by Gordon Burn.
Heinemann, 272 pp., £9.95, May 1984, 0 434 09827 2
Review by Patricia Highsmith
Gordon Burn gives us no comment of his own on the story he has to tell – just the facts: no speculation as to why Peter Sutcliffe behaved as he did, just the events, the family life, anecdotes that may or may not be pertinent, the pubs and their atmosphere. And we go back, or rather from the beginning of the book we go forward – from Sutcliffe’s grandparents on both sides. How else is he to explain, or attempt to explain, this odd man who spread 13 murders over six years, and fooled even those closest to him until almost the last moment? That Sutcliffe was insane in some way is an inevitable conclusion after reading all the facts about him. All the facts? At once one has to start hedging: we know nothing of Sutcliffe’s relations with his wife Sonia, to whom he was devoted: to know something about these might have clarified a little the puzzling defence he put up in saying that God had spoken to him, and told him to kill prostitutes. If God spoke to him as far back as when he was 20, and employed as a gravedigger in a church cemetery (where he claims to have first heard the voice), then Sutcliffe never mentioned it to his brothers Mick and Carl, nor to pub pals like Trevor Birdsall, which leads one to suspect that Sutcliffe might have thought there was something rather wrong or unpopular about such a message, assuming he ever received it. He was not known for faithful church attendance.
His murders were sexually-based and motivated, so it is important to know the attitude toward women of Peter and his family and of the society in which he grew up. ‘Women are for fryin’ bacon and for screwin’ ’ was a comment sometimes heard and always hanging in the atmosphere like the smell of bacon grease itself. One’s mother was of course different, almost holy, one simply didn’t think about one’s mother ever having had sexual relations with one’s father, or at worst she’d had them only with one’s father; she was somehow virginal, just as Mary the mother of Jesus has to be a virgin, because it makes her so much cleaner. A lack of realism in regard to women is at the core of Peter Sutcliffe’s strange deeds. It is significant that Peter, the firstborn of six children (the second, a boy, died in infancy), clung literally to his mother’s skirts until he was eight or nine or so, was easily bullied at school, and as a child was a disappointment to his extrovert and sports-loving father, John. Yet his father was to say later that if the family had ever got into straits, it would have been Peter who’d have helped them out, not Mick or Carl, because Peter really cared.
John Sutcliffe had married his fiancee Kathleen Coonan in 1945, as soon as he had been discharged from the Merchant Navy, and they had set up house on the outskirts of Bingley, Yorkshire. Peter was born in 1946. John had a job in a bakery then, but changed it for a weaver’s job in a wool mill, and he was usually on night shift. He loved playing cricket, and was active in local amateur dramatic societies.
Having failed his 11-plus, another disappointment to his father who had wanted him to go to grammar school, Peter went to work in his teens, and at 19 and 20 had a gravedigger’s job at intervals. He seems to have rapidly grown callous to corpses, and once invited a friend in to ‘view the face’ of a man in a coffin, peered with fascination for a minute, then screwed the lid back on again. He was finally sacked for coming to work late, but not before he had acquired a collection of rings which he had removed from the fingers of corpses before burial. He offered his friends a choice of rings sometimes, and not all his friends were amused. A couple of girls in the pub-centred social circle and at least one young man decided to avoid Peter Sutcliffe, because ‘there was something odd about him,’ though they couldn’t say exactly what. In pubs, he would accompany a male chum or one of his brothers who perhaps had a girl with him, and would sit stiffly, hands on knees, staring with a pleasant expression into space. ‘Hey, relax, Pete!’ someone might say. When he did relax, it was to narrate something funny that had happened to him or someone else, and would get so carried away, so interrupted by his own bursts of uncontrollable and high-pitched laughter, that according to Mick it would take him twenty minutes to tell what another person could in five. Another amusement for Peter was cruising in his car or that of a chum in the red-light section of Bingley or nearby towns. Prostitutes were a different sort of woman, they were lower than anything, they were just for laughs, and Peter enjoyed making fun of them, laughing in their faces. From his car, he might ascertain that a streetwalker’s fee was £5, and if she agreed to his offer of £2, would say, ‘Is that all you’re worth?’ and with his curiously shrill laugh, zoom off.
