Diary

Andrew O’Hagan

On Monday morning, Dursley is full of talk. Half way down Silver Street, at the Aphrodite café, a couple of women sit bleary-eyed over mugs of coffee. The plastic seats are bendy with age, the air is freezing up, and the caramel logs are sweating in their cage on top of the counter. ‘They might not even come from around here,’ says the woman with the Alice band. Her opposite number sniffs in agreement. They are talking about a group of travelling vandals, said to reside in Dursley. Two young trees have been broken on the Innocks Estate in North Nibley; tiles were ripped from the bus shelter, and Councillor Ray Manning – hero of the moment – has removed a broken seat. I pick up a copy of the Gazette later on, and see there is more. A £300 Amaco mountain bike (‘with 21 gears, coloured purple and black’) was stolen from a garage at Clingre Farm, Stinchcombe last Saturday. The theft is mentioned on page two and again on page four.

This is surely how it should be. West Country villages – if we follow Thomas Hardy – have enough tragedy of their own, enough worry, without having to deal with the committal hearing of a Rosemary West, whose charge-sheet, if proved true, could make her the most gruesome female killer Britain has ever known. Those charges have of course still to be proved, and the proceedings this week in Dursley will end in a decision about whether the case can be prosecuted in the Crown Court. Rose is a widow now – her husband, the co-accused, hanged himself in his cell on New Year’s Day – and she is not a stranger to Dursley, though the much-touted World’s Media, scrambling in from the Hermitage Woods surrounding the town, certainly are. After her husband’s arrest last year, she lived in a safe-house in Maple Drive, a little nook right behind the same magistrates’ court where she is due to stand this week. The local talk of vandalism will be transferred for a time, to focus on those who focus on the plain-looking housewife of no fixed address. Mrs West lived for a long time at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, and is charged with the murder of ten young women since 1971.

I’m standing up against this tree, when a lady comes ambling up wrapped in a red scarf. ‘You one of them reporters?’ she says, pressing her lips down, inclining her head, screwing up her eyes.

‘Kind of. Are you one of them locals?’ I say, screwing mine up the same way. She laughs.

‘No, listen. Are they taking her in the back way? ... What! They are? That’s flamin’ terrible. They spent 12 thousand quid doing it up, that court, and we don’t even get to gawk at her. Flamin’ hell – that’s our poll tax, that is.’ It’s my turn to laugh now, as the lady strides off in the direction of the police barriers and the World’s Media. Many of the snappers are lining up for pictures of the crowd forming around the gate West will pass through, and most of the others are lining up for pictures of each other. Out in the car-park, in front of the court itself, a timid-looking, hair-waxed gentleman stops for the cameras. It’s Peter Badge, the Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate: the hearing will take place before him, and he will make the decision as to whether there’s a case to be tried or not. He looks like a little chaffinch. ‘Mr Badge,’ we are told later, ‘is believed to have the largest selection of coracles in the world and has both made and used them extensively. He has written articles on this subject for nautical magazines.’ It seems he’s a man of the sea, this Mr Badge: he spent his National Service in the Royal Navy (‘lower deck and commissioned’) and sailed aboard HMS Oppossum (‘whose Coxswain was the Coxswain of HMS Amethyst on its epic journey down the Yangtse’). It’s good to know these things. I’m surprised, given the Samsonian bind of the reporting restrictions, that the World’s Media don’t make use of these bits of news. But just as you’re thinking there could be nothing to report, as you finger the spiral on your notepad and curse the secrecy of the whole affair, another film crew arrives, a familiar reporter steps into view, and a schoolgirl screams ‘Burn Her!’ at the top of her voice. Ah, you think, shuffling towards the flash-light ... ah, news.

Two police motorbikes serve as an escort. The instant their blue lights blink in the distance, the telly-folk hoist cameras onto their shoulders, mount ladders, wave producers away, and start shooting. Dozens of school-kids, a few old women, and a group of young mothers with push-chairs cling to the railings. They let out a cheer when the white van appears. As it draws past them, the cheer turns into a giant snarl, and thickets of abuse leap over the van. ‘Fucking bitch!’ cries a blonde perm next to me, rattling the bars of her baby’s pram. ‘Burn the cow!’ As the van sweeps round the back of the court, many of the screamers fall away from the barriers laughing. ‘That was a fair crack, that,’ says the blonde mother, giggling and dancing excitedly on the spot. The little lady with the red scarf appears at my side. ‘Well, that were great,’ she says. ‘I’m Barbara. What’s your name?’

