Dennis Nilsen, or the Pot of Basil

John Ryle

  • Killing for Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen by Brian Masters
    Cape, 352 pp, £9.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 224 02184 2
  • Queens by Pickles
    Quartet, 289 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7043 2439 3
  • Ritualised Homosexuality in Melanesia edited by Gilbert Herdt
    California, 409 pp, £19.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 520 05037 1

Murderers are frequently reported by acquaintances to be civil, diligent, pleasant in manner, if a little reserved, normal in appearance, cultivated to a degree, kind to animals and, with certain fatal exceptions, to their fellow human beings. If such characteristics were grounds for suspicion, Dennis Nilsen, who strangled and dismembered 14 or 15 youths in North London over a period of five years, would have been rounded up with the rest of us. But there were no grounds for suspecting anyone of being guilty of these murders, for until the grim day in February two years ago when a plumber found human remains in the sewer of the house where Nilsen lived in Muswell Hill there was no indication that any crime had even been committed. The victims were vagrant youths whom nobody missed, rent boys, no-hopers, waifs of the West End. They were seldom even reported missing. No wonder they went home with him. When they disappeared, nobody cared, except, perhaps, Dennis Nilsen.

I am sitting cross-legged on the carpet, drinking and listening to music ... I drain my glass and take the phones off. Behind me sits Stephen Sinclair on the lazy chair. He was crashed out with drink and drugs. I sit and look at him. I stand up and approach him. My heart is pounding. I kneel down in front of him. I touch his leg and say: ‘Are you awake?’ There is no response. ‘Oh Stephen,’ I think, ‘here I go again.’

Nilsen picked up Stephen Sinclair, a 20-year-old Scottish delinquent, near Leicester Square in January 1983. They had never met before. There was not much time to get acquainted: about four hours, by Nilsen’s own account. Once he had got Sinclair home, the next thing he did was strangle him with an old tie (after making sure his dog, Bleep, a black and white mongrel bitch, was out of the way). He washed the body and dusted it with talcum powder, then he went back to bed, where he spent the night with Bleep and the corpse.

Here in this cell he is still with me. In fact I believe he is me, or part of me. How can you feel remorse for taking his pains into yourself? I loved him much more than anyone he had ever met in his twenty years. The image of the sleeping Stephen is and will be with me for all of my life. No court or prison can ever take that from me, or this almost holy feeling.

In the morning Nilsen put the body in a cupboard and went to the Jobcentre where he worked in Kentish Town. The body stayed in the cupboard for eight days. Then he dismembered it, putting the head in a pot on the stove and the limbs in plastic bags. Disposing of bodies was a problem he had faced many times before, first in Cricklewood and now in his new flat in Muswell Hill. All his victims had been young men he met in the street or in gay pubs. They would come home with him, get drunk, go to bed and wake up dead. There was not much in the way of sex: sometimes Nilsen masturbated over the dead youths; sometimes he lay beside them and played dead, admiring the tableau in a mirror. Later he drew pictures of some or commemorated them in vers libre. But Sinclair was Nilsen’s last victim. A previous body had blocked the drain in the building where he lived, creating an urgent problem for his neighbours. The following week the men from Dyno-rod found strange flesh in a manhole near the house. It looked like pieces of chicken but was not. Nilsen tried to remove it by night; he was observed. When the police came to call on him the next day he told them everything.

Everything but the vital thing: why he did it. Not how he got away with it, which was un-problematic given the forlorn lives of his victims, most of whom still remain unidentified, but why he allowed that link in his psyche between sex and death to deliver him and them into such a mess of evil. In Killing for Company Brian Masters attempts, with the active participation of his subject, to explain how a person like Nilsen came to be; how his necrophiliac fantasies invaded real life; how, in Masters’s words, it is possible to wake up in the morning to a man’s head in a pot on the gas stove.