Gordon Burn tells these incidents without invented dialogue. His material comes from interviews with Sutcliffe’s brothers, with his sisters Maureen and Jane, and his friends such as Keith Sugden and Trevor Birdsall. The result is that we come to know all these people as we might characters in a novel, and the book picks up a narrative current that keeps the reader turning the pages. Birdsall’s letter to the police in late 1980, giving Sutcliffe’s name and address and place of employment, went unnoticed by the Police in their by then very paper-burdened search for the Yorkshire Ripper. Twenty-four hours after writing this letter, Birdsall was persuaded by his girlfriend to go to the police station. ‘There he repeated what he had said in the letter’ – that the car spotted in Alma Road at the time of Jacqueline Hill’s murder might be Sutcliffe’s Rover – ‘adding that he had been with Sutcliffe when he got out of his car to go after a woman in Halifax on 16 August 1975, the night Olive Smelt was attacked. He was thanked for his co-operation but heard nothing more from the police; his statement, if it was ever transcribed by the young constable on the desk who took it, was never seen again.’
Peter’s brother Carl was also onto the truth. At the beginning of 1980, Carl had taken a job as ‘estate boy’ near Bingley and had a room in a conveniently isolated house in the area where Peter lived, worked and operated. The Police had told the newspapers that the Ripper would need somewhere to wash up after his murders and possibly to change his clothing. Peter had once called on Carl in order to change his clothes, and what struck Carl as odd was that Peter had left the clean clothes he had been wearing and put on some dirty ones, and that Peter had put the clean trousers behind the boiler in the bathroom, and when Carl later reminded him that they were still there some months later, Peter had replied that it didn’t matter. Carl then said to his brother Mick: ‘I’m sure Pete’s bloody Ripper.’ Mick: ‘I just laughed at him an’ told him he were stupid. I just said: “You’re bloody daft you.” ’ Mick reminded Carl that Peter didn’t speak with a Geordie accent. By that time, a man with a Geordie accent had sent in a tape to the police, along with a written message, so the Police were on a wild goose chase for some months. And Carl was glad to erase his suspicion of his brother.
But what started the series of murders? It seems to have been a rather minor altercation with a prostitute. She shortchanged him. Or rather she kept his £10 note, though her agreed upon fee had been £5: she hadn’t any change with her, and Peter, when he got to her room, found himself not in the mood to get into bed with her after all. He drove her to a garage where she said she could change the note: but she entered the garage and didn’t come out. One of the two men in the garage came out and banged on the roof of Peter’s car, demanding that he leave. ‘There wasn’t much I could do about it, but I was a bit annoyed and drove off,’ Peter said later.
It would appear that Peter before that time seldom if ever visited prostitutes for the usual purpose, seldom cruised their territory alone either, but always with another chap ‘for a laugh’. But when the above incident happened in 1969, Peter had been dating Sonia Szurma, whom he had met when she was 16, for two years. She was a girl of Czechoslovakian parents, born three years after their arrival in England. We know little of Sonia except that she was taciturn and rather prim, studied hard in art school to become a teacher, that her parents kept a spick-and-span house (as did Sonia later when she married Sutcliffe, carrying cleanliness to an extreme), that Sonia upbraided Peter when she felt like it, and that Peter took it. It must have been a curious attraction for their respective circles to behold, Peter with his rough-and-ready and free-spoken household, and the Szurmas with their foreign-seeming reserve: but the attraction of the two young people was mutual and it lasted. Then, after two years of devoted courtship, Peter was informed by Carl that Sonia was riding around in a sports car with an Italian fellow. Peter was shocked and livid, and demanded that Sonia break it off, for it did seem that she was having an affair with the Italian. Sonia promised Peter, then didn’t keep the promise, but saw the Italian again. So Peter decided ‘to get his own back’ by visiting a prostitute in Bradford’s Lumb Lane.