‘Andrew,’ I say, ‘pleased to meet you.’ We chat for a minute.

‘Okay Andy. Where you staying? ... What? The Prince of Wales? ... Na, give me a ring later if you want to come and stop with us. You’d be welcome. My Nicola’s old room, it’s spare. No problem.’ She stuffs her hands into her pockets, dancing on the spot and smiling, and tells me her number. Then I go off to join the queue for the metal detector, and a seat in the court. ‘Okay And,’ she says, waving herself away, ‘let me know tomorrow what you want for tea.’

Since the middle of last year, I’ve often taken my place, in Gloucestershire and else-where, among those whose aim is to report on the missing and the dead. On the doorsteps of victims’ families, in the homes of survivors, at the hearings of the accused, you will find very good journalists, hard with experience, doing their best to do what’s expected of them: to bring back the items, or details, or theories, or eye-witness accounts, which best suit their newspaper’s or producer’s sense of what makes the customers happy. From Dursley, most of the journalists were unable to mention much more than white vans and screamers, and to describe the number of journalists in attendance to do just that. They could report the names of the lawyers, the magistrate and the accused; they could name the victims, and say whether legal aid was granted. But there could be nothing else.

This general ruling, however, does not apply to foreign journalists. At a pub along the way the man from Le Monde was dictating not notes, but finished pieces, down the phone to his news-desk; a girl from Australia’s national news organisation was expected to file the intimate data every evening, for immediate publication, and to stock up the facts for long features at the weekend. On the whole, this wasn’t much resented by British journalists. You got the impression they are used to it, and that they know the value of these proceedings in the long term. Were the committal to fail, they would be able to report everything anyway. If, as would happen in this case, the magistrate decided to commit the case for trial, they would hold onto their material until then, using it as background for stories they will run at the time of the trial, and just after. Halfway through the first day, you got the feeling that everyone had seen just about enough of everyone else. During a fag break – a ten-minute adjournment – the guy on the steps in front of me is reading the Mail. His shoulders rattle, and he sniggers, as he looks at a broad picture of Jeremy Paxman under a topical headline: ‘Time to Stop the Bully Boys of Television.’

The new proprietor of the Kingshill Inn is having a good time this week. Just up the hill from the court, his pub becomes the official bunker for hacks both rowdy and sedate. His rooms are all taken (he is said to have faxes operating, and cell-phones recharging all over the place), and an endless supply of corn-beef rolls and pints of Directors’ keeps the assembled at case. The Express has a whole table to itself, sipping beer, tapping into a screen, and shuffling old newspaper clippings. The Telegraph walks up to the bar, looking slim and a bit annoyed, and asks for a gin and tonic. ‘A journalist’s work,’ he says, rattling his cup, ‘is never done.’ The barman scratches his eyebrow, and looks at him as if he’s mad.

I sat in the corner that first day, watching the television. The quickly-cut pictures from outside the court came jumping onto the screen during the One O’Clock News. As I looked at them, I was thinking about the events of last year: the discoveries, the selling of stories, the terrible sadness of families, and the hell for those who hadn’t seen their daughters in years. I’d walked down Cromwell Street in a hailstorm, talking to those who knew nothing about it, seeking information here and there about the missing, looking for news of the Wests and their world. I’d thought a lot about families since then, a lot about community. The entire story was beginning to unfold here in Dursley, and there was no pleasure to be had in it, and no instruction either. People from all over had descended on this small town to relay that story to the world. Or mostly not, as the case presently was. But despite the large measure of gloom in these proceedings, on all sides things went ahead just the same. The news, reportable or not, wasn’t in any sense happy or glad or even wholly tolerable. But the people went on living their lives as if violent death was a million miles away.

