- Happy like Murderers by Gordon Burn
Faber, 390 pp, £17.99, September 1998, ISBN 0 571 19546 6
Although it sets out to explore the lives of Fred and Rosemary West – along with Peter Sutcliffe, the most notorious figures in recent British criminal history – Happy like Murderers reads more like a novel than a documentary. In this respect, it recalls Truman Capote’s ‘novel of fact’, In Cold Blood, which made compelling fiction out of the brutal and senseless murder of an apparently typical American family in rural Kansas, and created a new genre on the way. ‘Brutal’ and ‘senseless’ are, of course, the terms customarily used to describe such crimes, part of the mechanism by which a society distances itself from the horror it discovers in its midst; the most common epithets for the perpetrators are ‘monster’ and ‘madman’.
Gordon Burn concerns himself for much of this book with Fred West’s everyday existence: his obsession with machines and pornography; his pride in owning the house in Cromwell Street and the countless alterations he made to it; his apparent liking for dirt and untidiness; his various jobs and scams. What comes across is a man entirely lacking in compassion, a human being innocent of the notion that other people are thinking, feeling persons. West will frequently personify tools and machines, but people appear to him as things – either the powerful, well-endowed black men he encourages to have sex with his wife, or the defenceless young women and children he tortures and murders. He feels no guilt, no remorse, no ‘affect’. Yet in his work as a handyman, he was popular with his clients (and invariably kind to the older ones among them); he was a good, steady worker, ready and willing to turn his hand to any task. On the surface, he was just another casual working man with a bit of a mouth on him: nobody seemed to know, or cared to broadcast, that he began having sex with his daughters when they were aged eight, or that he offered his wife to other men on a regular basis, in a room rigged up, first, with a microphone, and later, a camera, so that he could spy on the proceedings.
The surface, of course, is what community is all about. We go to great lengths to preserve appearances, not only for ourselves, but for others. At one point, Burn offers a meditation on the nature of social existence in West’s home town:
Community strangles. Girls used to be run out of the village because of being pregnant. Their mothers ran them up the Marcle Straight, right out of the village. If a girl was expecting, then she wasn’t wanted in the village. That was another thing that got him with village life: how hypocritical they could be. He had a strong inclination to be private and unobserved. Community throttles.
Is someone speaking these words? Fred West? Gordon Burn? Or is a general notion being expressed, something in the air, part of the atmosphere of the world Fred West inhabits? The voice forms a neat counterpoint to the myth of community which politicians and others would like us to accept: warm beer and cricket on the green; tight-knit working-class neighbourhoods where nobody locks their doors, and everybody knows everybody else’s business. The same myth was invoked when Mary Bell was detained for the killing of two young boys: the transgressor is an affront to the normal community, an unnatural being, a monster.
The irony here is that the community, based on a system of exclusion and marginalisation, worked mainly in Fred West’s favour. The good people who were willing to shame a pregnant girl were also prepared to turn a blind eye to what happened behind closed doors, in a man’s own home. On more than one occasion, the police or the courts allowed West to walk away from his crimes, even though he made no real attempt to deny them. The Cromwell Street house was as unlike the remote Gothic mansions and Bates Motels of fantasy as it was possible to be: throughout the years Fred was torturing and murdering young women and children, a steady stream of visitors passed through the West household, from lodgers and acquaintances to police officers and social workers. Is it possible that nobody noticed that something was going on? Both the Wests were known to the police long before their crimes came to light. Their children had been identified as possible victims of abuse by schoolteachers and social workers, yet they were allowed to remain at home. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the community failed the Wests’ victims, allowing the Wests to use and dispose of them at their leisure.
