In February, I made a couple of trips to Lancaster as part of research for The Jigsaw Murders.
I was given a guided tour of the former Police Court in Lancaster Town Hall, where Dr Ruxton made his first court appearances in late 1935 as well as the former police station and cells directly below. It was here that Ruxton was questioned by Chief Constable Henry Vann of Lancaster Police and arrested and charged with murder.
I was also shown around Dr Ruxton’s home, 2 Dalton Square, which is directly opposite the Town Hall. The house is where Ruxton committed the murders and dismembered the bodies of Isabella and Mary.
Having grown up fascinated by the Ruxton case, I found it strange and eerie to see these places first-hand, and the experience left me with goose-pimples. I took many photos and I have shared one or two of them here. They are pictures for my own research purposes and are unlikely to appear in the book, but once The Jigsaw Murders is published next year (May 2021), will post a full gallery of them on here.
First, I hit 50,000 words in my writing, which is the halfway point. It’s very satisfying piecing the little details I’ve dug out in research together with the narrative’s timeline. I have found lots of previously unreported details that help to layer and enrich the story.
The other, more momentous news, however, is that The Jigsaw Murders has been optioned for TV by Elaine Collins (whose company is Tod Productions) and STV Productions. I am hugely indebted to my literary agent Joanna Swainson and my TV/film agent Marc Simonsson, of Soloson Media, for securing such a wonderful deal.
I’m particularly thrilled because Elaine is one of the top TV drama producers in the UK. She brought the brilliant novels of crime writer Ann Cleeves to our screens: Shetland at the BBC and Vera at ITV. Both shows, which I love, have casts to die for.
I’ve always thought the Ruxton murders were ripe for a television drama. So, why the interest now? There have been a number of related books and many, many newspaper and magazine accounts about the case in the decades since the crimes.
I’ve always said that my book will go much, much deeper into the human drama — the human tragedy — behind the lurid surface details. As I’m writing narrative nonfiction — a true story that reads like a novel — I want to immerse my readers in the story, to make them care for the people at the heart of it, to empathise and hopefully try to understand the reasons why they did what they did. That includes not only the victims, the scientists, the police and legal people, but also Ruxton himself. What he did was monstrous, evil; but I believe we should try to understand who he was (even if we are repelled by his crimes): a deeply troubled and flawed human being who nevertheless had some good, well-meaning qualities as well.
So, my version of the Ruxton story will be different to what has gone before. It will not sensationalise the gory aspects of the case, nor will it cross the line into fictionalising what happened on the night of the killings; instead it will stick to the facts and dramatise a truly human tragedy whose impact is still being felt today.
My teaching commitments at Manchester Metropolitan University would be over. I had a few days’ holiday booked and I was planning a research trip to the university archives in Edinburgh and Glasgow for my book The Jigsaw Murders.
It was not to be. It hardly seems important compared to what so many people are going through during the coronavirus pandemic, but I am having to rethink how I complete crucial research for my book.
I had mapped out the route I was going to drive to Scotland, travelling via Moffat and the Devil’s Beef Tub, a key location at the heart of my true crime book. It was here that the gruesome discovery was made of the two victims’ bodies in autumn 1935.
I was to stay in Edinburgh and Glasgow for a couple of days each, immersing myself in the archives relating to the Ruxton killings and the landmark work done by the Scottish forensic pathologists who helped to solve the mystery.
I was also planning a trip to the National Archives at Kew, London.
The longer the lock-down continues, the likelihood is that I will have to use the money I would have spent on hotels and fuel on paying the archivists to copy the material for me instead so that I can do my research from home.
It’s not what I intended, but in uncertain times you have to be resourceful.
What follows is a piece of arts journalism I wrote for a competition that, having failed to win the prize, has been gathering dust on my computer’s hard drive, so I thought I would give it an airing here.
Those of you who know me well know I have been a Laurel and Hardy fan since I was a young lad.
This piece is a review of the excellent John Connolly biographical novel about Stan Laurel, he. It also makes a passing reference to the movie Stan & Ollie starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. I hadn’t seen it when I wrote the review; I have now, and although I’m utterly biased on the subject, it’s sublime.
