My boss has a habit of giving directions to London locations by referring to the infamous crimes that have taken place there. Instead of simply saying “take a left on to Commercial Road” he will add "you know…where that bloke got shot in the head six times outside the bingo hall”.
Wherever you are in London he could tell you what murders have happened there. Slightly morbid? Perhaps, but when you think about it, many places are forever linked to and even defined by the murders that have taken place. The Dakota building NYC, the town of Omagh in Northern Ireland, The British Medical Association HQ in Tavistock Square stained red with blood.
This week’s London Love is not really a love of ours. Rather, a morbid fascination, driven by media bloodlust and the folkloric nature of tales of local murders. A recent personal example illustrates this. A few weeks ago a body was dragged out of the Regent's canal and laid on the towpath within site of our office windows. Rather than respectfully bowing our heads and continuing our work, the primary concern of 100 or so co-workers was to gleefully pontificate as to the nature of the poor man’s demise. “Was he pushed in by local kids? Was he pissed out of his face and fell in? Was it a heart attack? Was he decapitated?” And amongst the hubbub, the most frequently heard cry was: “can you see it? Can you see it? CAN YOU SEE IT??”
I have never seen a dead body. But I know people who have: police officers, morticians, scene-of-crime forensic experts. They tell me it is a surreal yet perfunctory activity when bodies are dealt with by the authorities. At a distance it seems such an unreal thing to encounter. And yet, that is how we will all end up one day. (Dead that is. Hopefully not murdered).
Back to my boss. The most poignant example he refers to (on an almost weekly basis) is the scene he walks past daily on his way to work. At the height of the summer of teenage killings in 2008, 16 year old Ben Kinsella was killed at the corner of York Way and North Road. Now a London landmark, this corner was adorned with flowers, football shirts, scarves, mementoes and heartfelt letters for months afterwards. While Kinsella’s murder marked the key turning point in London’s fight against knife crime, the scene of crime itself became a focal point for locals to vent anger, to collapse in sorrow but also to celebrate a young life, all too soon expired.
London has many notorious murder spots. The one which holds most gruesome fascination for me is in Muswell Hill a couple of miles away from where I live. Close to the top of an oppressively suburban, long, steep hill of semi detached houses sits the house at 23 Cranley Gardens. Driving past it today one wonders whether it is occupied and if so, by whom? And are they aware that 30 years ago Dennis Nilsen murdered men there? Keeping their dead bodies hidden around the house, practising necrophilia on them, butchering them, burning them in the back garden, depositing pieces of the bodies down drain pipes, cooking them and indeed eating them.
Equally creepy is the thought of 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill where John Christie murdered at least 6 women in the 1940s and 50s. You can find out more about this particularly bleak sequence of murders in the film 10 Rillington Place starring Richard Attenborough. Be warned, it is one of the most depressingly sad films you will ever see.
Ok, so we’ve covered a gay murderer and a misogynist woman killer, what about one for the girls? Perhaps the quintessential feminist killing in modern times happened in an inconspicuous corner of Hampstead. The Magdala pub still carries the evidence of the final bullet, fired from Ruth Ellis's gun. Intended for Ellis’s former lover, David Blakely, whom she had already pumped five rounds into, the sixth bullet ricocheted off the wall plunging the pub into eternal infamy and Ellis into history. For the murder of this man, the final in a string of hopeless, abusive, womanising drunks who had plagued her life, Ellis became the last woman ever to be hanged in Britain in April 1955.
Although London is more peaceful than most major metropolitan centres in the world, there are still way too many killings. Stephen Lawrence (1993), Damilola Taylor (2000) or the French students Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez (2009) stabbed 244 times in Deptford, are just three examples of events that Londoners really do not love.
It is strange, however, that the further away in time and history one moves from a crime the more lightly it is viewed…
…Our final death spot is not necessarily a scene of crime per se. Unless of course you consider bad driving a crime. Which I do.
Driving home through Barnes, well-fed, quite probably pissed and tonked up on qaaludes on 16th Sept 1977, pop star Marc Bolan was killed when his girlfriend declined to follow the one of the lesser known laws of the Road Traffic Act: don’t drive off the road into a Sycamore tree.