To make the prostitute episode worse, really grind it into Peter’s touchy ego, he looked for and found the same woman in a bar a few weeks later, and asked for his ten pounds back. The prostitute laughed merrily, and told the story to several men at the bar, who had a good laugh at Peter’s expense. This seems to have been the last straw. To be laughed at by a prostitute! To be done out of ten pounds besides. Peter was ever a good saver, close with money unless a member of his family needed some, in which case his pockets seemed to grow money.
After this embarrassment in the bar, his mind was ‘in a turmoil’, Sutcliffe said in court. He developed a loathing for any prostitute, and felt himself being pushed ‘over the brink’. He was still seeing Sonia every Saturday night, but on the other nights he was free, and cruised around in his car. ‘Always carry a sock in your pocket,’ he now told brother Carl. With a rock in the sock, you’ve a pretty good weapon. Typical of his behaviour was this: he’d be eating fish and chips from the paper with Trevor Birdsall in the latter’s minivan after an evening’s pub-crawl in a prostitutes’ area, and Peter would say, ‘Excuse me a minute,’ disappear in the darkness, and return ten minutes later agitated and out of breath. On the first such occasion, still 1969, Peter informed Birdsall that he had followed ‘this old cow’ to a house where he had hit her on the head with a piece of brick. He then dropped the brick out of the mini-van window. He also mumbled something about money, which Birdsall didn’t understand. It was about the ten-pound note. Peter thought he had attacked the prostitute who had rooked him, but she was a different woman, who in fact bore no resemblance to her. She had noted the mini-van’s number, and the next day Peter had a visit from the Police. Peter said he had struck the woman ‘with his hand’, and the Police let him off with a warning. Peter then boasted to Birdsall of his success in this adventure: ‘I explained everything and everything’s all right.’ And soon the chums were back watching the whores in Lumb Lane, Peter bragging about ‘shagging’ them and not paying for it.
A month later, the Police found him crouched behind a hedge in a garden of the Manningham Park area, Bradford. He had a hammer in his hands, and was charged with ‘going equipped for theft’. He seems to have been glad to plead guilty to this rather minor offence, which usually brought a fine of £25. He was living at home still, and his father found out about the charge. Peter told his father he had the hammer because he was always having trouble with his hub caps falling off, and both his parents believed him. Peter was a good liar, according to Mick: ‘he wouldn’t let his face slip at all.’ To endure brushes with the Police was nothing shocking to the Sutcliffe family. Store-looting was a minor sport, and Mick was sometimes in prison for three months here and there. John Sutcliffe liked to be well thought of in the community, but overstepping the law once in a while was normal male behaviour.
Such were the beginnings. The rock-in-sock progressed to hammer-and-knife or hammer-and-filed-screwdriver, and the assaults became murder by 1975. Peter married in 1974, seven years after he had met Sonia, held a job as lorry-driver, kept close ties with his parents and siblings, even though they didn’t much visit him and Sonia in their nice new house near Bradford. Sonia hardly talked, she made abstract pottery sculpture which the family thought silly, and the heat was never turned up enough, so that visitors had to sit around in their overcoats. Sonia, still going to teachers’ school, spruced up the house with a smart black and white painted front door and window frames, Peter polished his car and his lorry, and one would have assumed that their new life together would be more important to Sutcliffe than murder. In fact, months, a year or so, might go by when Peter was inactive as to murder. Then after a family get-together for somebody’s birthday Peter might drive an elderly woman of the family home somewhere, take her not merely to the kerb and drop her, but escort her on his arm to her door and make sure she got in safely. Then he might head for a red-light district – he was familiar with towns and roads because of his job – and knock off another prostitute, though at least twice he made ‘a mistake’ and killed young women who were merely taking a short-cut home from a stop where the last bus had left them. Peter seems to have sought prostitutes with the same now-and-then impulse shown by a lot of men who visit prostitutes now and then, but who would never dream of murdering one. And murdering them seems to have made as little dent in his conscience as an occasional visit to a prostitute makes in the conscience of the average man.