For added value, I include photos of me and my brother outside Stan Laurel’s birthplace in Ulverston. I’m on the right and it was taken circa 1977 (thanks, Mum, for putting us in matching outfits). Compare these against the grainy picture of a young Stan on the same doorstep with his grandmother in the late 1890s.
I hope you enjoy the review.
A review of John Connolly’s he: a novel.
When Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared on This Is Your Life in 1954 the film comedians politely smiled but inwardly squirmed. They were caught off-guard when television lights flooded room 205 of Los Angeles’ Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel and a hitherto hidden camera began rolling. The show’s oleaginous host, Ralph Edwards, broadcasting from the nearby NBC studio, informed them their famous lives were to be reviewed in front of millions of viewers.
If the duo, who were in their early sixties by then, said very little, they were nevertheless courteous during the recording. For Laurel the episode was an embarrassment because they were unprepared. His reaction illuminates our understanding of what made the comedian tick.
While the love shown to the comedy duo by legions of fans was genuine, neither man was especially funny in real life and the magical illusion of their on-screen relationship was the result of hard work and finely-honed talent.
To be clear, from the beginning Stan Laurel was a construct.
Irish crime novelist John Connolly has been obsessed with Stan Laurel since childhood.
We were both born in 1968 and are of the generation that grew up watching Laurel and Hardy on television. It was usually one of their vintage two-reelers, twenty glorious minutes of mirth at teatime on BBC2. Connolly was laughing at them in Dublin, while I was a bowler-hatted frisby-throw from Laurel’s hometown of Ulverston in the Lake District. I fed my Laurel and Hardy obsession with trips to see the house where he was born. My dad also took me to the chaotic L&H museum in the town, curated in a low-ceilinged damp old building behind a fish and chip shop.
Laurel and Hardy’s films inexplicably vanished from the TV schedules in the 1990s, but happily, they’re being screened again on niche channels, while a biopic, Stan and Ollie, is due in our cinemas.
From the beginning Stan Laurel was a construct.
He was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890 into a theatrical family. He took the name Laurel in his twenties because Stan Jefferson was thirteen unlucky letters long and took up too much space on theatre bills.
John Connolly’s he: a novel is a work of fiction about the fiction of Laurel’s life. In style and tone it reminded me of David Peace’s biographical Brian Clough and Bill Shankly novels: jabbing, repetitive sentences alive with meticulous detail, and structural gimmicks: Stan Laurel is never named, referred to only as ‘he’ throughout.
This is a book about identity and love affairs. It picks over Laurel’s disastrous personal life, defined by five marriages to four women. It is his relationships with Hardy and his one-time rooming mate, Charlie Chaplin, however, that most interests Connolly.
Laurel understudied Chaplin when they were raw comedians with the Fred Karno company touring Britain and America in the 1910s. Chaplin succeeded early, emerging as the Little Tramp, the most celebrated movie actor in the world. Laurel took another decade to find his comic destiny in the context of a double act with Hardy.
Connolly beautifully dramatises the mixture of love, admiration and revulsion Laurel felt towards Chaplin as the years rolled by. Chaplin never delivered on a promise to help Laurel in Hollywood, and excised all reference to him from his autobiography. Connolly intimates Laurel was disturbed by Chaplin’s predilection for underage girls, although publicly he only ever spoke respectfully about him.
Nevertheless, Laurel never lost his conviction that Chaplin was the greatest comedian who ever lived.
Forget the five marriages. Forget Chaplin.
For Connolly, the heart of he: a novel is Laurel’s love for his screen partner, Oliver Norvell Hardy.
Chance brought them together while both at the Hal Roach Studios. Once they found one another a glorious alchemy occurred. They were sometimes referred to as the fiddle and the bow: together they made the most heavenly music.
Laurel never got over losing Hardy, who died in 1957. He turned down all offers to appear in movies. Aside from not wanting the public to see him as an old man (which would have destroyed that perfectly created celluloid illusion), how could he have been funny without his great foil?
He spent the remainder of his life writing unperformed Laurel and Hardy scripts. He lived in a modest seaview apartment in Santa Monica, left his phone number in the Los Angeles phone book, and welcomed visits by young, genuflecting comedians: Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers.
