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.
I suppose I made this remark in the spirit of the Baudelairean observer who takes perverse relish in the various depravities of the city at night: for I was alarmed to see René turn and head towards the hedge-shadowed garden, a trouble-shooting neighbourhood watchman.
I went back without alacrity, conscious of the lateness of the hour and suspicious of my own suspicions. René was standing by the low garden-fence, peering over into the thick darkness of the front path and house-porch. After a long ten seconds he said: ‘There’s someone crouching on the front step.’ A pair of white trainers just glimmered there. And a moment after he spoke, there was an unfriendly figure coming out towards us, saying ‘Yeh?’, asking what we wanted.
‘We just wanted to make sure you were all right,’ said René.
‘We wanted to be sure you were okay, that’s all.’
‘I’m okay’. He was eighteen or twenty, stocky, dressed in black windcheater and jeans, with a short haircut and cold eyes. We later discovered he wore old socks on his hands.
‘If you’re okay,’ René went on, ‘what are you doing crouching in somebody’s front garden in the middle of the night?’
‘What the fuck business is it of yours?’
‘Well we just want to make sure there’s nothing wrong.’
‘There’s nothing wrong,’ he said in a very low voice. ‘Fuck off.’
We explained that we wouldn’t go till we found out what he was doing there.
There was a pause. ‘I live here,’ again in a menacing undertone. He said we were in trouble. And so, in a serious sense, we were.
But we asked why he had not gone in, or rung the door-bell. He pushed out into the street towards us, not amiably: it was again none of our fucking business. And with ever-failing optimism we asked the question again. He gave me a shove. René, who was becoming heated, took hold of his arm, saying: ‘That’s enough.’ He responded by murmuring, very slowly and as if reasonably: ‘Don’t touch me or I’ll fucking kill you.’
René wouldn’t back down, there was a tussle, and the youth jumped back a step or two. His intention, though, was not conciliatory. He drew something metallic from his pocket and raised it above his head ready to strike, and also set his feet further apart in a combat posture. ‘Now you’re fucking dead,’ he told us. René raised his hands to defend himself and was shoved back against a car.
‘Put your hands down or I’ll kill you,’ the youth meaningly said. ‘I’ll count to two, and if you don’t put your hands down I’ll fucking kill you. One. Two.’
René kept his guard up, and raised his knee to protect himself from kicks, very upset about being threatened with a weapon. It looked in the gloom like a wrench or a spanner. When the count of two ended René pushed off from the car and there was a violent struggle, which took them back towards the fence. With my glasses sliding down my nose, carrying a bag with a camera and tape-recorder, I followed as closely as seemed prudent, waiting for a chance to help René.
The wrestle ended with René grabbing the spanner-hand and shouting to me to ‘Hold his arms.’ I found myself awkwardly hugging our opponent from the side to prevent him from making another assault (it is a lot easier to hurt an enemy than to stop him hurting you). We were stuck in uncomfortable proximity. ‘Where do you live?’ the youth said unpleasantly. ‘Nearby,’ said René. ‘I’ll find out where,’ said the youth, ‘and I’ll fucking get you for this.’
By this stage René and I were hoping somebody would hear the fight and call the Police: but people generally don’t, and didn’t in this case. He was still clutching the spanner: René told him to drop it. He ignored René, and said again, softly, that he lived in the house on whose doorstep he had been squatting. ‘Drop that fucking weapon,’ René shouted repeatedly, furious and trying to attract attention. But to no avail. The youth said ‘Don’t shout,’ and then again that he would kill us. He would find out where we fucking lived and he would fucking kill us. He gave no sign of dropping the spanner. René, not to be outdone, then told him that, if he did not drop the weapon, ‘I’ll break your fucking thumb.’ The youth made some further low-voiced threat. René showed that he was serious, and ‘Don’t break my thumb,’ said the youth in an aggrieved tone, as if we were especially cruel bullies, as if he himself had not just been vowing to kill us – and he dropped the spanner. At this point he seemed to be wriggling to reach up inside his jacket – and it occurred to me that he might have a knife.
We safely manoeuvred him back into the front garden of the house he claimed was home. I picked up the spanner, together with the unwashed socks he had been wearing on his hands, as well as my glasses, which had been knocked off and trodden out of shape. We told him again that if this was his own house and his family lived there, he shouldn’t mind ringing the bell. After more tedious confrontational exchanges, and to my great surprise, he did ring the bell of the darkened house. René and I were greatly relieved at the prospect of a respectable householder coming to our assistance, being grateful for our vigilance, or at least telephoning the Police.
