Fallen Women

Patricia Highsmith

  • ‘Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son’: The Story of Peter Sutcliffe by Gordon Burn
    Heinemann, 272 pp, £9.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 434 09827 2

Gordon Burn gives us no comment of his own on the story he has to tell – just the facts: no speculation as to why Peter Sutcliffe behaved as he did, just the events, the family life, anecdotes that may or may not be pertinent, the pubs and their atmosphere. And we go back, or rather from the beginning of the book we go forward – from Sutcliffe’s grandparents on both sides. How else is he to explain, or attempt to explain, this odd man who spread 13 murders over six years, and fooled even those closest to him until almost the last moment? That Sutcliffe was insane in some way is an inevitable conclusion after reading all the facts about him. All the facts? At once one has to start hedging: we know nothing of Sutcliffe’s relations with his wife Sonia, to whom he was devoted: to know something about these might have clarified a little the puzzling defence he put up in saying that God had spoken to him, and told him to kill prostitutes. If God spoke to him as far back as when he was 20, and employed as a gravedigger in a church cemetery (where he claims to have first heard the voice), then Sutcliffe never mentioned it to his brothers Mick and Carl, nor to pub pals like Trevor Birdsall, which leads one to suspect that Sutcliffe might have thought there was something rather wrong or unpopular about such a message, assuming he ever received it. He was not known for faithful church attendance.

His murders were sexually-based and motivated, so it is important to know the attitude toward women of Peter and his family and of the society in which he grew up. ‘Women are for fryin’ bacon and for screwin’ ’ was a comment sometimes heard and always hanging in the atmosphere like the smell of bacon grease itself. One’s mother was of course different, almost holy, one simply didn’t think about one’s mother ever having had sexual relations with one’s father, or at worst she’d had them only with one’s father; she was somehow virginal, just as Mary the mother of Jesus has to be a virgin, because it makes her so much cleaner. A lack of realism in regard to women is at the core of Peter Sutcliffe’s strange deeds. It is significant that Peter, the firstborn of six children (the second, a boy, died in infancy), clung literally to his mother’s skirts until he was eight or nine or so, was easily bullied at school, and as a child was a disappointment to his extrovert and sports-loving father, John. Yet his father was to say later that if the family had ever got into straits, it would have been Peter who’d have helped them out, not Mick or Carl, because Peter really cared.

John Sutcliffe had married his fiancée Kathleen Coonan in 1945, as soon as he had been discharged from the Merchant Navy, and they had set up house on the outskirts of Bingley, Yorkshire. Peter was born in 1946. John had a job in a bakery then, but changed it for a weaver’s job in a wool mill, and he was usually on night shift. He loved playing cricket, and was active in local amateur dramatic societies.

Having failed his 11-plus, another disappointment to his father who had wanted him to go to grammar school, Peter went to work in his teens, and at 19 and 20 had a gravedigger’s job at intervals. He seems to have rapidly grown callous to corpses, and once invited a friend in to ‘view the face’ of a man in a coffin, peered with fascination for a minute, then screwed the lid back on again. He was finally sacked for coming to work late, but not before he had acquired a collection of rings which he had removed from the fingers of corpses before burial. He offered his friends a choice of rings sometimes, and not all his friends were amused. A couple of girls in the pub-centred social circle and at least one young man decided to avoid Peter Sutcliffe, because ‘there was something odd about him,’ though they couldn’t say exactly what. In pubs, he would accompany a male chum or one of his brothers who perhaps had a girl with him, and would sit stiffly, hands on knees, staring with a pleasant expression into space. ‘Hey, relax, Pete!’ someone might say. When he did relax, it was to narrate something funny that had happened to him or someone else, and would get so carried away, so interrupted by his own bursts of incontrollable and high-pitched laughter, that according to Mick it would take him twenty minutes to tell what another person could in five. Another amusement for Peter was cruising in his car or that of a chum in the red-light section of Bingley or nearby towns. Prostitutes were a different sort of woman, they were lower than anything, they were just for laughs, and Peter enjoyed making fun of them, laughing in their faces. From his car, he might ascertain that a streetwalker’s fee was £5, and if she agreed to his offer of £2, would say, ‘Is that all you’re worth?’ and with his curiously shrill laugh, zoom off.

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