At Laurel’s funeral in 1965, Buster Keaton said Laurel was the greatest comedian of all, greater than himself and even Chaplin.
Stan Laurel never truly knew how funny he really was.
On the night of September 9th, 1945, pioneering computer programmer Grace Hopper was at work on the Mark II version of the now legendary Harvard computer. She couldn’t understand why the machine wasn’t working. She and her team began inspecting the computer methodically, trying to establish the cause of the problem so that they could eliminate it and get the thing working again.
Following this process, they eventually found a moth that had somehow become caught inside. Hopper extracted the dead insect and decided to stick it in the team’s log book with the aid of a strip of Scotch tape, preserving it for posterity. With her ink pen she annotated the entry with the words: “Panel F (moth) in relay. First actual case of bug being found.”
A new computer programming term had been coined.
Thereafter all computer glitches were known as ‘bugs’ and the process of ironing out such glitches as ‘debugging’.
Grace Hopper’s picking out of the moth from the Harvard Mark II had been history’s first instance of debugging.
TODAY is two years since my Mum died. My tears might have dried but the pain lingers.
Her passing was completely unexpected and in an instant my family’s lives were turned upside down. Within an hour of her passing I found myself in my parents’ home, dazed and my eyes raw from crying, my arm around my stunned dad.
Everywhere I looked in their home I saw my mum. Her winter coat hanging in the hall. Her walking sticks leaning against the wall. Her glasses, necklace and watch by the bed where she’d put them the night before she died.
Next to the sofa were boxes of unopened Christmas cards, ready for one of her marathon signing sessions. She always undertook this task weeks before December.
Wanting to get paperwork in order, I searched through cupboards and wardrobes, becoming tearful when I was suddenly confronted by her clothes, each item triggering a fresh memory. I found boxes of photographs. Pride of place was her wedding album.
Fresh tears tumbled as I opened the decades-old pages. Staring back at me were mum and dad, a young, happy couple, life’s exciting journey ahead of them.
Mum was 22, and I was struck by how beautiful she looked. My dad stood next to her, aged 31, looking like a young Tony Curtis. That was August 1967. The last time I saw my mum she was excitedly planning their golden wedding celebrations.
The book she had been reading was by the side of the sofa. It was a family saga, the sort Catherine Cookson used to write. Her bookmark was tucked inside, 30 pages from the end. It would have irritated her to not know how the story ended.
That’s what’s struck me since she died. There are so many unresolved stories. So many loose ends never to be tied up. But life isn’t a novel or a Hollywood film. There are no happy or sad endings. Just an unceasing flow of experiences and interlaced lives.
I wish I’d appreciated the times I’d spent with her more, absorbed what she’d said instead of giving in to the inevitable distractions of modern life. I always assumed there would be another moment when I could be fully present with her.
Sadly, there are no more moments. Just memories.
Something like this pulls you up short. Makes you take stock. It is time to pull those we love close and tell them we love them.
Because, as my mum used to say, you never know what’s round the corner.
In September 1914, Laurence Binyon was visiting Cornwall. His trip had been overshadowed by what was happening in Europe. The Great War (as the First World War was known at the time) had only recently broken out. The first casualties had been suffered after the British Expeditionary Force clashed with the Imperial German Army at the Battle of Mons on August 23, followed by the First Battle of the Marne in early September when the British fought with the French Army against the Germans.
These were early days. The horrors of the Battle of the Somme, where tens of thousands of young men were slaughtered amid mud and bullets on the Western Front, were two years away.
Binyon, like millions of others, must have wondered if the world had gone mad. He, though, was about to do something extraordinary in response. This act did not hasten the end of the war nor did it directly save lives, yet it had an impact that is still felt today.
Above: Laurence Binyon, painted by Walter Strang, 1901 (Creative commons)
That autumn, Binyon was 45 and a man of serious nature and intent. He was from the north (born in Lancaster in 1869) and was educated at St Paul’s School, London, before studying Classics at Trinity College, Oxford. He worked as Assistant Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. In his free time he was a talented poet. His name had been mentioned in the same breath as Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and John Masefield as contenders for the newly-available post of Poet Laureate (following the death of incumbent Alfred Austin).
