character improver than prozac.
How did your career progress from teacher to author, tour guide, broadcaster and - dare we say - raconteur?
I had the good fortune to be extremely well taught, so that with a good degree and postgraduate work (on Disraeli's novels) well under way I had the further good luck to hold a prestigious junior research fellowship for three years. My maternal grandmother, mother and brother were/are all teachers, so I guess it runs in the family. At my best, I'm probably better at teaching literature than anything else I have ever done. After six years teaching at Leeds University (which as a countryman I hated) with one year's break at Michigan State I moved with my second wife to the West Indies as head of the Department of English, Use of English and Linguistics at the Cave Hill campus on Barbados. Out there I did a good deal of radio work: mainly educational talks on literature which were broadcast repeatedly over the Eastern Caribbean. I also did a good deal of theatre work. As an amateur actor I've played Hamlet and Charlie's Aunt (where as a professional I'd have been lucky to play Guildenstern and Charlie): in Barbados I did work professionally for a bit in a dinner theatre production and several television commercials. Ten very rewarding years came to an end when I realized that the university was persistently going to discriminate against me and give the sabbatical I needed to finish a large piece of work, and to which I was entitled, to West Indian colleagues who weren't so entitled and weren't making any serious attempt to do any research at all. I had been putting together a study of the shift from the concept of natural philosophy to the concept of exact science, and the way it was reflected in and affected by literature, and I needed a clear year to finish it. So I resigned, determined to live on savings while I wrote the book.
And then disaster struck. The warehouse holding all my possessions for shipment to England, including seven years' work on the book, was burned down. There was no way I could go back and start over from scratch. Nor did I want to resume teaching immediately. The instant head-hunting offer I had wanted me to concentrate on Commonwealth literature, which I quite definitely did not want to do in the immediate future: I'd had enough of introducing West Indian and African literature to the syllabus in Barbados. I wanted to write without distraction for a bit. The kind of academic books I would have preferred to do - (a light-hearted study of Swift's Bickerstaffe Papers, for example) - would, it transpired, pay too little to support me for the time it took to write them. The kind of coffee-table books I had written vey successfully on Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare and Kipling had gone out of publishing fashion. I accepted an agent's advice to cash in on my casual interest in true crime and write the Murder Guide to London. From then on I was tagged as a true crime writer. After which, crippling arthritis overtook my mother, and being between marriages I was able to devote time to looking after her. This had the advantage of taking me back to Cornwall, but the disadvantage that it was very difficult to keep work progressing and building up from there, publishers and broadcasting centres all being in London. Between 1985 and 1994 I divided my time between Cornwall and London: it was at this period that I often stayed on the 30-foot Broads cruiser I kept in St Katharine's Dock, and for about a year I came up to London at weekends and conducted a range of guided walks, staying in Cornwall from Tuesdays to Fridays.
Broadcasting and tour guiding both came about following the Ripper book. I met the excellent London guide and local historian Roger Tyrrell in a bookshop, and in the first instance took over his Ripper walks for him, subsequently expanding to take over his whole programme of walks for the weekends while he worked the mid-weeks. When he merged with Richard Jones (whom you may have seen giving excellent general narrative in the recent MPH Television 'History's Mysteries' Jack the Ripper) Richard started me on occasional coach tour couriering, out of which came Sharyn McCrumb's satirical parody of me running a coach tour (and trying to kill off one of my customers) in Missing Susan. Incidentally, the fleeting appearance of a character called Kenneth O'Connor in that book is a cameo role for Paul Begg, and Sharyn says that on her book signing tours, she only found one reader - a 12-year-old - who spotted that the coach tour customers have the Ripper victims' surnames.
Broadcasting in England emerged from the 'milk run' interviews with radio stations which I carried out to publicize books. A couple of LBC people - Gil Pyrah and Steve Dodd in the first instance - expressed interest in having me do more for them, and then in the winter of 1987 Clive Bull ran the first three 'Murder After Midnight' programmes experimentally, and the series is running still. Pete Murray also interviewed me after a couple of books, and from 1991-1994 (or thereabouts) I appeared regularly on his programme answering monthly phone-in questions on murder. For the latter half of that time Keith Skinner worked on the programme with me, and was, with difficulty, encouraged to open his mouth and speak from time to time as well as finding material and researching obscure questions.
Raconteur I can't answer for. There are, I'm sure, those who would tell you I've always been a natural bore.
Obviously, not everyone is interested in the Ripper case, and it's known a number of East Enders dislike the tours which stomp about the area. Could some accommodation be reached between local residents who object to the inconvenience of Ripper walking tours in the East End and the tours, which financially benefit the region?
I'm not sure how much genuine benefit the tours bring. A couple of pubs will do very well out of them. When I used to finish my Jewish East End walk with the recommendation that the walkers take their lunch at Bloom's (before its demise) there were very few takers. The huge walks of 140+ walkers, pioneered by Richard Jones, and snapped up when he folded by City Walks (which used to be very sniffy about them!) are pretty much of a nuisance, and very few guides, in my experience, can make themselves heard to those large numbers. (I will immodestly insist that my own raucous foghorn was unusual in reaching to the back of the largest crowds, provided there wasn't excessive traffic interference). But if you really want to see tourists following guides swamping the streets of London, go down with Alice to watch them changing guard at Buckingham Palace, and don't take Christopher Robin, as he's likely to get trampled to death.