Nilsen was born in Fraserburgh, the second son of a doomed marriage between a local girl and a Norwegian sailor. His parents had three children but were never able to set up house together, so he grew up in the care of his mother’s people. His grandfather died when he was six, the corpse being displayed in the local fashion for relatives to pay their last respects. The sight affected Nilson deeply: in some sense, it would seem, death was his primal scene. After leaving school Nilsen was in the Army for 11 years, serving in Germany and Aden and resigning after Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972. A few months later he joined the Metropolitan Police. Only at this point, in his mid-twenties, did he begin to move in the homosexual world. But a gay policeman’s lot is not a happy one: Nilsen soon resigned from the Force; then, after a period with no job, he joined the Department of Employment, where he was still working when he was arrested.

As a young man in the Army Nilsen had fallen in love with one of his fellow soldiers; the feeling was unrequited. Thereafter he developed intricate erotic fantasies involving his own death. After he moved to London he embarked on a round of short-lived affairs and one-night stands. At the end of 1978, when he was 33, one of these brief encounters marked the beginning of his life as a sex murderer.

I remember thinking that I wanted him to stay with me over the New Year whether he wanted to or not. I reached out and got the neck tie ... I quickly straddled him and pulled tight for all I was worth ... After about half a minute I felt him slowly going limp ... Then I noticed he had resumed breathing ... ‘I’d better drown him,’ I thought.

Nilsen’s other murders followed a similar pattern. Drunk, but not as drunk as his victims, doubly intoxicated with music and loneliness, hardly awake himself, he would throttle them, take his pleasure with the corpse, then dispose of the body with the butcherly precision he had learnt as an army cook. ‘It would be better,’ he wrote in prison, ‘if my reason for killing could be clinically defined, i.e. robbery, jealousy, hate, revenge, blood-lust or sadism. But it’s none of these’: ‘I never sensed the feeling of killing as such, only a feeling of stopping something terrible from happening, a compulsion to squeeze the person by the throat to relieve and absolve him and me from something terrible.’ Something terrible. Like a crime against nature? No, Nilsen does not seem to have experienced especial guilt about homosexuality. It was something more terrible he was afraid of: life. Nilsen often reflects, in the letters and diaries quoted in this book, on the supposed misery of the lives of his victims, lives that seemed to him even more hopeless than his own. Killing them seemed like letting a bird out of a cage. But he stops short of claiming he killed out of pity; he killed them, he says, because ‘I could only relate to a dead image of the person I could love ... The sight of them brought me a bitter sweetness and a temporary peace and fulfilment.’ He wore his victims’ clothes to work; he identified with them to the extent of wanting to change his name to one of theirs. His murders, he finally concluded, after the trial was over, were a kind of surrogate suicide: he was killing himself in effigy.

Nilsen’s desire to understand his own motives may be sincere – he has, after all, nothing left to lose. But his articulacy seems suspect. The danger that his crimes might mean nothing, might have no reason, seems to press on him more strongly than guilt; he is too anxious to secure an explanation; what appears to be self-analysis is more often a deployment of cliché to bolster his own myth, the myth of the bent branch, the wrong turning. ‘No one,’ he complains, ‘wants to believe ever that I am just an ordinary man come to an extraordinary and overwhelming conclusion.’

Can an ordinary man come to create such a catalogue of horror merely through an ontological error: the failure to acknowledge the separate existence of other human beings? Other people certainly existed more vividly for Nilsen in his imagination than in themselves. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. Where they were themselves incomplete, young, half-conscious, with ill-formed identities, his fantasy flowed in and stifled them. But there must surely also have been, so to speak, a chip missing in the circuits of Nilsen’s conscience for him to arrange, without compunction, so many reruns of his grisly snuff movie. And some special pleasure in constriction for him to become so expert in strangulation.