One day that September he was walking along the north Cornwall coastline, his thoughts no doubt heavy with what was happening in Europe. He sat down on a cliff-top and, gazing out to sea, began composing a poem.
The first lines he wrote on that fateful day were:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They became the fourth of seven stanzas in the poem For The Fallen. It was published in The Times on September 21, 1914. Binyon could not have known the significance these lines would take on. They would become synonymous not only with the Great War but all wars and would resonate down the ages. The Royal British Legion adopted them and they emblazon countless War Memorials across the nation.
At 45, Binyon was too old to fight in the war. Nevertheless, he worked as a medical orderly with the Red Cross and suffered the loss of a number of close friends and also his brother-in-law.
He went on to write much more poetry as well as drama and died in 1943 aged 73, but he was forever known as the author of For The Fallen.
On Monday, November 4th, 1963, The Beatles were to all intents and purposes imprisoned.
They were inside the Prince of Wales Theatre near Leicester Square in London preparing to perform at that evening’s Royal Variety Performance in front of Her Majesty the Queen Mother. Their manager Brian Epstein refused to let them outside for fear of causing a riot.
In a few heady months the band had gone from playing in the bowels of a Liverpool cellar to become a teenage national craze that had been labelled ‘Beatlemania’ by the nonplussed headline writers of Fleet Street.
So many newspaper column inches had been dedicated to the Fab Four already in 1963 that readers could at last see beyond the uniformity of their strange hairstyles and identify the members individually. The names John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were on the tips of everybody’s tongues. Teenage fans were drunk on the glorious alchemy of their harmonies and melodies, while their parents had been won over by the Beatles’ charm, wit and cheek.
Their hit singles Please Please Me, She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand had made them British stars. America beckoned (their triumph with US audiences was three months away and was at this stage by no means assured; remember, all British stars had failed to crack the States). But for tonight, they were focusing on their greatest accolade so far: the invitation to play in front of royalty.
Epstein was worried as the show approached. Lennon had threatened to do something rebellious. Rumour has it he intended to use the F-word. To Brian, keen to impress the Establishment, this was madness.
The Royal Variety Performance line-up included family-favourite singer Max Bygraves, movie legend Marlene Dietrich, comedian Charlie Drake and the stars of sitcom Steptoe and Son. It was the entertainment event of the year in the grey, buttoned-up world of 1960s Britain.
In the hour before the show, more than 3,000 Beatles fans were crammed outside the theatre. More than 500 police officers had to be called upon to keep the crowds in order for the arrival of the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon.
It must have been a strange experience for the Liverpool lads. They were used to screaming fans drowning out their performances. But for once the theatre wasn’t full of their adoring teenage fans. It was filled with mostly middle aged people with enough money to afford the price of a Royal Variety Performance ticket.
When they took to the stage, The Beatles were welcomed by polite applause before they launched into their set. Epstein must have been biting his fingernails backstage. How were they going to be received? More importantly, was John Lennon about to send The Beatles’ career into a spectacular nosedive?
The band started with two of their self-penned hits: From Me To You and She Loves You, complete with the now-famous ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ refrain and the hair-shaking ‘whoos’. Then Paul McCartney introduced the show tune Till There Was You, perfect for the older audience. His introduction was polite and respectful and he later told a Liverpool Echo reporter he had fluffed it, although he doubted that anyone had noticed.
Applause greeted the band as they finished the song. They did their famous bow in unison, which they did after every song, a touch of old-style showbusiness that Epstein had convinced the boys to adopt.
Now John Lennon stepped up to the microphone. Perhaps Epstein was unable to watch what happened next.
“For our last number we’d like your help,” Lennon invited the audience. “Those of you in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.” An impish smile, a bob of the head, and the rebellion was over.
All eyes were on the royal box. How had the comments gone down? The Queen Mother was smiling; she offered a polite wave of approval.
The Beatles exploded into the opening chords of Twist and Shout.
The Sixties had arrived.
(Sources: Liverpool Echo & Evening Express, Tuesday, November 5, 1963; The Illustrated London News, November 16, 1963; The Press and Journal, October 11, 1963)