Rating: 5 stars
I bought this because I heard that it was viscerally angry in its refutation of the myth of Jack the Ripper. I think there needs to be more anger in history, especially anger directed against the disgusting and inhuman, and against corruption in high places. I’m an angry person. I always have been. The red mist frequently descends. Usually in the face of injustice and exploitation, sometimes in response to idiocy, occasionally just because I need to shout.
As I read Bruce Robinson’s Author’s Note at the start of They All Love Jack, with its scathing repudiation of the Victorian governing class, I had goosebumps. He describes the people with power in Victorian England in the same terms as the neo-liberals deserve today. Wealth as deity, the notion of right to rule, institutionalised hypocrisy and the celebration of the monstrous as heroic when the monstrous is directed against the poor. I’m a historian. I’ve been saying since Cameron took the Tories into coalition with the LibDems that they want to take us back to Victorian times. People smile at me from their bubbles of comfort and plenitude. They laugh, thinking I’m being melodramatic. How on earth can I think such a thing?
How on earth, indeed? Look at how the world has changed in the last 6 months. Wealth is more openly worshipped as a deity, privileged white men more openly think they have a right to rule, and a monster has been elected President of the USA. Institutionalised hypocrisy never went away.
The day before I finished the book, as well, Julie Hambleton appeared on breakfast telly. Julie’s sister Maxine was killed in the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. Six people were wrongly convicted of those attacks. It took 17 years for their convictions to be quashed. In the years following their release, nobody else has been charged with the bombings and the families of those who were killed have been fighting for new inquests to be held. This week the government decided that those families weren’t eligible for legal aid because of a technicality around where their lawyers are based. Julie Hambleton used her tv appearance to ask the sort of questions Bruce Robinson asks in this book – what does the government, the establishment, that is supposedly serving the people who elect it, have to hide? Julie Hambleton was as magnificently angry as this book is.
Back to the book, though. It was with a thrill of anticipation that I started reading it, bolstered by Robinson’s claim that he’d put the hours in with his research and, even as a cynical man who expects the worst, didn’t expect to find what he did.
This is a book written with a righteous rage. It isn’t self-indulgent rage, but born of reading contemporary accounts and evidence that demonstrates so clearly that the Great in Great Britain was at the expense of the poor and the other. Robinson’s scorn for those in charge of the Ripper investigation is palpable. One by one he tears down the blinds erected to distract from the truth and feed the contemporary need for an enemy. As with today, the enemy needed to be someone outside indigenous society. In Victorian Britain, that meant somebody Jewish.
Robinson describes a couple of the prime Jewish suspects of the time and delivers an irrefutable logic, one which I had been thinking as he went over the characteristics of one of the men in question. This was a man with physical deformities and facial spasms. As Robinson so succinctly puts it:
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I was a hardened, streetwise East End whore, half-sloshed and desperate for fourpence or not, I would definitely avoid going up an alley with this man. Forget the canine teeth, it’s the spasmodic contractions of one side of the face that would do it for me.
He also explores the culture of the time, the Victorian version of the Christian white supremacy that we see playing out in the USA, and the neo-fascism that exists in the UK, France and elsewhere in Europe. Some of the language is ugly. His use of racial slurs and pejoratives makes for uncomfortable reading. But I understood what he was doing. Sometimes, to really get to grips with the ugliness of a culture, you have to use its ugliest language. It is the one issue I have with the book. I don’t for one minute believe that Robinson shares the views of those who regularly use the terms he employs in describing people of colour, people of different religions or women, but it doesn’t mean I like him using those terms.
His disdain for the Victorian Establishment is, nonetheless, glorious. He rips into the royal family with a delicious fervour, striking a contrast between attitudes to the poor who were viewed as irresponsible in their inability to stop having children and attitudes to the similarly fecund royals. He strips bare the hypocrisy of warmongering by an allegedly Christian nation and shares some shocking stories that, because I have only studied a small window of British history, I had no idea about.