But whereas most men get a lift or sexual satisfaction from prostitutes, Sutcliffe apparently took no sexual pleasure in these encounters. He was not a rapist. Rape can be inspired by contempt or by the satisfaction derived from exerting power over another human being. Sutcliffe seems to have simply scorned and detested whores. It is revealing that he liked to label them ‘ugly old cows’ (surely not all of them were old or ugly or both), and that the only one who ‘aroused’ him in the least was a teenage twin, half-English and half-East Indian and outstandingly pretty. She and her twin had recently taken to street walking to pick up some money. One of them, Helen Rytka, would be what the Police reckoned was the Ripper’s seventh victim. By then prostitutes had been advised to work in pairs. The Rytka sisters had instead agreed to check with each other every twenty minutes somewhere on the street. Peter’s often used method was to propose ‘doing it on the back seat’ of his car, so that while the girl or woman was out of the car opening the back door, Peter could strike her on the head with his hammer. In spite of his arousal, Peter hit Helen on the head, but part of the blow struck the car roof. ‘There’s no need for that,’ said Helen, thinking that he had hit her with his hand, but he gave her more blows with the hammer, until he realised that he was in full view of two parked taxis with their lights on. He then dragged her into the darkness of a nearby field, penetrated her – because he was aroused, and also to keep her quiet. At the trial Dr Milne said that he did this to keep her quiet, and because she expected it, whereupon Mr Justice Boreham replied: oh, do you really think she expected it under those circumstances? It seems possible that he simulated having intercourse with the half-conscious and maybe half-dead girl, in case anyone from one of the taxis came over to see what he was up to: but as it happened no one did, and Sutcliffe killed her. Her sister reported Helen’s absence to the Police, and dogs found the body the next day. The Helen Rytka murder, in Huddersfield at the beginning of 1978, occurred only ten days after the killing of Yvonne Pearson in Bradford. Sutcliffe attested that he had not had an orgasm with the Rytka girl, which seems at least normal under the conditions. At the same time, Sutcliffe would come away from these murderous encounters feeling pleased with himself and enjoying a sense of well-being. And to show his disdain for female organs, he often stuck a sharply-filed screwdriver several times into the vagina of a victim, and left at least one with a clumsy piece of wood rammed into her.
That Helen Rytka had been more attractive than most prostitutes did nothing to save her. Sutcliffe’s approaches to prostitutes were more readily accepted than those of older or less attractive men. He was fond of fancy clothes, and had a habit of spending ‘ages’ in the bathroom. It was a mystery to his family what he did all that time, until a brother peeped through a tiny hole in the door and saw Peter clipping his beard with infinite care, and tweaking his hair until it curled just so at the sides of his head.
Further to the double standard prevailing in the Sutcliffe family: Gordon Burn gives space to an anecdote concerning John and Kathleen. John on the telephone one day to his wife was mistaken for ‘Albert’, a policeman who lived in the same street, and with whom Kathleen often chatted when they met while airing their respective dogs. No more than that. But John, with his talent for mimicry and histrionics, rang his wife a couple of days later and as ‘Albert’ told her to bring something nice to wear in bed for their next meeting. Kathleen did acquire a new nightdress, which John noticed in her dresser drawer. John then invited the five grown offspring to a nice hotel in town for drinks, and, as ‘Albert’, also invited his wife. Here John took his wife’s handbag and pulled out the nightdress for all to see. The children were embarrassed. Peter thought the episode a bit rough on his mother, but did not take a stand against his father. John had always been the boss in the household. That John had a mistress and took not much trouble to conceal the fact was somehow his right, because he was a man. Peter said he saw his mother begin to die from that time on. She did die before the age of sixty, and one imagines her worn out with housework, with the strain of trying to do the right thing by her three sons and two daughters.