At the end of the first day, a big crowd had gathered outside the court. As we filed down the steps, a young woman who’d been sitting in the public gallery drew up beside me. ‘Did you see her face?’ she said, pushing her tongue between her teeth. ‘You had to stare the bitch out.’ I took my place just behind the gathering, next to my favourite tree. The school-kids were lapping it up; it was carnival time, and no one was for missing it. Two little boys with sticks sniggered and whooped and chased each other round the tree. They both had grey jumpers on, tiny ones, with ‘St Joseph’s RC Primary’ stitched in gold thread. A snapper from one of the cheerier papers, it seems, had doled out eggs to some of the barrier-huggers. When the van drew out of the yard, with Rosemary West inside, they all went ape. Eggs and sticks bounced off the windows and the mud-guards. Expletives rumbled after the van, and a stray BBC reporter – Crombie-coated and bent with the pad – copped a flying egg on the back of the head. Everywhere you looked, it was fury and laughter. Walking along the pavement a few minutes later, I bumped into the Beeb with the egg. ‘Yeah, well,’ he muttered, ‘you can’t say the BBC don’t get close to the story.’

A few days later, Barbara was still rewinding the video-recorder ten times an hour. She wanted to show everyone the pictures that could prove it. There we were, her then me, high on the Six O’Clock News. ‘There’s And, look,’ she trilled, ‘next to the tree in the green. Whooo! Go on. They didn’t half get her with them eggs.’ Barbara was really getting into the case as well; she came to court on the Thursday morning and sat in her jogging pants all through the afternoon, staring ahead, unable to blink. After seeing the van away one night, we walked up the hill to the Springfield Estate, where she and Bryan lived, and where I’d been staying this week. It was just about to turn dark, there was a smell of fire, and you could see quite clearly, from the top of the road, the layers of hills and woodland going all the way down to the Severn. The Estate was clean and quiet. ‘It’s not like Council round here,’ said Barbara. When we reached the door the street-lamps had come on. The neighbour over the back fence works in a hospital nearby. She was taking down the details of a woman on one of the wards the other day, and asked her how many children she’d had. ‘I had two,’ the woman whispered, ‘but one of them was taken.’ The patient was the mother of Mary Bastholm, who disappeared in 1984, and whose body is still missing.

Barbara’s house feels familiar. The brick fireplace is covered with framed wedding pictures and baby snaps. Everything is soft and fringed; the sofa’s brown and deep, with a warm newspaper just handy. Knitting-needles and balls of wool lie around, and Disney videos are stacked behind smoky glass, waiting for the grandchildren to come and plug them in. The ceiling, when you tilt back, is covered with Artex fans. All of this works together, the heat settles, and in seconds you’re fast asleep. Later on, I go to get something from my room (still Nicola’s room, even though she’s married) and I can hear Barbara on her bedroom phone. ‘No Audrey. I tell you, she looks exactly like her picture. Just exactly that.’ There’s an old Flatly spin-dryer at the foot of my bed, and the walls are covered with Nicola’s hairdressing certificates, her City & Guilds. She works now as a mobile hairdresser and she still keeps her perm lotion, her curlers and all her stock under the bed here. Over on the other wall is a board covered with polaroids of family nights-out, birthdays and christenings. They’re all pulling faces and kissing and having a good time. Below that is a framed certificate from the Distinguished Service Club of the Royal Mail. It’s Bryan’s; he’s been a local postman for 35 years.

‘You read a lot of books?’ says Bryan, sunk in the sofa. He nods as I make my excuses. ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘I’m looking forward to all the books I can read when I’m retired.’ He hates the idea of privatisation at the Post Office, and doesn’t want to start asking people for money. He tells me more about Dursley, and sketches out his years with Barbara. The whole town surrounds Lister’s Engineering works – where these two met – but the firm’s been laying off for years, and it’s not the place it used to be. ‘It never is,’ I say cheekily.

‘No,’ chips in Barbara, ‘it never is. Who’s for a cup of cha-cha?’

The evidence from the courtroom still plays in my head as we watch the news, tea in hand. On Midlands Today, there’s an item about the arrest of a man in Walsall in connection with the discovery of a skeleton in the garden of his house. The remains are believed to be those of a young girl who lived nearby. She went missing in 1978. That’s all I can handle, I think, as I take in the Artex fans one more time and let them waft me into a simpler world.

On Friday afternoon, I left Dursley. The case would be committed for trial a few days later. But by then I knew as much as was enough about those girls whose remains were found under that house in Cromwell Street. And at 4.30 Nicola drove me to the station. Her car is neat and tidy, and full of air-freshener. I ask her if she ever goes out of Dursley to do people’s hair. ‘Only if they’re clients I had before, you know?’ As the car drew into the station yard, she told me that nothing much ever happened in Dursley. ‘No, maybe not,’ I said, ‘but this happened.’