This is one of many quotes I could have chosen to illustrate what I mean. Robinson is talking about the lies and selective certainties the higher classes told themselves to feel better about the squalor in society:
The Victorians’ hypocrisy was like a self-induced blackmail of their own intelligence, and that was how the proles were conditioned into deference: work your arse off, wave a flag, and go to Heaven.
This is the sort of history that matters. I realise, as I say that, that the trouble with history is it serves the purpose of the person who writes it. Analysis of evidence of past events, which is all that history is, is never objective. So of course, because I share the view of Britain’s not so glorious past that Robinson holds, I think this book is important. But I also think it’s important because it isn’t sanitised. It isn’t written for an academic audience. It doesn’t utilise the standard language of inoffensiveness that historians are trained to use. That’s not to say it’s dumbed down or populist. It isn’t. Robinson is an intelligent man, he knows what he has discovered, and he interprets it well. But he chooses to write conversationally, peppering his prose with expletives and colloquialisms. It’s like being down the pub with him. Sometimes it’s funny. Mostly it’s searing in its honesty. He is enraged by the cover-ups. He is infuriated by the manner in which people not of the ruling classes are treated. And he is not limited by self interest. He’s not just angry about the stratum of society he feels most kinship with. He’s angry about all of it.
For what it’s worth, I’ve been a professional writer for the best part of forty years. I’ve researched widely, from the Manhattan Project to the Khmer Rouge, but until confronted with Ripperology I had never laboured through such an expulsion of syncopated crap masquerading as history in all my life.
I didn’t know that I was all that interested in Jack the Ripper until I started reading this book. Because of what it involves, the reason behind Robinson researching the story isn’t revealed until a fifth of the way into the book. His reason is interesting but not vital to the passion he has for getting to the truth behind the mystery being infectious. His historian as raconteur style helped, but this is a pacey, gripping read regardless of Robinson’s voice roaring out in incredulity at you. There were times when what Robinson was describing was so farcical that I could imagine it being made into a very entertaining satirical film.
A couple of things struck me as I read. As a particular flavour of historian (archivist and custodian, interpreter for a specific audience, rather than academic analyst and theory promulgator), I’m aware that much of what I personally know and believe about history gets filtered out because I have to tell a story that meets the aim of my employer. It was refreshing to read history in such unfiltered language.
The other thing was Robinson’s incredulity at the gullibility of Ripperologists. Of course, it’s easier to grasp that people believe whatever the hell it suits them to believe when you’ve witnessed a racist campaign to bring the UK out of the EU succeed, and a neo-nazi campaign to become President of the USA succeed. Robinson wrote this book before either of those events happened. My bet is that, if writing the book now, he would have been less surprised by their acceptance of the lies told by the police at the time the Ripper was playing his vicious game. He would have acknowledged that people are almost rabid in their willingness to believe the establishment lies that suit them.
Tying into the whole Brexit, Trump, post-fact, fake news sites, disinformation thing is Robinson’s frequent reporting of Ripperologists’ penchant for recasting contemporary evidence in order to suit their own purposes. They have a narrative that they want to get out there, and it’s one that isn’t comfortable with facts or evidence, as with much of the EU Referendum Leave campaign and Trump’s campaign to become President. Minor inconsistencies in contemporary narratives are elevated to glaring errors. Rather than attacking evidence, the people who read the evidence and interpret it differently are attacked for being partisan. Opinion in favour of their screwy argument is recast as source.
Lots of other little things struck me the further into the book I got, right up to the point where Robinson reveals his candidate for Jack the Ripper. I’m only going to mention one more, and that’s the parallels between how the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Charles Warren tried to victim blame the women killed by the Ripper and how high profile rape cases involving celebrities who don’t understand what consent is currently tend to descend into victim blaming.
Caught in the headlights, Warren sought an exit by blaming everyone but himself … he wrote, ‘…the carrying out of your proposals cannot possibly do more than guard or take precautions against repetition of such atrocities so long as the victims actually, but unwittingly, connive at their own destruction.’
In other words, Catherine Eddowes was complicit in the loss of her ear, kidney and womb. She shouldn’t have been walking around flaunting such stuff at a murderer.