In Cold Blood circles around a single, explosive act of violence: two drifters, believing a Kansas farmer to be in possession of a small fortune, break into his house and, when they discover an empty safe, murder the whole family. The killers are petty crooks rather than seasoned killers; the murder sits at the heart of the book as a single dramatic event, a ‘one-off’, around which the larger stories of the township, and of the fugitives’ lives, revolve. Happy like Murderers, on the other hand, follows a continuous thread of abuse, from which every foray into the town’s ‘normal’ life is a brief respite. Yet in different ways Capote and Burn conduct similar investigations of the surface of everyday life and the undercurrent of violence and perversion it conceals. Burn has a subtle understanding of the city of Gloucester and its various sub-cultures: hippies and bikers; West Indian immigrants; genteel rose-gardeners surrounded, all of a sudden, by undesirables. What makes Happy like Murderers compelling is the way it explores the tension between private and public, inner and outer, fantasy and reality, desire and denial, which lies at the heart of any society. This tension takes various forms: Heather West, for example, Fred and Rose’s daughter, has an Arcadian dream of life in the Forest of Dean, which she imagines as a magical, peaceful place, to set against the misery and squalor of her life at Cromwell Street. What dominates, however, is the fantasy world of her parents, a secret life of power and lust, concocted from blue movies and the ads in contact magazines.
Violence was written into the Wests’ concept of sex – and even of affection – from the beginning. Rose’s father, Bill, began forcing himself on her when she was 13; at one point, he was invited into the ménage at Cromwell Street, and began having sex with Rose’s daughters, using them as he wished, with Fred and Rose’s blessing. Their own sexual life had the essential quality of pornography: the more they acted out their fantasies, the more dissatisfied they became.
It seems to have started with Fred West’s obsession with size and power: ‘He was obsessed with sex. You could never get away from sex. He saw sex in everything. Entering. Penetrating. Fitting tight. The big thruster. The Exocet. The Eiffel Tower. Power Thrust. Massive piece of equipment, mind. If he couldn’t think about sex he couldn’t think at all.’ Fred was an inadequate in the size and power department, and began recruiting black men to ‘satisfy’ Rose, while he watched. He also bought her a vast stock of vibrators and sex toys, which she used on herself and others for Fred’s entertainment. Yet the two remained insatiable, as they were bound to do. With pornography, as with any addiction, there must always be more, and not just more of the same:
It was like an ever-increasing hunger that supplemented itself, fed itself, on hunger, and could never be content. The Lustmord. They were lust murderers. Lustful pleasures are fleeting; they are forgotten almost as they happen. The memory of what happened – the intensity of pleasure, the ache of desire – can’t be recorded or stored. It has to be relived in order to be remembered. There is a craving for repetition because the intensity is evanescent, it has no lifespan; it exists only in the moments that it is happening, in the present. You’re in this aura of sexual feeling together and everybody else is excluded. The nagging insupportable erotic excitement that would be the hallmark of their years together. Exciting to them both. The secret realm of thrills and concealment. The force that wants more and more. Lust can’t know itself; it doesn’t know what it is or what it is looking for. It does not discover, but immerses itself. The Lustmord. The scandalous perversion of erotic urges in which sexual satisfaction is achieved through the violence of murder. The erotic drunkenness that can’t be remembered or stored but only relived and re-enacted. The yearning for intensity. The final investment of everything in sex.
What seems to lie at the root of the Wests’ violence is an inability to imagine without enacting. The monotony of their secret life is apparent throughout; it is the monotony of pornography – a mechanical, repetitive quality that leads from arousal to a rage of dissatisfaction:
There was always a video in the background like background music. These tended to be home-made videos rather than the prerecorded sort. One showed a woman tied to a bed in a spread-eagle fashion on her back. A very large dildo was being used on her. She seemed distressed and not just acting distressed. They looked like involuntary flinches of pain. Kathryn Halliday recognised the room as the top back room at Cromwell Street because of some of the furniture and by the wallpaper which she had come to know. Other videos showed other girls being subjected to various forms of sexual abuse. There was one of a girl with fair hair being whipped and tied to the bed by a man. There were others of girls being tied to beds with chains and straps.
