Saturday, 14 November 2009

New FHM...

December's FHM is on shelves now, featuring cover star Joanne 'Gavin & Stacey' Page, a splendid piece by Josh Woodfin going out of his mind on Salvia and Grub Smith's account of attending an autopsy. Less gruesomely, it also features my round up of life's Great Unintentional Comedians. Including Match of The Day's Mark Lawrenson:

"The possibility of him announcing that he is, in fact, a depressed middle aged lesbian increases with every season…"

The Hard Sell in The Guardian Guide

I step up to page 3 of today's Guardian Guide to take charge of their regular Hard Sell column. This week it's the latest Febreze monsrosity which gets a going over. The company seems to have a track record of particularly ghastly, poorly-dubbed, trans-national advertising. And it's not getting any better.

You can read the full piece here.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Viz takes over the Guardian Guide

My story on the 30th anniversary of Viz is on the front of today's Guardian Guide. They've also commissioned some exclusive new Guardian-based Viz strips. You can read the entire thing here.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

New HOUSE arrives...

The latest issue of my magazine HOUSE is now back from the printers. If you're a member of any of the Soho House clubs it should be on your doorstep this week, otherwise pick one up at the club. Issue 10 includes Anthony Beevor, New Orleans, citizen astronomy, Nova Dando and Polly Vernon and photo stories by Ryan McGinley and the Smithsonian's NASA archive.

The Rolling Stones and the Maysles Brothers

My piece on the reissue of the Maysles Brothers Altamont documentary Gimme Shelter ran in last week's Guardian. You can read it here.

Norwegian Black Metal

I recently travelled to Bergen to meet with Immortal and King Ov Hell and to find out what happened to Norway's Black Metal scene after they all started killing and eating each other ten years ago. The feature ran in the last edition of FHM (UK) and is currently rolling out across their foreign editions. You can read it below…

Monday, 3 August 2009

Mark Leckey's Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore

My piece on Mark Leckey's superb video homage to British Nightlife, FIORUCCI MADE ME HARDCORE is in today's Guardian. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Taking on the online perverts

This month's FHM contains my feature on CEOP, the government body with the highly unpleasant task of tracking down the world's online child abusers. You can visit the FHM site here, or read the article by clicking on the images. If you want to read more about what a truly saintly group of people do day in and day out, you can visit CEOP's site here.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Peter Andre & Jordan: the bitter end

My piece on Peter Andre, Jordan, divorce and pop music is in today's Guardian. You can read it here. Having previously written about them here back in 2006, I feel like I've been with them every step of the way. It's been a hell of a journey.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

World Record Store Day in The Guardian

I'm a little late posting this up thanks to my new position at the helm of HOUSE magazine. More of that later. Anyway, my music column on the semi-celebratory World Record Store Day ran a couple of weeks ago in The Guardian Guide. You can read it here.

"Before we all descend into some sub-Nick Hornby reverie, it's worth remembering what an unwieldy process this kind of music shopping was (like buying clothes without having seen them). As often as not, you purchased the "wrong" album by a band, or had just been completely misled by some drunk reviewer's florid outpourings in Melody Maker. I spent six weeks waiting for Hüsker Dü's Metal Circus to arrive from the States, expecting pop-punk genius, and got the sound of nails scraping down a blackboard. I eagerly legged it home with Patti Smith's Horses having been led to believe that some twat doing Van Morrison covers was a "seminal" punk record."

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Red Riding in today's Guardian

My piece on David Peace and the Channel 4 adaptation of The Red Riding Quartet is in today's Guardian Guide (and on the cover). You can read it here.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Wearside Jack

Next Saturday my piece on Channel 4's Red Riding films will be The Guardian Guide's cover story. All this talk of Ripper-related writing seems like a good reason to dig out a feature I wrote for the Independent on Sunday back in 2002 about the (then ongoing) hunt for Wearside Jack, the notorious hoaxer who derailed the inquiry. It includes interviews with David Peace, who at the time was midway through his Red Riding quartet. You can link to it here, or read the full text pasted in below.

