In October 1922 a young man called Freddy Bywaters lurked in the dark front garden of a corner house in Ilford. When his mistress and her husband came along, he emerged from the garden and, with or without premeditation, stabbed Percy Thompson 16 times. Thompson died, and so, after being sent for trial at the Old Bailey, did Bywaters and Mrs Thompson, at the end of a rope.
Last year my friend and colleague René Weis wrote a book about the Thompson-Bywaters case, a book whose title, Criminal Justice, sufficiently indicates his persuasive view that the trial was a miscarriage of justice and that Edith Thompson was innocent of the charge of conspiracy to murder – that she was unprepared for her lover’s rash act. René and I have been putting our hands to a screen treatment of the story. On a bright mild Saturday morning in January we drove East to Manor Park in order to go over the ground: to see where Edith Thompson lived before marrying; where Bywaters, eight years her junior, lived with his family; and where, in a roomy, now-yellowing public house, Bywaters had spent the evening with Mrs Thompson’s sister Avis before walking up to Ilford and bringing about three deaths.
Over a lunchtime drink in this pub, we found ourselves again puzzled by Bywaters’s motives and frame of mind. As a ‘writer’ and laundry steward on various steamships from the age of 15, he had presumably learned to look after himself among sailors in far-flung ports, in the real worlds of which Conrad and Kipling have left grimly romantic records, so that carrying a knife, and readily using it in a scrap, may just have been what all tough sailors do. Even so, we had a problem. The explanation that the twenty-year-old killer had knocked about where life was cheap didn’t quite bring his action into focus: our experience of fights, aggro, rumbles, of the serious desire to hurt people, was negligible.
In the afternoon we went to East Ham Station; to Percy Thomson’s family house; to rambling Wanstead Park, where on a fine Saturday morning at the end of September 1922 Mrs Thompson seems after quite a few adulterous encounters with Bywaters to have had her first orgasm in his embraces; and to the nearby house in Kensington Gardens, Ilford, where the Thompsons lived and Bywaters briefly lodged. At dusk we walked along the route from Ilford station towards Kensington Gardens, to the point where Bywaters emerged from the shadows and acted with such ferocity. We paced over the site on which the struggle had been played out; and stood by the garden wall where Percy Thompson had collapsed.
We then drove back to René’s flat in South London for an evening of work on the script, on the sequence of events leading up to the consummation of the love-affair. These scenes were tricky, the balance of effect crucial: it was nearly three before we sorted out a satisfactory way to do the sequence. René offered me a lift home. We emerged into the dark suburban street in a state of weariness, but with pleasure in the dynamics of the action as we had imagined it. René’s car was parked beyond the corner, some thirty yards from his door, and we strolled towards it, past a passerby who was opening the gate of a front garden.
As we reached the car I looked back. Going into a front garden implied entering a front door, and in the silent street that would have been audible. Silence, and René’s voice, were all I had heard. I mentioned that I thought whoever it was was still standing in the front garden of the house, and had not gone inside. The previous day René’s neighbours had been burgled for the third time.
Vol. 11 No. 7 · 30 March 1989
It is to be hoped that Philip Horne (Diary, 2 March) benefited therapeutically from the writing of his curiously obsessive account of the ‘Kevin’ adventure. Myself, I was left with yet another new fear: to the dangers of eating almost anything, comes the danger of being spotted in my front garden by Mr Horne and his pugilistic friend, René Weis.
‘We may have been right, but were we wise?’ Well, actually, neither. Even in 1989, we retain our right to crouch at the doorstep of our father’s house with sock-covered hands. It may be argued, though with less certainty, that we also have a right to pause outside somebody’s property and ask a crouching, hand-socked person whether there is anything wrong. The right we surely don’t have, however, is to assume that if we are told that there isn’t anything wrong but insist on staying (‘we explained that we wouldn’t go till we found out what he was doing there’) then other people won’t turn equally nasty or – feeling threatened and possibly frightened, or for that matter being drunk or drugged or prone to violence – much nastier.
‘Kevin’ does sound a little tiresome, it is true, ineptly brandishing ‘something metallic’ in one of his socks and ‘setting his feet further apart in a combat posture’. But I rather warmed to his family, even by Mr Horne’s account, rushing out to do battle and defend their son and property. It was the middle of the night after all, and one takes Mr Horne and Mr Weis to be fully-grown men. Mr Weis, indeed, by that time appears to have lost control of himself and to have been hitting anything that moved, whilst Mr Horne may well have been a figure to strike terror in the new-wakened breast, holding a spanner in one hand and cramming his misshapen spectacles onto his face with the other …
How unlovely of our heroes to report the Kevins to the Police. How sensible of the Police to stop them making further fools of themselves. How odd to assume a morally superior position to the impulsive, warm-hearted Clough (‘the controversial manager of Nottingham Forest FC’ – as we are very helpfully told). We knew about not running onto soccer pitches. We must now look to our gardens, our language, our posture, and our socks.
As a previous Diary contributor, during the last prison service industrial dispute, I read with great interest my friend Phil Horne’s Diary piece regarding his tussle with a suspected, but in fact innocent burglar. Whilst not wishing to minimise either the well-intentioned attempts of the public to arrest would-be criminals, or to ignore the trauma experienced by those who are the victims of crime, Phil’s assertion that in our society there ‘is a lot of crime’ is seriously and misguidingly at odds with all official statistics. What our society suffers from is not too much crime, but too much fear of crime. We are afraid to walk the streets, ride the tube, or leave our house unattended, despite the fact that statistically it is almost more likely for the Martians to land than for our house to be burgled, or for a nice university lecturer like Phil to be mugged. Undoubtedly the media play an important part in creating this fear, and Orwell recognised this as long ago as 1946 in ‘The Decline of the English Murder’. Ironically, all Phil has done is to add to this climate, not just by the Diary piece and its assumptions about young people who don’t give straight answers to questions posed by strangers after midnight, but also by his and his colleague’s intentions to dramatise the Thompson-Bywater’s murder. Personally, I’m just pleased that Phil is not researching Michael Ryan.
The Governor’s Quarter