31 December 2006

29 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 11

I've just been on the Reclaim the Night march in Ipswich, and it was a shambolic but good-natured event. A couple of hundred people (I guess), turned up to the town hall steps at 7pm, mainly local trade unionists, feminists and lefties – including a few from the Labour Party, among them the MP, Chris Mole – along with a good showing of feminists from outside the area.

Some time around 7.30pm, there was a speech from a woman from the trades council (whose name I forget) and then another from a representative of the English Collective of Prostitutes (who forgot one girl's name) and after that – and offers of soup to fortify us for the walk – we set off through the town, led, rather incongruously, by a banner declaring "BIRMINGHAM WOMEN FIGHT BACK".

Ignored except by one passing motorist who honked in approval, we made it, mostly along the pavements, to Handford Road, where there was a rather moving laying of flowers in the rec behind the football ground close to where the murdered girls were last seen.

"We don't need protection! We need revolution!" piped up a contingent behind us as we made our way back – and at that point I left. Not because I thought Molotov-throwing radical feminists were about to create a scary confrontation with the forces of patriarchy that could scorch my balls, but we were close to the curry house and I was hungry. What happened next (apart from my eating a curry with a couple of like-minded friends) I can only guess.

28 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 10

No more murders: people are out saying that they'd never known anything go away quite so fast – and thank god it's over. Return to normal.

I hope so. The cordon is off London Road, the town is as full of an evening as it should be.

But the talk in the boozers is now of how the family of one of the dead girls – not the one that has set up a charity fund – is going to do the drug-dealers.

The story is that the girls were being pimped by dealers who paid them in smack and crack (to whom they handed over their takings) – to turn them into de facto slaves. And the dealers/pimps are now living in fear – some have gone on the run – because some of the hardest nuts from one of Ipswich's biggest council estates are after them.

This has come from half-a-dozen sources. We shall see what happens next.

In the meantime, the Reclaim the Night bash tomorrow – start at the Town Hall 7pm – is still very much on.

24 December 2006

BAH! HUMBUG!

I've got a filthy cold and feel like I need a visitation from Scrooge's Christmas spirits. So it's time for a very large single malt, a couple of paracetemol and with any luck some wild dreams. And then tomorrow: "A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!" Aw, fuck that.

22 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 9

I missed this, from my good friend Tim Fenton (the bass player in my teenage punk band) on the BBC's website last week, but it catches well the way it has felt round here this past fortnight:
Ipswich is not a fashionable place.

It's had more than its share of listings among Britain's "crap towns". It's often compared unfavourably to the more middle-class, more photogenic Norwich.

And when the London feature writers come to Suffolk they don't pause long in Ipswich on their way to Aldeburgh and Southwold.

But that antipathy has helped build a tight, sometimes defensive sense of loyalty. There are few people here over 40 who cannot tell you where they were when Roger Osborne scored the winning goal in the 1978 FA Cup final.

With a population of about 140,000, Ipswich is big enough to be a proper town but not so big as to feel impersonal. It's noticeable that the TV crews have had little problem finding people who knew and will talk about the murdered women.

Many remember them as schoolgirls or neighbours and offer the cameras personal recollections. There's ready sympathy for the addictions that drove them to sell their bodies and risk their lives. I wonder if that would be true in a big city.

Everyone is affected. After the fourth and fifth bodies were discovered I decided I would walk the children round the corner for the evening performance of their Christmas play rather than let my wife walk home alone.

A teacher smiled at the children but, with jaw clenched, muttered "isn't it dreadful?" to me. The show went on, though the scene in which Snow White was strangled made one or two of the watching parents shift uneasily in their plastic stacking chairs.

21 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 8

The police have been hinting all day that something was going to happen, and it was pretty clear they meant charging Steve Wright, 48, of London Road, Ipswich, for the murders – which is exactly what they did, but too late for the national press to go to town on it. Or that's what the cops thought. I have a sneaking suspicion that third and fourth editions of all the papers will go massive on the story: you really need a 2am press conference rather than a 10.30pm one if you don't want the story in the next day's papers. And – er – then there's the internet...

CITY OF FEAR - 7

There was another arrest the day before yesterday – Steve Wright, 48, of London Road, Ipswich, a forklift-driver at Felixstowe docks – but not a lot since apart from the news that the police are detaining for questioning both Wright and Tom Stephens, the first suspect arrested, for as long as they can.

I’ve now done my very small bit to help the murder investigation: I gave a witness statement yesterday morning to the police about possibly having seen Paula Clennell the weekend before last (see post here). The cops doing the interviews were remarkably upbeat given the thanklessness of their task and open about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. “But you never know,” said the one who did me. “Anything could turn out to be important.”

In the afternoon I took a walk around the Ipswich “red light district” with a foreign journalist (a woman) who wanted a guided tour. London Road was still cordoned off after the arrest of Wright. There were cameras on cranes at the end of the street, crews everywhere, quite a few cops – and nothing happening. Maybe we should have challenged the police when they told us we couldn’t just wander round, but it didn’t seem worth it. On Handford Road there was a fractious traffic jam, with lots of honking from frustrated motorists desperate to get home. West End Road was just unspeakably bleak.