YOU DON'T KNOW JACK from The Independent on Sunday Magazine, June 30, 2002

A voice echoed around Yorkshire from 1979 until 1981. It was a flat, expressionless Sunderland accent claiming credit for a string of brutal murders that had kept two police forces occupied since 1975. Throughout that period, the voice seemed to be everywhere you went in the county - drifting over the Tannoy at Elland Road (usually drowned out by the Leeds crowd's derisive chants of "There's only one Yorkshire Ripper"); interspersed with the jukebox records in pubs and clubs; in the working men's clubs, being played to each table in turn by a detective.

Most Wednesday nights, a policeman brandishing a Uher cassette player would walk into the Victoria Hall in Saltaire and interrupt the records played by Julius K Scragg at his disco for under-15s - "a pop-and-crisps type of thing", according to Peter Levy, who as a young local radio personality brought a touch of celebrity to the event. The fluorescent lights would blink on, and the dancing children - many of whom had been told little about the case by protective parents - would shuffle to a halt, Abba's "Does Your Mother Know?" replaced by the voice: "I'm Jack..."

The voice, it later transpired, was part of the most dangerous hoax in British criminal history. At the height of the Yorkshire Ripper enquiry three false letters and a taped message from a man dubbed "Wearside Jack" (thanks to his accent) sent the police on a wild-goose chase that allowed Peter Sutcliffe to evade capture for another two years and murder at least three more women. The tape became international news and obsessed people all over the region.

Even now, it is violently evocative of a particular time and place in a way that the current vogue for false nostalgia never can be. For a whole generation of people in Yorkshire and Wearside, thoughts of 1979 will forever conjure up "I'm Jack" - not Spangles, Space- hoppers and Seaside Special. "People talk about the 1970s with nostalgia, but it was pretty bloody bleak," says writer Stuart Turnbull, who was a teenager in Yorkshire at the time. "I used to do a paper round, and it seemed like every day you were delivering more news on the Ripper. Bad Photofits and pictures of girls. For ages that was it."

The Ripper was, of course, captured. But Wearside Jack, owner of the chilling voice on that tape, was never identified; he's still out there. And for many, the campaign to see him convicted is ongoing.

By the end of 1979, the tape was being broadcast almost continuously across West Yorkshire. When it was first made public, 10 women, most of them prostitutes, had been murdered in similar circumstances all over the county. With few leads to go on, the police were in a beleaguered state - 250 officers working full-time on the case had produced few leads, despite questioning over 5,000 men. Even local celebrities were not immune, as Peter Levy - still a well-known radio presenter in Leeds today - found out. "I can remember driving home from the studio after my show one night and I got as far as Shipley and I got stopped," he says. "It was routine I suppose: single guy, in a car, 11 at night. The car was turned inside out. I remember it was a green Ford Capri, all the single lads had them at the time. And in the boot I had a big spade, so I could dig myself out when it snowed..."

As well as the usual difficulties faced by a murder inquiry, the Ripper investigation was hampered by several other factors - the unwillingness of many innocent men to come forward and eliminate themselves due to their involvement with prostitutes; the slow, pre- computerised processing of information; primitive forensic techniques; maintaining the focus of an inquiry that was sprawling across several cities, with as much as 13 months elapsing between each attack; overcoming the ambivalence of a public who tacitly saw the women ("brasses") as victims of an occupational hazard. As is the case in every high-profile criminal investigation, the police also had to contend with hundreds of hoax letters, arriving every month. Two such letters, both signed "Jack The Ripper", had been sent to assistant constable George Oldfield (who had been made overall head of the inquiry in 1977) and the Daily Mirror in March 1978, shortly before the ninth murder. At the time they were checked by the police but had been discounted as the work of a crank.

