John Burnside

  • 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.

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