By the time we got there it was dark and getting very cold, with a freezing fog coming down. “There are no CCTV cameras here,” said my friend, and she was right. Nor were there many people – we saw a couple of teenage boys in hoodies and two pairs of cops looking very fed up in parked patrol cars, but that was it. I can’t think of anywhere more soulless. It’s a wasteland of car showrooms, builders’ merchants and office blocks. “How could anyone come out here?” asked my friend, and I didn’t reply. But the answer is of course drug addiction.

Heroin hit Ipswich big-time – as it hit the rest of the UK – after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Many of my peers got hooked. Two of the members of my teenage punk band in Ipswich in the late 1970s, both boys from caring middle-class homes, committed suicide because they couldn’t cope with withdrawal from long-term smack habits. Two women friends I met on the left journalism scene in the early 1980s spent most evenings ten years later pulling tricks on the street in Kings Cross to buy gear. I could go on.

But it’s not just smack: most if not all of the girls killed in Ipswich were also crack addicts. And that’s a different problem, because there’s no simple way out. If you’re a heroin addict, you need your fix and once you’ve got it you chill out. With heroin, it makes sense to give addicts maintenance prescriptions and lots of love and care. But crack isn’t like that. Crackheads get their hit and turn psychotic, and the more they take the more they want and the worse they get. There's no such thing as a maintenance dose.

This in itself makes a mockery of nearly every suggested change of drugs or prostitution policy that has been put forward as a means of reducing the chances that anything like the Ipswich murders could happen again. Legalised brothels or “tolerance zones” would do nothing to protect girls who are working the streets to fund crack habits. But making it illegal for men to pay for sex would be even worse: it would have the effect of making street prostitution both more lucrative and more dangerous. You can’t treat crack addiction with prescriptions. But coming down harder on suppliers of the drug would simply increase the price paid by addicts, at least some of whom would be driven to take greater risks to get the cash.

Which is not to say that nothing should be done, just that what should be done isn’t obvious.

18 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 6

The arrest of Tom Stephens, 37, of Trimley St Martin, a village just outside Ipswich, has been greeted with some relief round these parts, though no one I've spoken to is daft enough to be sure the cops have got the right man. There was an utterly bizarre interview with him in the Sunday Mirror yesterday (here) , which raises the intriguing possibility that the News of the World will have to give its £250,000 to its ailing rival. The BBC also interviewed him last week for background (here). If he isn't the murderer, he's the sickest of self-publicists.

Meanwhile, there's a Reclaim the Night march in town – not women only – from 7pm on Friday 29 December (details here, but I'm meeting people beforehand at 5.30pm in The Dove, which is a ten-minute walk from the Town Hall). Do come along: it's just over an hour from London, last train back is at 10.42pm and there's even a possibility of being put up for the night by me or one of my comrades (but don't all rush at once).

16 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 5

The minute's silence at Portman Road was respectfully observed, the match was rubbish and I'm glad we won. And I discovered that one of the dead girls squatted a place two of my friends moved into last summer. But how do you turn death into a marketing opportunity? Here's how – handed out to everyone at the Ipswich-Leeds match this afternoon (fold marks show it's genuine):


DISGUSTING REALPOLITIK

The decision of the government to close down the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into the bribery of the Saudi royal family by British Aerospace (latterly BAe Systems) as it pursued lucrative arms contracts is utterly cynical. David Leigh and Rob Evans, who have been working on the story for so long it must hurt, have a great piece here. The good news is that there might be a bit of legal trouble pending for the government on this: click here.

14 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 4

It seems I was wrong about possibly having seen Paula Clennell, now confirmed as the fourth victim of the serial killer (or killers) on Sunday night: she was last definitely seen just after midnight on Saturday a mile away from my local and the police are sure she was abducted soon after. But the question still remains over why she went off police radar. She'd been interviewed by TV last week and on Saturday night London Road, West End Road and the rest of Ipswich's "red light area" should have been swarming with cops. I'm reliably informed they weren't: it was only on Sunday that the police realised what they had on their hands. In the meantime, it seems, Paula Clennell was killed.

There will be a minute's silence at Portman Road this Saturday, apparently at the insistence of the players. I think it will be kept as respectfully as that for George Best.

13 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 3

Well, it might be her. The girl who dropped into the pub late on Sunday night, drenched, with smudged make-up, to cadge a fag. I was sitting next to the door and when she asked I gave her three cigarettes as I turned away from her. I’ve got the London habit of giving to beggars without engaging. I suppose it’s an unspoken “I don’t want to know”, at best a “Look, I’ll help a bit but sort yourself out”. Whatever, she said thanks and that she’d had a terrible day, then disappeared out the door.

Ten seconds later I looked at the landlord and he looked at me, and we both thought the same thing: could she be on the run from something to do with the murders of three prostitutes – as it then was – that we’d been talking about all night? He went outside to see where the girl had gone. There was no sign.