Masters suggests that these were not strictly homosexual murders, on the grounds that Nilsen never sodomised his victims. It is an odd argument. Admittedly, the improper erotic ritual that Nilsen devised was ultimately auto-sexual, but it was the work of a true invert: for the ritual of fertility, he substituted oblivion, for Eros, Thanatos, for incorporation, immolation. There is a horrible coherence to it. In another sense, Masters is right: the Nilsen case does not tell us very much about homosexuality, it tells us about self-love and loneliness and despair. What is most disturbing about the story is not the crime itself, nor the pot on the stove, but the ease with which Nilsen could find other lost souls to wreak his fantasies on. All those young men who were not missed, who had nothing going for them in the first place: into their nothingness Nilsen forced his craziness. And then they were truly lost.

It is clear, I hope, that Killing for Company is a proper and edifying inquiry and not in any sense sensationalist or exploitative. There is none of the lubricious mixture of schadenfreude and terror vacui that mars other examples of the genre, like Truman Capote’s portrait of Manson’s accomplice Bobby Beausoleil or Norman Mailer’s of Jack Abbott. Masters has had unique access to Nilsen’s own reflections and he interprets them with precision and sensitivity; he also considers and gently dismisses the lamentably vague and contradictory psychiatric evidence given at Nilsen’s trial. Do we really need psychiatrists to tell lawyers whether or not a man like Nilsen suffers from ‘diminished responsibility’? Or whether he has a ‘personality disorder’ (more specifically, in the words of one of the two defence psychiatrists, a ‘Borderline False Self As If Pseudo-Normal Narcissistic Personality Disorder’)? The dubious precision of these phrases resolves nothing. In Nilsen’s case psychiatric evidence served only to prolong the trial and allow the sharks of the courts to sharpen their teeth on the hapless shrinks. Indeed the whole idea of prosecution and defence summoning their respective psychiatrists in order to have them contradict one another seems calculated to make a mockery of the profession and its pretentions to objective diagnosis. In an instructive postscript to the book Anthony Storr argues that the defence of insanity should be dropped altogether from the statute book, that juries should be called on to decide simply whether the accused committed the crime or not, expert advice being sought only afterwards on the possibility of treatment rather than regular incarceration. This sensible suggestion might do something for the reputation of psychiatry; it is doubtless too clean-cut a solution to appeal to lawyers.

The psychopathology of homicide intersects with the ethnography of homosexuality at only one point in the Nilsen story: the gay pubs where he went in search of pick-ups. As one of the young homosexuals in Queens says: ‘You can never be too careful, can you? Not since that head-hunter from Muswell Hill. A girl’s got to keep her wits about her.’ Wit is not terribly in evidence in the dialogues that make up this book, contrived exchanges that hover uneasily between parody and pastiche. But the author’s observations on homosexual stereotypes are more acute: rent boys, leather queens, clones and other species of sex dandy are pinned down with accuracy; also lesser varieties, the pin-stripe City queen, ‘like a gentleman farmer looking for a prize bull’, and the ‘straight queen’ who ‘sleeps with his wife and loves his children but is tormented by the memory of a wicked fling in Cambridge with a lay-clerk’. Here is the topography of the city of night, from the Bell in King’s Cross to Heaven, the electronic barn underneath Charing Cross which is Europe’s biggest gay club. Pickles’s queens appear to be encircled by some enchantment, an erotic delirium that hides the seediness surrounding them. It will be hard, though, for those who have never been caught in the sway of high-tech dance music to understand what is so alluring about these places. Queens is the Sloane Ranger Handbook for full-time urban homosexuals – part lampoon, part vade-mecum. Like the Sloanes, the queens imagine that all is contained in a couple of square miles of Central London. Like them, they have rigid rules of dress and subtly coded modes of speech. Instead of being called Henry and Caroline they are called Ricky or Jon, but their world is equally closed and culture-bound.