On Tuesday 20 June at 2pm, Oldfield walked into the lecture theatre at the Metropolitan Police Academy in Wakefield. Without saying a word to the assembled reporters, he sat down and pressed play on the portable tape recorder on the desk in front of him. The blank tape hissed for a few seconds before a voice filled the room:

I'm Jack. I see you are having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord, you are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started. I reckon your boys are lettin' you down, George. They can't be much good, can they? The only time they came near catching me was a few months back in Chapeltown, when I was disturbed. Even then it was a uniformed copper, not a detective. I warned you in March that I'd strike again. Sorry it wasn't Bradford. I did promise you that, but I couldn't get there.

I'm not quite sure when I'll strike again, but it will definitely be some time this year, maybe Sep-tember, October or even sooner if I get the chance. I'm not sure where, maybe Manchester; I like it there, there's plenty of them knocking about. They never learn, do they George? I bet you've warned them. But they never listen.

At the rate I'm goin' I should be in the book of records. I think it's 11 up to now, isn't it? Well, I'll keep on going for a while yet. I can't see myself being nicked just yet. Even if you do get near, I'll probably top myself first.

Well, it's been nice chatting to you, George.

Yours, Jack the Ripper.

No good looking for fingerprints, you should know by now it's as clean as a whistle. See you soon. 'Bye. Hope you like the catchy tune at the end. Ha-ha.

The stilted monologue had lasted three minutes and 16 seconds. Several more seconds of blank tape hissed by, before a 22- second snatch of "Thank You For Being A Friend" - a cloying ballad by Andrew Gold - ended the tape.

Three months before the tape had been sent to Oldfield, he had received a third letter signed "Jack the Ripper". While the previous two had contained little to distinguish them from the hundreds of other hoax letters arriving, the third was taken seriously. The writer had referred to a medical detail about Vera Millward, the Ripper's ninth victim, which was not believed to be public knowledge (a subsequent review of all press coverage revealed that the detail had, in fact, been published in the Daily Mail). The letter before this had also warned that "most are young lassies, next time try older one I hope"; at 42, Millward was the Ripper's oldest victim. Saliva tests on the third envelope further revealed that the author was of the rare blood type-B secretor - as was the unidentified killer of Joan Harrison in Preston in 1975.

Harrison, a chronic alcoholic and morphine addict whose mutilated body was found in a lock-up, was not considered as a possible Ripper killing until 1978. This was largely because she had been sexually assaulted, which was not the case with the other victims. But one line in the first letter - "up to number eight now but you say seven remember Preston '75" - made police think again.

Further analysis of the envelopes showed traces of a mineral oil used in engineering works - a substance found on the body of building- society clerk Josephine Whitaker, who was murdered in Halifax 13 days after the final letter was received.

As soon as the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory had confirmed that the handwriting on all four envelopes and letters was the same, the implication to the police was clear: the Yorkshire Ripper, the letter writer and the man taunting them on the tape were one and the same. If they could catch the author, they would catch the killer.

While there were privately expressed doubts about its authenticity - at a hastily convened meeting of senior detectives on 20 June, Lancashire officers were still sceptical about a link to Joan Harrison - the prevailing view was summed up by one detective present: "If he kills again and in a year's time the public find out we've been sitting on this tape, all hell will break loose." Three days later, news of the tape was leaked to the press. The "North East connection" had been made, and the legend of Wearside Jack was born.

In preparation for the public's response to the tape, incident rooms in Sunderland and Yorkshire were expanded, with 100 officers on standby to deal with calls. Within 48 hours the police - already struggling to deal with the information they had collected thus far - received 50,000 calls (1,000 in Sunder- land alone). Chief constable Ronald Gregory also announced a "pounds 1m publicity campaign" (it would actually cost pounds 20,000) to "flush out" the Ripper. Four hundred billboards screamed, "THE RIPPER WANTS YOU TO IGNORE THIS" above a sample of the handwriting and a telephone number the public could call to hear the voice. A special "Ripper Newspaper" was delivered to every home in West Yorkshire, Lancashire and the North East reminding people of the facts to date and the pounds 30,000 reward. Anywhere the public gathered, the tape was played repeatedly, while a Portakabin in Dewsbury Bus Station had tape players set up for passers-by who wanted to hear the voice again. "My most vivid memory is of going into that Portakabin every night on my way home from school and listening again and again to that voice, sure that I would be able to catch him," recalls the crime writer David Peace, whose novels recall Yorkshire during this time.