Could blue plaques be placed on the murder sites, to assist those people who don't wat to get caught up in a huge party but still wish to see "Ripper territory" for themselves?
'Black Plaques' are suggested from time to time, and usually I think dropped because too ghoulish. The one good London crime site marked with a plaque is the old cowshed where the Cato Street conspirators were caught - and it's the only building of its period that has been preserved in Cato Street. Crime sites fall like flies to redevelopment, and another query about plaquing the Ripper would be the fact that all the murder sites have now been redeveloped. Tangential sites like the Goulston Street doorway, the Ten Bells, and the corner where Mrs Palmer sold chestnuts are the most interesting survivals.
What does the future hold for Ripperology?
Dunno. I'm not Nostradamus or Old Moore.
With all the writing, broadcastring and touring you've done on the subject, do you find yourself 'burned out' on the Ripper?
To a considerable extent, yes. If a good fairy could promise me that I will never again have to read another blow-by-blow account of the murders, or a contrived and foolish argument to prove that some unlikely and obviously innocent person was the Ripper, I should be eternally grateful. But the old pedagogue springs back into action at the scent of serious enquiry, and as Paul Begg used to observe with wonder when I took the walks week after week, I never lose enthusiasm for discussing the case with people who really and seriously want to know as much truth as possible.
What is the Ripper-related book you're writing to tie in with a tv series on Serial Killers?
The series, produced by Brook Lapping television, will air in the next couple of months - (its scheduling was delayed by the producer's illness while it was being made). The exact length of each programme and the number of killers per programme had not been finally settled when I was last working close up with them. But you may expect to see a consideration of JtR, John George Haigh, Christie, the Moors Murders, Nilsen and the Wests, with the general running title 'To Kill and Kill Again'. Stewart Evans gives the basic narrative on the Ripper: Christopher Frayling and I have comments to make, as do the FBI's Robert Ressler and Roy Hazelwood on all cases. I give the basic narrative on Christie. In some respects the Ripper will be the least exciting of the programmes, as it obviously hasn't been possible to find previously unpublicized witnesses, or get statements from police officers and forensic scientists involved in the case. My book is a pretty straightforward tie-in, though it includes link sections to show how all these murders fall into the historic pattern of British serial murder. Rather than offering my own conclusions - (I don't mention myself at all in the Ripper chapter) - I follow what the film makers take to be received opinion.
What other cases intrigue you?
Daniel Good, the man who gave us the CID. I started being interested in him because it seemed surprising that Colin Wilson and Pat Pitman weren't sure what his motive was. But, my goodness, that case opens up such a picture of servant and working class life in 1842, from Putney and Barnes to Spitalfields, Bermondsey and Plumstead! It shows so much of police method: as Joan Lock remarked at the Metropolitan police Historical Society once, it gives us a picture of how 'route papers worked - the hand delivered messages circulating information across the Met before the invention of telegraphy. It shows pre-CID plainclothes detective work in operation, and clashes between officers from different divisions moving off territory. Good himself is an interesting man who shook respectable society by apparently changing wives without benefit of clergy every five years or so, but retaining the affection of his long deserted first wife - a helluva character in her own right. The pathos of Good's little boy affected everybody. The ghoulishness of coating the murdered woman's torso with pitch and showing it to spectators…. That case has EVERYTHING!
Did you know Sharyn McCrumb was going to put you in Missing Susan, and how do you like the book?
Oh, yes, we all knew just what was being done, and she worked out a good deal of the plot with the coach tour customers in bars at at hotels in the evenings. They were unanimous that Susan had to be the victim, and as a late-appointed courier with admittedly no previous experience, I was obviously a hired-in killer. I think the book is very entertaining, but cruel to the original of Susan. I think, however, that Highland Laddie Gone is even funnier, and contains a lot of Sharyn's best comic creation.
Any thoughts on Maybrick or Tumblety?
I have no doubt at all that the Maybrick diary is completely bogus and he had nothing whatever to do with the Ripper. That being said, exasperating as Feldy can be, I tend to find the active Maybrickians much pleasanter people than the vociferous anti-diarists.
My main thought on Tumblety is to wonder how much Littlechild ever really had to do with the Ripper investigation. To the best of my recollection, 'he must have been involved' was originally a Paul Begg deduction relating to the officers watching a house suspected of holding political subversives near one of the murder sites at the time of the double murder. Before Paul discovered that this house was in a recessed terrace at the top of Middlesex Street he speculated that it could have been the Dutfield Yard club, and from this flowed the idea that the Special Branchers 'must have been' involved. I wonder. Despite his reference to the case being one of the two biggest rumpuses at the Yard during his career, Littlechild's memoirs and his letter don't give much evidence of his being all that close in to the case. Just as we wonder whether anyone other than Macnaghten ever suspected Druitt; anyone other than Anderson (and possibly Swanson) ever suspected the Polish Jew, so I'd love to see the files and see whether anyone but Littlechild ever put much store in Tumblety, and whether Littlechild wasn't watching him because of the Irish connection in any case, on which the sexual assault came as a surprise extra perhaps.This interview originally appeared in Vol. 2 Issue 3 (January 2001) of Ripper Notes, the Quarterly Journal of Casebook Productions, Inc. Those interested in obtaining a subscription to the magazine may do so at the Casebook Productions website.