Here, you might think, is a suitable present for that eccentric bachelor uncle of yours. But you say your uncle hasn’t been very well lately? Swollen glands? Cancer tests? Pneumonia? Then Queens may not amuse him: it looks like your uncle has AIDS, the disease that has transformed same-sex sex from a special kind of love game into fatal venery. AIDS goes almost unmentioned in Queens, but it is the fear of this, not of the Dennis Nilsens in the world, that has been at the back of every informed homosexual’s mind since the epidemic was first revealed. AIDS is the killer that haunts the bars and backrooms of Heaven; it hovers over casual sexual encounters like the angel of death. To do justice to the creeping effect of this plague we would need Camus; Mr Pickles sensibly does not try. Nor does he concern himself with the history of homosexual identity in this country and the creation of the community that is the subject of his book: how the public unacceptability of homosexual desire desocialises those citizens who habitually entertain it, leading some of them to abandon the straight milieu entirely and cleave to the tribal mores of the gay ghetto.

They order these things differently in Melanesia. The traditional cultures of the South-West Pacific described in Ritualised Homosexuality in Melanesia are among the few in the world that actually prescribe homosexual behaviour for men. In these societies it is thought that the delicate edifice of masculinity requires a period of adolescent insemination: youths must fellate or be sodomised by adults before they can become warriors. For some this initiation is a once only event, for others an extended period with affective content. Don’t worry, it’s only a phase: young men are expected to graduate from receiving semen to giving it. They are not expected to continue homosexual activities after marriage.

There are of course many societies where the plasticity of sexual desire is tacitly acknowledged and a variety of erotic activity tolerated among adolescents. To some extent they include our own. Many societies also have institutionalised inversion for men who are disposed to play the role of women. The distinctive feature of the sexual politics of these Melanesian tribes is that copulation with older unmarried youths is considered obligatory in order for boys to become men. It is not so much that they grow out of it: they grow because of it. Without it, they will be weak and their wives will run away. Homosexual relations are regulated in the same way as marriage: certain categories of kin are forbidden as sexual partners, others favoured. The relationship is conceived as the giving and receiving of a scarce resource, semen, and reciprocal obligations and life-long relationships flow from this.

The elaboration of sexual differentiation in one such society is the subject of Guardians of the Flute, a remarkable monograph by the editor of this collection. Ritualised Homosexuality goes beyond this earlier work to establish, by accounts of new research and re-analysis of old ethnographic records, the extent and variety of the homosexual idiom among the hundreds of different peoples in New Guinea and adjacent islands. Because of the secret nature of these cults and the prudery of earlier ethnographers, they have not before been revealed in such detail. It is classic anthropology, fabulously esoteric and deeply absorbing, and like Margaret Mead’s earlier accounts of Pacific societies, which helped to change American sexual mores in the post-war period, these glimpses of other cultures have particular value in the present period of recovery from the shocks of the sexual revolution in the West. It is indeed only by means of counter-examples from other societies, in conjunction with group variations and individual pathologies within our own, that we can define Western sexuality at all.

It will be seen that the Melanesian view of homosexuality is in some respects the opposite of ours. To them, the idea of a homosexual person is an unfamiliar one; it is something people do, not something they are. Homosexual acts have been incorporated in an elaborate ritual of fertility and made part of a heterosexual continuum. To us, this association can only be metaphorical; it does not correspond to the facts of biology as we know them. Western science, by contrast, has progressively divorced sexual life from fertility by contraceptive technology: heterosexuality has become subtly homosexualised. Our problem is not so much the separation of sex acts from organic reproduction as their consequent separation from social reproduction – by promiscuity, anonymity, and the erosion of the idea of kinship. We have invented meaning-free sex, something that would horrify the Melanesians. They know that coitus is strong magic, that sex is the most protean of desires, and therefore needs special regulation. They contain eroticism by a communal rite. With us, those who do not have the imaginative resources to devise private consensual pacts and rituals are lost. Those, like Nilsen, who develop their rituals in isolation are also lost: all they have is the darkness of the single life. Without society’s need to reproduce itself there is nothing to keep sex and death apart.