By August 1979, Stanley Ellis, a dialect expert from Leeds University, had pinpointed Castletown, a small mining village outside Sunderland, as the hometown of the speaker on the tape. The police spent 10 days speaking to every household in the area, with Ellis confident that they would speak to the voice's owner within days. When this proved not to be the case, Ellis and his assistant Jack Windsor-Lewis began to voice their misgivings. "We knew that we would speak to the maker of the tape very quickly, and if the police could not isolate him because he had firm alibis for the days of the killings, then there could only be one possible explanation," said Windsor-Lewis. "The maker of the tape was not the Yorkshire Ripper."

But the ad campaign continued, and West Yorkshire Police continued to stress to the media that the man behind the tape was the murderer. The voice became a ghost, haunting the public wherever they went. "People were petrified by it," recalls Peace. "And the massive publicity campaign meant that it was impossible to avoid or forget."

This was especially true for Stuart Turn-bull, whose parents had moved from the North East to Yorkshire. "I was 13 in 1979," he says, "and as soon as the tape was out, people just started saying, `Your dad's the Ripper'. There used to be fights at school - it was kids larking around at first, but then my dad's mate got took in and questioned."

There's no doubt that the voice of Wear-side Jack was - still is - frightening. Its flat, stilted monotone was the antithesis of what you would expect from a ghoulish prankster, thus making it sound more authentic (Ellis, the dialect expert, attributed this quality to the speech being read from a prepared script, with a conscious attempt by the reader to disguise his natural speaking voice).

In a time and a region under immense fear-induced stress (and, in the case of Wearside, suspicion), people needed something tangible. The voice on the tape became the focus of people's fear and interest. Even after Sutcliffe's capture, his trial did little to reveal his motivations beyond paranoid schizophrenia and a "divine mission" from God to kill prostitutes, and Wearside Jack remained in some ways a more frightening, tangible figure than the real Yorkshire Ripper.

As many experts have noted, our tendency to fixate on an almost cartoonish idea of evil diverts us from the fact that its roots grow far closer to home. Ironically, the one time that Sutcliffe did contact the papers - in Septem-ber 1979 - nobody suspected that he was the real murderer. A terrible poem written in rhyming couplets in neat handwriting simply didn't fit in with what people wanted to hear from a mass murderer. Despite Oldfield's famous quote that the Ripper was "somebody's husband, somebody's son", the note just seemed too... ordinary.

The tone of Wearside Jack's correspondence - in turns deferential ("a man I respect") and mocking - had, consciously or otherwise, turned the case into a personal grudge for George Oldfield. Originally bellicose in his interviews - "This has become something of a feud - I won't pack it in until he's caught" - Oldfield later became more conciliatory. "The voice is almost sad, a man fed-up with what he has done, fed-up with himself. I would like to talk to this man. And I feel he wants to talk to me."

In reality, though, the pressure was taking a heavy toll on Oldfield. As a 20-year-old, Peter Levy interviewed Oldfield for Radio Pennine shortly after the tape's release. "At the time he was the person you wanted to get," says Levy. "I was only young at the time and I was well nervous about this. But while I was talking to him he was shaking - he was under so much pressure. He looked like a very, very ill man. After we played the tape suddenly he said, `Right I'm going to have to stop there', wrapped up the interview and walked out really quickly. I thought it must be because he was behind schedule, or perhaps I'd done something. But he went straight to the toilet - he'd shit himself." By the end of July, 1979, Oldfield had been removed from the Ripper inquiry after suffering three heart attacks in quick succession.