And so on. The images are so standard, so monotonous. Yet they are images sanctioned, at some level or other, by the community. Not only sanctioned, but offered out, to men in particular, on a commercial basis. For reasons peculiar to industrial society, sex and violence are wedded in the public imagination, not only at the level of pornography, but also in the standard images we feed ourselves, from television thrillers to advertising. That these images are degrading to women is well-established, but they also degrade men. The equation of sex with violence distorts and inhibits the masculine imagination, ruling out any number of erotic and sensual possibilities and reducing the consumer either to passive voyeur or mere instrument, fascinated and shamed by the desire for unobtainable potency. That Fred, a loner, a watcher, a man obsessed with mechanical power, should become addicted to such fantasies may come as no surprise. But what about his wife?
In all the first-hand accounts, Rosemary West comes as close as anyone can to being the traditional, almost fairy-tale ‘monster’: a brutal mother (and stepmother), she beats her children on a daily basis; she takes an active part in their rape and torture, and is almost always portrayed in the testimony as laughing and mocking, relishing the victim’s pain. She seems to enjoy her position as Fred’s sex slave, to glory in her role as the woman who can’t be satisfied, the gaping hole which no man can completely fill. On the other hand, she is also a victim: raped by her father and subjected almost daily to horrifying violence, along with the other members of her family, she appears to find in Fred a partner with whom the ingrained rituals of humiliation and defiance can be re-enacted. Her enjoyment of pornography may be genuine, but this is the equivalent of saying that a junkie enjoys heroin, or an alcoholic likes booze. Fred pursued Rose, from the moment he saw her, because he recognised in her a special weakness, the fundamental flaw that he was always searching for in others. He was a patient, persistent man: when he found what he was looking for, he worked until he got what he wanted – in Rose’s case, submission. Somewhere, between the cautious teenager she had been when she first encountered West, and her eventual arrest, she would become his instrument:
Fred West’s pet name for Rose was ‘cow’. He constantly referred to her as his cow. He called her this for many years. He was always talking about wanting to put her with a bull. ‘I, Rosemary West, known as Fred’s cow ...’ one document recovered from the attic in Cromwell Street begins. And it ends: ‘I must always dress and try to act like a cow for Fred, also to bathe and wash when I am told. Signed Mrs R.P. West.’ Fred would do some cow paintings for Rose, oil-paintings of Jerseys and Friesians, varnish and frame them and hang them in her bedroom. Paintings of cows hanging on the wall at the end of her bed so that every morning, right up to the morning she was arrested on suspicion of murder, they would be the first things the would see.
Burn resists the urge to explain this behaviour, nor does he seek to impose any kind of external authority on his subject-matter. We might reasonably conclude that Rosemary West was trying to create order in her life, to normalise, after a fashion, the humiliation with which she had grown up – but this would be an external view, an imposed explanation. Burn is engaged in something subtler: each of the stories he tells, from the ordeal of Caroline Raine, who was subjected to a brutal attack by the Wests in 1973, and saw her complaint virtually thrown out of court, to the steady police work of DC Hazel Savage, who pursued the Wests to their final conviction more than twenty years later, is given equal weight, equal value. His style is uncompromising; as in a novel, he plays games with chronology, to create a continuum of abuse (a continuum which reflects the testimony and experiences of the victims, as they try to piece together the half-memories and shadowy images of their ordeal and its aftermath). Most important, Burns has the novelist’s sense of what must remain untold. At the end of the book, he reflects on the city of Gloucester’s attempt to erase 25 Cromwell Street from common memory. The house has been levelled; the cellar has been filled in; tough pyracantha bushes have been planted to discourage graffiti writers and vandals:
The intention is that it will be impossible to distinguish between parts that have been added and those that already exist. Underneath is the cellar void. And under the cellar five cores of concrete buried in Severn clay. The fact of something behind. Something that is inaccessible, unknown. Beyond a doubt there is something behind. It imposes itself and won’t go away. You look at the walls. You listen to the space.