To say, as the defence did, that Peter Sutcliffe felt called by God to do his deeds, or that he did not realise their wrongness, sounded weak in view of the fact that Peter admitted being reassured when the Police were on the Geordie trail. And Carl reported that Peter was really shaken and upset when Carl said to him that he hoped the Police would catch that bastard called the Yorkshire Ripper. More telling was Peter’s attempt to recover a five-pound note from the body of Jean Jordan (victim number six), once he learned that the Police were trying to trace notes from pay packets of workers in his area. A week after her murder, again after a little family party, he returned to the scene, searched the bloated body, looked wildly about for her pocketbook and couldn’t find it. In an apparent pet of frustration and spite he slit open her abdomen with a piece of glass.
Women were indeed sex objects to Peter Sutcliffe. His mother being Catholic (his father remained firmly C of E), Peter had been put through the usual Catholic instruction from an early age, and a lot of it must have sunk in, though he wriggled out of going to church as soon as he could, as did Mick. One is reminded of the reluctance of some Churches, and the heels-dug-in resistance of others, to accept the admission of women to church offices, as if the sight of them in clerical garb would distract a man’s thoughts, as if a woman must have her mind on just one thing (bacon? sex?), so what is she doing traipsing about looking like a priest or a minister? Underlying all this is the fact that most Churches see sex as an enemy, though they may not say so in so many words, because they know that the sex drive is a good deal stronger than any drive toward the good life or the rewards of the hereafter that they can ever hope to instil in the common man. Sex is something serious, not something that is fun or pleasurable, and a man or woman enjoying sex freely and out of wedlock is sometimes labelled fallen. The label doesn’t kill them, but it helps the Church guard its own.
Since one knows nothing of Peter’s and his wife’s relations, one can only speculate. One might suspect that the sexual act was something rather shameful to Peter Sutcliffe, and it may have been. It was something you did when you got married, when it became legal and rather all right, and it was also necessary if one wanted children. But prostitutes were ‘temptresses’ who endangered a man’s character. Then were all women potential temptresses, whether you married them or not, just because they were women? Surely these differentiations, these categories, were fuzzy in Sutcliffe’s mind, and he could not have given consistent answers to direct questions. He would have been the type to treat a prostitute roughly, if he ever patronised one, hating himself for what he had done, therefore hating the woman. Prostitutes to him were all fallen women, because sex was all they dealt in, all they gave out. For all his not bad IQ, estimated at around 110 at least, it seems never to have occurred to him that a girl or woman might become a prostitute in desperation, because it was the only way she could get any money, or because she was not very intelligent.
By 1980, Peter told his brother Carl that he was fed up with Sonia’s nagging and was thinking of leaving her. What was Sonia nagging about? We don’t know. Could she have known, and for some time, that her husband was doing the killings? Peter sometimes had to burn trousers, possibly other clothing, in garden bonfires. Such a meticulous person as Sonia might have noticed buttons in the ashes, or that a pair of trousers or a jacket was missing, though they hadn’t been old enough to be thrown away. Sonia herself was acquainted with mental aberrations: she had had a breakdown while in school in London during the courtship with Peter, and he had been patient, had visited her alone and with her parents. On one occasion Sonia was so far gone that she thought Peter was an aeroplane. Might Peter have promised, and been unable to keep his promise, like a lot of people trying to swear off drink? Sonia protected Peter on two or three occasions when the Police, in the course of the hunt, called at the house. On such and such a night she and Peter were home together, she said, because they were always home together evenings. This was not always true, as Peter sometimes rang up to say he was delayed on the road.