Warren is portrayed by Robinson as marginalising the Ripper and focusing on the victims as the problem:
‘I have to request and call upon your Board,’ he lathers, ‘to do all in your power to dissuade the unfortunate women about Whitechapel from going into lonely places in the dark with any persons. The unfortunate victims appear to take the murderer to some retired spot and place themselves in such a position that they can be slaughtered without a sound being heard; …’
Yes, ladies, whatever it is we’re doing, anything bad that happens as a result of our behaviour is not the responsibility of the person who violates us. It was ever thus. Sadly, it still is.
I found that I had a lot to think about as I read. Robinson is not stingy in the evidence he presents for his theory of who the Ripper was. It’s like listening to a barrister make his case in court at times. Going over the same ground from different angles, referring back to previous arguments to strengthen his current one, building up a body of reasoning such that, a third of the way into the book, when Robinson reveals who his candidate is, it makes perfect sense. His exploration of how criminal psychologists have developed theories about psychopathic killers, his ability to look past the form of some of the contemporary evidence (the letters sent to the police by the Ripper) and see how the killer’s mind was working, his investigation into the kind of life the killer might possibly have led makes for compelling stuff. As an archivist, I found Robinson’s approach to interpreting the documentary record very engaging. It’s one of the things I try to encourage researchers to do – to not just look at the content of the documents and the facts (or otherwise, as it might turn out) they preserve as tombstones, but to think about the context, think about what else is going on, consider the layers of what message the writer might be wanting to imbue the record with. Robinson gets it.
Once Robinson reveals his candidate, the book settles down into more of a crime drama and provides more of a narrative profile of the people involved in the story and the times they lived in. It’s still a good read, but I found myself pausing to reflect on what I’d read less frequently.
I don’t want to give too much away, although if you’ve read the review that appeared in the Guardian when the book was first published, you’ll know the crux of Robinson’s theory. I was puzzled by one thing in Robinson’s research. The organisation he believes his candidate to be a member of was compelled by law between 1799 and 1967 to register the names of its members annually with the Clerk of the Peace and the local Quarter Sessions, and those lists are now housed in local record offices across England. I know this because I used to work in local authority record offices. I’ve catalogued these types of record. I found it strange that the book is so well referenced with source citations, but Robinson explains this bit of the story as being sourced by “a clog of documents” most of them banished by him as sources. I realise that part of the story Robinson wanted to tell, one of a struggle to prove one person’s membership because the organisation had obliterated his record, tied in with his investigation of why that record was removed from the organisation’s own records, but I wondered whether the organisation’s reach extended to being able to remove him from the Quarter Sessions lists. Maybe the lists for London are incomplete.
At the end of the book are two appendices, side stories that give context to the cover up surrounding the Ripper’s activities. The first is an examination of the British establishment’s attempts to discredit and imprison the then Irish leader Charles Parnell, and interested me the most. It focuses on Sir Robert Anderson’s involvement in the scandal. The original God’s Cop, Anderson was a career liar who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to pervert the course of justice in the interests of protecting the establishment. I had the gist of the Parnell affair already. What I learned from Robinson’s retelling of it was how similar Anderson was to Donald Trump, in terms of lies told in order to discredit a political opponent, and how corrupt the West’s political system remains to this day.
The day a state becomes sick is the day it considers the protection of itself more important than the protection of its people. It conflates the protection of the people with a camouflaged reality of the protection of itself. It usually tells the people to be afraid of something or other, in direct proportion to its own interest.
And thus we have the post-September 11 Project Fear, training the people to fear Islam, to fear immigrants, to fear experts, to fear rational argument, to become the dumb majority who will vote in the interests of neo-liberalism under the guise of expressing their free will. It increasingly seems to me that most people have no understanding of democracy being a contract, and they are happily willing to be manipulated by politicians because it means they don’t actually have to think for themselves or consider consequences. That makes me sad.
This is one of the best books I have ever read. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me boil with rage, but most of all it consolidated things I have long held to be true into a coherent appraisal of the fucked up capitalist, neo-liberal society we live in. Now I just need to work out what I can do to counter its fucked up ness.