A grim fascination with Wearside Jack has never really left the area. Many different theories have been advanced as to his identity. During Sutcliffe's 1981 trial - where it was quickly established that Sutcliffe was of a different blood group to the hoaxer - Mr Justice Boreham expressed the hope that "one day he may be exposed". But inquiries were continued on a shoestring for less than six months and wound up completely before the end of 1981.

Just two days after Sutcliffe's conviction, the Sunday Times was already asking, "Did The Ripper Have An Accomplice?", suggesting that Sutcliffe killed Joan Harrison with the accomplice, who later produced the letters and tape. While apparently supported by some senior detectives, this theory was swiftly debunked by the New Statesman, which showed the "evidence" to be circumstantial at best and tenuous at worst. Nonetheless, it did concede that the links between Harrison and Wearside Jack should be investigated further - a point reiterated in chief constable Ronald Gregory's 1983 memoirs. "To my anger the man has still not been found, although 40,000 people have been interviewed," he rued.

In January 1987, the most enduring legend associated with Wearside Jack was born. A former Leeds CID officer named Ron Smith was quoted in the press claiming that the tape had been recorded by a police officer and sent to Oldfield as some sort of bizarre "protest" at his handling of the case. West Yorkshire Police swiftly denied this, and an inquiry found no evidence to support the theory (not that this stopped it being repeated in autobiographies by Robert Ressler and John Douglas, former FBI agents who had been fleetingly involved in the case).

Other enduring campaigners have attempted to expose Wearside Jack. Keith Brannen runs and edits the most exhaustive Ripper archive on the Web, refreshingly free of the tawdry edge from which most of these ventures suffer. "I can only speculate, but none of the recent or past suspects seem to have anything other than `finger-pointing' in their direction to back up much of the speculation," he tells me. "There are possibilities and suspicions - and unless Wearside Jack was also the killer of Joan Harrison, then those are very slim leads to pursue. But," he adds, "any search for the individual responsible is better than no search at all."

Brannen is an active debunker of the more outlandish conspiracy theories around the case, believing that Wearside Jack and Harrison's killer "are two separate individuals, neither connected in any way to Peter Sutcliffe". But he's not too optimistic about a resolution. "Unfortunately, I have the feeling that neither the hoaxer nor the murderer of Joan Harrison will be brought to justice."

Sheilagh Matheson disagrees: "I wouldn't ever say that," she says. A journalist and the producer of two documentaries about Wearside Jack, Matheson's involvement stretches back 20 years. "I was a reporter at Tyne Tees when the Ripper was first about, so I remember the day when George Oldfield announced the hoax. And unfortunately I can remember being really thrilled because the story had been totally based in Yorkshire up until then and suddenly it was all in our patch," she says with a guilty laugh. "Because at that time it was clear - whoever made the tapes was the Ripper."

Matheson originally intended to make a one-off programme to mark the hoax's 20-year anniversary, but found the level of interest in the case gave her enough material for more. "People had become very resentful about the way that the area was depicted," she recalls. "When we started our research there was a huge amount of interest. It wasn't a case of, `Who can I find?' We'd literally just knock on any door [in the North East] or go into any shop and everyone had a story.

"Every man, just because of their accent, would have been questioned. It was very intrusive questioning - what size shoes do you wear, taking saliva swabs. And there was the implication to wives and partners that the man could be going with prostitutes, could be a murderer." Both films generated a huge number of new leads, and there is the possibility of another programme as new information arises.

Matheson has worked extensively with Patrick Lavelle, a journalist with the Sunderland Echo who has been the most tireless campaigner to bring Wearside Jack to justice. In 1999 he passed the names of eight suspects (including three policemen) to West Yorkshire Police. But after two months, they made the following announcement: "After much consideration it has been decided that there will be no further action." A lack of evidence was cited.

