|A Ripperologist Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 41, June 2002. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.|
by Richard Whittington-Egan
Stephen Knight was born, a Wednesday’s child, on September 26th, 1951, at Hainault, Essex. He attended West Hatch Technical High School, at nearby Chigwell, where, in his own words, he was “unsuccessfully educated”, and told by his teachers, “Your future lies in ruin before you.” He was inclined to agree when he took his first job as a trainee showroom salesman for the London Electricity Board.
But he had already made up his mind that what he really wanted was to be a journalist, and found himself facing the first – and toughest – assignment that any journalist ever has to cope with: getting a foothold in the profession. Determination stood him in good stead. In 1969, aged eighteen, he succeeded in having himself accepted as a trainee junior reporter on the Ilford Pictorial, and when that paper folded about his still-wet ears, contrived a desk place on the Ilford Recorder. Sacked somewhat prematurely from the Recorder, he achieved a smooth, upwardly mobile transition to the Hornchurch Echo, where, at the age of twenty, he was promoted to chief reporter. For a month’s span in 1973, he worked on the East London Advertiser, before rejoining the staff of the Ilford Recorder, where he became chief reporter and subsequently feature-writer-cum-dramatic-critic-cum-book-reviewer.
Still restless, he parted company again with the Recorder, this time of his own volition, in 1975, to take up a position on the Travel Trade Gazette, but was off on his own travels again in 1976, as a full-time, self-employed writer, following the enormous success of The Final Solution.
He had meanwhile married Margot Kenrick, acquiring two stepdaughters, Natasha and Nicole, and, in 1977, she bore him a baby daughter of his own, Nanouska. The following year, he, Margot, and Nanouska took a trip to Australia. In August 1978, from Singapore, en route, he sent me a cheerful postcard. Later, he told me that he was scenting the antipodean track of Constance Kent, the young fratricide of Road Hill House, who would, in 1979, stand fully discovered and revealed by Bernard Taylor in his definitive book on the case, Cruelly Murdered, as the one hundred year old Miss Ruth Emilie Kaye, who had died, full of redemptive honours – a congratulatory message from the King and Queen no less – after a career of nursing lepers, on April 10th, 1944, in a rest home in the municipality of Strathfield, New South Wales.
In 1979 Knight produced his first novel, an Edwardian detective story really, with a supernatural tinge, Requiem at Rogano. He did not, I remember, like the publisher’s choice of title. He told me that he had wanted to call it The Heretics of Rogano. It was generally well received. A satisfactory successor to his Ripper book.
After all this early-flowering success, the year 1980 was to prove his, as majestic language has it, annus horribilis; and in a most unexpected way. It began low key and innocuously enough, with Knight’s seeing an advertisement which appeared in the London Evening Standard seeking people who suffered from epilepsy to take part in a B.B.C. Horizon programme documentary on the disease. He answered it because he wanted to have an opportunity of talking about the public’s misunderstanding of the illness.
Three years before – in 1977 – he had started to have epileptic episodes. “When I was ten, I was hit on the head by a cricket bat.” The doctors believed that a consequent area of dead tissue discovered in the brain was the causal factor. Recently, his epileptic fits had been steadily increasing in intensity and duration. “Not knowing why was,” he said, “rather frightening.”
He recovered. “I was told that there was only about a five per cent. chance of the tumour ever recurring, as it was very low grade. I translated that at nought per cent. and just carried on living.”
And there was a happy sequel.
In his private world things had not been going along too smoothly. Critical differences had blown up between him and his “Belle Marguerite”. In November 1980, it was announced that Lesley Newson, Horizon’s 28-year-old researcher, and Knight would marry when his divorce from his separated wife came through. In the event, though, they never did.
With six-monthly scans proving clear, Knight went merrily on to write The Brotherhood: The Secret World of the Freemasons, published early in 1984. It was a direct result of his literary Mason-watching, carried out in connection with his Jack the Ripper book. This new work, containing as it did many sensational allegations, among them that the K.G.B. had succeeded in infiltrating Masonry, and with its exposure of the power of the square among the guardians, at all levels, of the law, caused a considerable stir – and most satisfactory sales figures.
What proved to be his last book, The Killing of Justice Godfrey, another piece of investigative work, also came out in 1984 – in the July. This Knight regarded as his best book. He explained: “When I was thirteen I had the idea of taking an historical mystery and ‘solving’ it in the form of a short story. I approached my history teacher at West Hatch Technical High School, Chigwell – an inspiring man called John Hudson – and asked if he knew a suitable case. He immediately told me to get Who Killed Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey by Alfred Marks from the library. It was, he said, the greatest unsolved murder in English history. Alas, Mr. Marks’ turgid prose proved too much for me and I abandoned the project. But the idea stayed with me and when, ten years later, I finished my book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution and was casting around for a new subject, Godfrey seemed the obvious choice: the three hundredth anniversary of his death was just three years off. If John Hudson had not hooked me in 1965 it is unlikely this book would ever have been written.” It, too, was well received.