Next day the police released pictures of two more girls who were missing. I wondered about one of them: could the girl who came into the pub have been Paula Clennell. No one caught more than a fleeting glimpse. We agreed from the first picture published that it wasn’t her. But yesterday two more bodies were found. And today, with new pictures in the papers, the doubts crept in big-time. We phoned the police apologetically: we were probably wrong but there was a slim possibility that the girl was Paula ...

The Suffolk police announced this morning that they took more than 2,000 calls yesterday, and they must have had similar traffic today, most of it going up to a police call-centre in Yorkshire: there’s a de facto national police service now. Most of the information they’re processing must have come from people like us, following the story, willing, and desperately attempting to remember what would otherwise be inconsequential moments of everyday life that might now have some significance – but not quite reliable. Dealing with all that is going to take some time. Let's hope we weren't all wasting police time and that it helps to catch the bastard.

12 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 2

And now it's even worse. The third corpse has been identified as another young woman who had been on the game in Ipswich, and two more dead bodies of young women have been found outside the town near Levington, a village with a marina and a pub that does good posh food.

The police media operation is now quite sharp, and the "red light district" around the football ground is, I'm told, now swarming with boys in blue and TV crews and no one else. The suspicion that the cops didn't grasp the seriousness of the situation until rather late remains: if indeed one of the newly discovered bodies is that of a girl last seen on Saturday, there's a question whether there was a serious surveillance failure.

But I'm sure they're watching the CCTV footage as I write, and all anyone wants is for the murderer or murderers to be caught. I don't know what Leeds was like during the Yorkshire Ripper's reign of terror, but Ipswich has reacted to this calamity with dignity and decency.

The town's evening paper, the Evening Star, is offering a £50,000 as a bounty for catching what looks like the single perpetrator, but much more prominent are the pages given over to sympathetic profiles of the dead girls and to readers offering condolences to their loved ones. I don't remember the Yorkshire Post being anything other than sensationalist over the Ripper murders, but I could be wrong.

It's so weird that this is happening here — a year ago Suffolk was declared the safest county in England on the basis of crime statistics. For me personally Ipswich has been an unthreatening and benign place since my childhood and adolescence. Now we're in Murder County UK, and we can't do anything about it. I've never been a great enthusiast for minute's silences at football games, but one at Portman Road on Saturday, when Ipswich play Leeds, would be extraordinarily cathartic.

11 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR – 1

I live in a town in which a serial killer seems to be on the loose. Three dead bodies of young women have been found in different places just outside Ipswich. Two more young women are missing. All appear to have beeen working as prostitutes — two of them, the pair now confirmed dead and named, operating from the streets around the Ipswich Town football ground that the media call the "red light district" of the town.

In fact, there are no red lights: the only illumination is from street lamps and offices, in a bleak postmodern urban landscape — a wasteland not of derelict factories and closed-down pubs but of squeaky-clean redevelopments of the past 20 years: the new Suffolk County Council headquarters, the football stadium itself, the nightclub in an old maltings that was the scene of an unrelated murder at the weekend. West End Road is where we go to recycle our waste; Handford Road is empty but for builders' merchants. Dull functional places where hardly anyone lives.

There has been prostitution not far from here for years. London Road, just round the corner, was close to being a real red-light district in the 1970s when it was multiple-occcupancy bedsit land, but it has gone all owner-occupier.

Back then, the girls worked out of scuzzy flats. Today they hang out after dark on the well maintained pavements and grass verges of the most anonymous parts of an increasingly anonymous town, waiting for punters to turn up in cars. Then they do the business in the back seat or behind a tree in the rec or whatever.

It's everyday sordid, we all know about it because we've driven past, we don't condone it. But now it turns out that one of the punters in a car — or maybe someone else — is a killer.

That makes everything different. Everyone I've spoken to feels a sense of solidarity with the girls who have been killed and with their families and friends: they are kids who went wrong rather than the lowest of the low.

But the most palpable feeling is fear. Middle-aged women who go out only to the local pub or Pizza Express won't even venture that far; ordinarily confident young women who walk around town at all hours without a care in the world are organising chaperones. The pubs are empty.

But at least the cops are waking up. I'm told by a reliable source that they had no extra officers on the streets over the weekend, but now it's a major priority to catch the perpetrator. But there's no one out to talk about it. Scary.

9 December 2006

SENSE ON THE CHAVS

Romantics with exaggerated faith in "national liberation" movements in poor parts of the world have been the bane of the left throughout the world for years — some would say for nearly a century — and there's a good piece here on Open Democracy on the prevalent enthusiasm for the populist authoritarian leftist regime of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Is there any compelling evidence that the left should trust the Chavs any more than it should have trusted the Sovs?

8 December 2006

DISASTROUS 48 HOURS

First my bloody phone was nicked and then I bust a metatarsal — doc reckons it was brought on by impact of slipping while running down a tube escalator yesterday morning (completely sober, I might add). So no Wilko tonight and a couple of days with my feet up trying to reconstruct my contacts book. And crutches. Bah!