Why Jack The Ripper Sends Men Mad
Do you remember David Icke? He was a footballer, then a sports broadcaster and spokesman for the Green Party, so not a great thinker but at least relatively normal. Then one day he went mad. In 1990 a psychic told him that he was a healer who had been placed on Earth for a purpose, and that the spirit world was going to pass messages to him. He announced that he was a “Son of the Godhead” and that a secret group of walking lizards called the Babylonian Brotherhood including the Queen and Kris Kristofferson lived inside the moon. If you’re going to go from a respected household name to a public laughing stock, this is the way to do it.
Another good way to go mad is to get involved in Ripperology. Fourteen years ago, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell published ‘Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper – Case Closed’, naming the great English painter Walter Sickert as the Ripper. She spent $2 million on research, bought 32 of Sickert’s paintings and cut one of them into pieces in the vain hope of finding a clue. Poor Patricia had gone barking mad and the book all but destroyed her reputation.
And so to Bruce Robinson. The former actor directed a good little film, ‘Withnail & I’, a very bad film, ‘How To Get Ahead In Advertising’, a good thriller, ‘Jennifer 8’, wrote a great adapted screenplay, ‘The Killing Fields’, and an absolutely terrific memoir, ‘The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman’.
Then nothing for fifteen years. Now, out of the blue his magnum opus, a Ripper-namer, has appeared, all 850 pages of it. And he’s gone mad. He picks Michael Maybrick, bachelor, Freemason, songwriter, mayor and magistrate as the Ripper, mainly because he has a thing about Freemasons and Victorians, especially eminent Victorians, whom he blanket-despises. So he comes up with a conspiracy of epic proportions, possibly the grandest ever conceived, to justify his claim. His prose is more than just angry, it’s feverishly, eyeball-swivellingly, naked-howling-at-the-moon angrier than anything from the absurd Ripperologists he despises, and therefore it’s a thoroughly entertaining read, not least because many of the targets of his ire actually deserve the opprobrium.
But it’s also a brain-crushingly exhausting read. Unfortunately, ‘They all Love Jack’ adds to the mountain of Jack the Ripper books but adds nothing, because it’s a textbook example of what happens when non-academics with axes to grind fail to conduct empirical research using detached logic, and instead cherry-pick facts to suit their preconceptions, while thinking they’re stepping around the mistakes of others. Ripperology is quicksand that sucks in the most erudite minds, with the result that after so many years on the project, Robinson joins the ranks of the very silliest. (Here’s a clue – the murderer sang a song about himself!)
To my mind the key to the whole sorry sad farrago is that most of the so-called canonical facts in the case probably aren’t connected at all. Real crimes are not TV thrillers, wherein every dot is connected and leads to a single inexorable solution. Elements (the ‘Juwes’ wall writing, the letters, the facial cuts) have irrelevant coincidences because life has irrelevant coincidences, especially when coupled to extreme poverty, something I don’t imagine Robinson has much experience of. The true solution to the sensational ‘Bermuda Triangle’ mysteries was published some years back, and turned out to be the result of poor message logging, just as crop circles were solved by a couple of kids, a plank and some rope. It’s in our nature to try and make sense of perceived mysteries, but in the process we dig too deep for meaning.
Robinson connects everything. His book seems so randomly arranged that pages may virtually be read out of order, and are peppered with revelations about Egyptology, the Golden Dawn, cover-ups and mystical symbology. The big revelation here – that posh Victorians were a jolly bad lot – barely reaches the credibility level of a Carry On film, and more problematically, it makes no sense at all. But while we’re looking for conspiracies, I have one of my own for the author’s madness.
Entertaining vitriol has always been Bruce Robinson’s stock in trade (except when it becomes obvious and blunted, as in ‘How To Get Ahead In Advertising’), but he has a bigger handicap; I think he has always been a homophobe. This apparently has its roots in Franco Zeffirelli fancying him on the set of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ when he played Benvolio. (I’ve worked with Zeffirelli and he didn’t fancy me.) Robinson was cute in a fairly dim-looking way, but it apparently left such a scar that he harped on about it for years, creating the Uncle Monty subplot of the predatory gay uncle in ‘Withnail’ that was rescued from being offensive by Richard Griffiths’ delicious performance.
My theory is that now this homophobia has blossomed into something really poisonous. Robinson almost runs out of substitute insults for ‘gay’ in the book, but then he insults everyone a lot, getting sidetracked all over the place into excuses to show why the Victorians were so evil. He’s especially obsessed with the Cleveland Street Scandal, covered rather more succinctly in ‘Sodom-On-Thames’ by Morris Kaplan. Why does Robinson assume that lords fleeing abroad after a scandal is any different to say, bank robbers heading for the Costa Del Sol? Ah, class, you see. Unfortunately, Robinson has the attention span of a gnat and is soon off on another whacky rant about Freemasons, as if he’s just heard of them for the first time, but for a while it’s great fun in a retro way (Victorian-baiting was very popular in the 1960s, when he was a lad).
Every idea in this astonishing book relies on parodic excess, researched in a way that suggests the Dewy Decimal System has broken down, and exhibiting an ad hominem attitude to every point raised with blanket assumptions sweeping aside all doubts.
But from an entertainment value alone is it worth the haul? Well, he’s a good writer with an often delirious turn of phrase, but after a while he comes over as late-period Ken Russell, and it’s like being trapped in a train carriage with an angry nutter who’s ready to produce a ragbag of clippings from his suitcase to prove his point.
Luckily we live in a largely Victorian-sponsored democracy so he can enjoy a good rant, and we can too. What we’re ultimately left with is another nutty Ripper book, the very thing Robinson wanted to avoid.