Later that year a former Ripper Squad officer wrote in the Echo: "I have always believed that the hoaxer was a police officer." News- papers in both Lancashire and Wearside complained about police stonewalling their inquiries. Lavelle presented covertly obtained forensic evidence to the Preston Police regarding suspects for the Harrison murder, but Detective Superintendent Graham Gooch effectively stuck to the original line of all involved police forces: "One journalist has given us five names; they can't all be right. No one has given us any evidence."

Lavelle continued undeterred, reporting that the prime suspect for the hoax was a former soldier now living in the south of England, while Harrison's killer was suspected to be a 59-year-old living in an east London homeless hostel. Matheson's second film, broadcast on ITV last summer, reiterated the popular suspicion that the police may be covering up for one of their own. "If he was caught it would reveal something that the police don't want the public to know," Lavelle said. "What is it they are hiding?" He also complained that police responses to his investigation have "ranged from the mundane and monosyllabic to the hostile".

The idea that a disgruntled policeman was responsible for the hoax is certainly seductive. Last year, former Ripper Squad detective Dick Holland finally admitted that the West Yorkshire Police had conducted a secret investigation into their own officers during the inquiry. And while many factors suggest otherwise - the clumsy forensic trail left on the letters seems an unlikely mistake for any officer to make, while a solicitor close to several of the Ripper Squad officers told me, "I think any conspiracies would have been well and truly aired by now. Coppers just can't keep quiet about that sort of thing" - the rumour continues to bob to the surface.

"I don't think there's a cover-up," says Matheson. "They don't want to know because it was an embarrassment, a dreadful cock-up. Policemen's careers were sidelined because of it, it was a public humiliation and I don't think anybody wants to be reminded of it."

In all likelihood, the unwillingness of the police to reinvestigate is rooted in pragmatism - even if Wearside Jack was identified and prosecuted (assuming he is not Harrison's murderer), the maximum prison sentence he'd get is six months. Morally, he could be responsible for the deaths of the final three victims; legally, he could only be charged with wasting police time.

Confronted with the police's unwillingness to reinvestigate, the public have looked to a string of murky coincidences that seem to point to a general rot within the force at that time: Oldfield's role in the wrongful conviction of Judith Ward for the M62 coach bombing; Dick Holland's involvement in the framing of Stefan Kizko for the murder of Lesley Moleseed in 1976; the fact that Sutcliffe's solicitor Kerry MacGill also represented Ripper Squad detective John Boyle when he was later charged with selling information from the police national computer.

Other, increasingly random, tangents and coincidences further muddy the waters. For example, the more demented theorists have spent years pondering the significance of the following: on the same day in 1979 that Barbara Leach was killed by a hammer blow from the Ripper, the wife of Oldfield's deputy was also rushed to hospital with a fractured skull after falling down the stairs at their home.

In the absence of truth and finality, this stuff fills the void. "This is what worries me most," says Peace. "Just as the original tape itself mislead the police and the public, this growing obsession with the hoax is in danger of obscuring the tragedy and brutality of the actual crimes."

Wearside Jack and the Yorkshire Ripper are now entwined; the police's failure to identify the hoaxer means that, for many people, a part of the Ripper is still at large. Peace puts it more bluntly: "The tape and the Joan Harrison murder deny closure - for the victims, the families and the communities. The police have an obligation to resolve this."

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Byron Crawford in The Guardian Guide

My piece on supreme rap blogger Byron Crawford ran in this week's Guardian Guide. You can read it here or click on the PDF above.

Pete Doherty on Guardian music

My piece on MTV's Pete Doherty documentary is on the Guardian music site. Check the comments for the dispiriting spectacle of a bunch of Libertines fans weighing in with comments three times longer than the original piece. You can read the article here.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Charles Darwin in The Guardian

What with it's 150th anniversary, I took the opportunity to finally crack open Origin of The Species, read it, and assess how well it works as a piece of literature for The Guardian. You can read about it here.