The light in the porch came on, and there were sounds from the hall. Then the front door opened, and a large man in his fifties looked out at us. ‘What’s the matter, Kevin?’ he cried – I have changed the name – as the youth again gave René a shove; and then he charged out with a stick to Kevin’s rescue, followed by a young man (a brother?) and a young woman (a sister-in-law?). Kevin, spannerless, popped inside for a moment and came out wielding an umbrella. I was still trying unsuccessfully to get my glasses to stay on my face. The father manhandled René out of the garden onto the public pavement. The other young man came close behind, more interested in asking questions before committing himself to a brawl, and so did the woman. I took her on one side and gave her the spanner, explaining that we had not been making an unprovoked assault on Kevin.
By this time there was a mêlée some way down the street. René had fallen back onto the bonnet of a car. The angry father caught him a glancing blow on the shoulder with his stick. Kevin twice came down with the umbrella, missing René, onto the car’s bonnet: each time René punched him in the face. The other young man restrained his male relations; the father was made to see some sense; the young woman called, ‘Come on, Kevin, you’ve caused enough trouble already’; and after more brutal scuffling Kevin was separated from René and the family processed back towards their house.
I was still standing by their gate, where I had been attempting to make peace. As Kevin came past me he jumped in my direction with a poisonous look as if to fucking kill me too. But I was rewarded for being the voice of reason. The young woman I had been negotiating with said: ‘Don’t mind him, Kevin. He’s just a wally.’ They trooped back in. The lights went out.
As we might have expected, the Police when we called them in were polite and mildly sympathetic, and even made out a ‘crime sheet’, but repeatedly recommended that René not ‘antagonise the situation’ (‘tempt fate’?) by pressing charges of common assault. Kevin was back in the bosom of his family. Because René had managed to save his vitals from being pierced by the point of an umbrella, they were happy to say there was no harm done. But we knew that had not been for want of trying on the part of our ill-met stranger.
In the couple of weeks since this episode the papers have seemed full of cases of other citizens attempting to uphold law and order only to be beset with comparable ironies. Brian Clough, the controversial manager of Nottingham Forest FC, was caught by television cameras lashing out – literally – at fans invading his pitch after a game. He has now been charged by the Football Association with bringing the game into disrepute. It was an attempt at crowd-control – at preventing a clash between rival fans – invalidated through lack of self-control. One of those struck in the incident struck back: ‘The only one who was a hooligan was Brian Clough.’
Clough’s chairman defended his action with an image which rang bells for René and me: ‘Fans know that it is wrong to come on to the pitch. How would you like it if people came into your front garden? I’m told Brian clipped a few. Six, was it? Well, I’ve had a few clips in my time, and it didn’t do me any harm. Perhaps this will make people think twice about running on to the pitch.’ We had thought we were defending a front garden from invasion, on behalf of its owners; in doing so, we had seemed to invade it, and been treated as invaders and aggressors. But we couldn’t feel seriously at fault, as Clough should; it would take a good deal to persuade me that it was improper of us to suspect Kevin’s behaviour.
A leader in the Independent drew the moral from Brian Clough’s embarrassment that ‘citizens must never take the law into their own hands.’ And this seems just in Clough’s case, where Police were plentifully present. But sometimes citizens are left with the law on their hands. Anyone who has reported a burglary or act of vandalism to the London Police knows that they are in many situations depressingly frank about their incapacity to detect ordinary crime. There is a lot of crime, they have limited resources, and quite rightly they have their priorities. Vigilante groups like the Guardian Angels, currently being imported to London from New York, represent a worrying but understandable impulse to fill the gaps. The urge to look after oneself when one is not looked after seems unavoidable.
It is not, after all, as if the police and legal systems work infallibly. René Weis strongly believes the legal process which hanged Edith Thompson was unjust; and the liveliness of the tradition of error was illustrated only the other day when the Police put out a touched-up photograph of the black boxer Nigel Benn (touched up to make it look like a photo-fit of someone else) to help in their search for a gunman. All it helped them do was catch Nigel Benn, who was stopped 16 times. His manager commented: ‘One idiot tried to arrest Nigel by jumping on top of him, screaming “He’s a wanted man.” ’ ‘Idiot’ is unfair, though, to a citizen who correctly identified the man in a photograph which the Police incorrectly issued. Benn, who is from Ilford, injured his hand in fending the man off, and seems likely to obtain damages for libel from Scotland Yard.
We may have been right, but were we wise? Kevin turned nasty: what if he had been better-armed? We will now ‘think twice’, in the words of the Forest chairman, about speaking to people in front gardens. Our chief consolation is that we now have a more vivid idea of what happened when Bywaters emerged with trouble in mind from the front garden in Ilford.