The Brotherhood was dedicated: “For Ma and Pa, with love.” The Killing of Justice Godfrey introduced a completely novel dedicatee: “For Barbara Mary Land. Love.” No more for Margot. His marriage had ended in divorce.
The first disquieting hints that something was going wrong with himself came shortly after the publication of The Brotherhood. “I began to get strange symptoms. I developed a curious kind of word blindness – not being able to say the word I wanted, however simple; and my handwriting started to become very, very bad. I thought it was due to over-medication from the drugs I’d been taking for epilepsy.”
He was in South Carolina, holidaying with his girlfriend, Barbara Mary Land, that summer of 1984, when he suddenly realised that the postcards he was writing home were “indecipherable travesties” of his usual writing. Equally worrying was the fact that he found when he was walking that he was continually stumbling to the right.
“I telephoned my doctor, Peter Fenwick, at the Maudsley.” Dr. Fenwick told him that if he was getting headaches he must come home immediately. He was. He flew back the next day.
Knight, who was interviewed in considerable depth by Anne De Courcey, from whose perceptive and sympathetic article in the Standard I quote, told her: “I was so confident I was only suffering from over-medication I’d booked a room at the Gatwick Hilton and a return flight the following afternoon. The first inkling that anything was wrong otherwise was when I was kept waiting while they looked at my scan. It turned out they were comparing it with the previous ones. Then a doctor came into the room and said: ‘I’m afraid there’s a recurrence of the tumour.’”
The following day Knight saw Dr. Fenwick. “He knew that I always respond best to the truth. I asked him how long I had got. He said: ‘We intend to give you another operation followed by chemotherapy. Even if there’s nil response to either you will have at least two years.’ Although I cried at the time and was very upset, we were actually able to have conversation about what those two years would contain for me.”
In July 1984 about seventy per cent of the aggressive cancer tumour was removed by operation. The remaining thirty per cent. could not, because of its proximity to speech and movement centres of the brain, be subjected to surgical interference. Chemotherapy for eighteen months was prescribed.
Every six weeks throughout that autumn, winter and spring Knight went to the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, in leafy Queen Square, Bloomsbury, where, nearly fifty years before, another tragic young writer, Denton Welch, had been a doomed patient. Brain scans and blood tests in the morning. Chemotherapy in the afternoon. Often, after being injected with iodine to boost the scanner’s effectiveness, he would feel sick. “Then I get frightened, because if I’m sick with my head stuck in one position I might choke myself.”
In October 1984, Knight was painfully honest with Anne De Courcey. “They have now told me frankly there is nothing they can do to save my life, only prolong it. The surgeon who did the operation thinks it more likely I have one year than two.”
Knight had heard of the special attitude that was being taken to cancer at the Bristol Centre, where it was treated without drugs or surgery. He visited it and found himself so impressed with the work being done there that he promptly adopted the fruit and vegetable diet which the Centre advocated. “Apart from the nausea and illness induced by chemotherapy, I feel incredibly healthy,” he announced. “More so than I’ve ever been in my whole life – although I still get a yearning for sausages, bacon and eggs.”
But he was too clever a young man to lose sight of the fact that he was “treading a very slender tightrope between wanting so much to live that I have been trying all sorts of unorthodox therapies, and at the same time trying to realise that if none of them works I will die – and to come to terms with this. I’ve received such incredible amounts of love, both from expected and unexpected sources, that there are now times when, just for a few seconds, I feel open and accepting to everything. Then I slip back and begin to fret."
Stephen Knight spent his last days enjoying himself, living with his girlfriend in his house at Leytonstone. It was large enough for them to have friends visiting them constantly.
He said: “I always have plots in my head but at the moment I’m not getting round to writing them. I’ve visited several healers – there’s a whole network of people in alternative work, one of whom leads to another. It’s a new world to me, and very exciting. More than anything else, I have taught myself to live in the moment. Even all the blubbering and soul-searching and agonising I did was part of being in the moment. So is thinking, but acceptingly, ‘I don’t know if I shall see another October.’”
He did not.
He died in July 1985, while staying with friends at Carradale, in Argyllshire. And that is where he is buried.
When I last saw him, Stephen Knight was calling himself Swami Puja Debal and explained to me that he was now a follower of the Indian religious leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, having become a Sannyasin after ending his marriage. He had his little daughter, Nanouska, with him, and we all trooped into a small café-bar hard by the London School of Economics. We drank a dish of tea – Indian, of course – together and Nanouska had an ice cream. He wore, I remember, a strange dark corduroy cap – shaped somewhat like one of those that Burke and Hare the body-snatchers wear in old engravings – to hide his hairless, bandaged head. He carried with him an air of finality.
Perhaps now he knows the answer to the big question. Whatever, let us remember him with charity. He was human. He erred. He was mortal. Spare him that small slice of immortality which is the warmth of his fellows’ remembrance.