23 January 2014

Duncan Staff: The Lost Boy: The Definitive Story of the Moors Murders (2007; rev. 2013)

Duncan Staff's The Lost Boy is a popular rather than a scholarly work: the language is very simple and although there's a reasonable Index there's no Bibliography to indicate where Staff's sources come from, and no footnotes or endnotes. Staff had access to a large amount of Myra Hindley's unpublished autobiographical work so the book understandably concentrates on her biography, although there is also a great deal of material about Ian Brady.

In a little more than two years, between July 1963 and September 1965, five young people from the Manchester area – Pauline Reade (16), John Kilbride (12), Keith Bennett (12), Lesley Ann Downey (10), and Edward Evans (17) – were brutally murdered after (perhaps not in every instance) being sexually assaulted. The murders were pre-meditated and authored by Brady (originally from Glasgow and the product of a broken home and until then guilty of only minor criminal offences) accompanied by Manchester-born Hindley (the victim of physical abuse by an alcoholic father who found some relief by moving in with her maternal grandmother).

Hindley was discontented with living in working-class Gorton a few miles to the east of central Manchester, and dreamed of a life removed from her drab suroundings. Brady lived in nearby Longsight and he too was discontented, saw himself as superior, and the kind of books he read were by such people as Hitler and Nietzsche. They met at work at Millward's Mechandising in Gorton and the rest is a history that refuses to go away.

The more I think about the title the less I like it: The Lost Boy suggests that the emphasis in the book will be on Keith Bennett and his undiscovered remains, but it's not. Furthermore, the subtitle The Definitive Story of of the Moors Murders is clear nonsense because it indicates closure, although the book itself at the end gives the URL of a web site here which is essentially a petition for a renewed search for the remains of Keith Bennett so that he may be given the burial he deserves; Brady is still alive and his death may or may not reveal the whereabouts of the remains. I find the coda about the Staffordshire Ramshaw Rocks photos unconvincing: Staff (and others) may well believe it possible that some could be 'markers' suggesting – much like the Saddleworth Moor photos – that other bodies (perhaps Keith Bennett's even) are buried there. Some readers may find that idea tantalising, although this reader doesn't, but surely the question-marked nature of this coda merely paradoxically reinforces the inappropriateness of the sub-title: far from being a 'Definitive Story', the book itself draws attention to its own lack of definitiveness (cue for a future revised edition?).

I also found Staff's references to 'Myra' and 'Ian' somewhat distasteful – Staff had clearly had a number of communications with Hindley during which he would logically have addressed her by her first name, but the use of first names for this couple throughout the book suggests – for me at least – a kind of matiness that clearly didn't exist: although Staff recognises that Hindley had an inexplicable charisma, he is far from sympathetic towards a woman he realises is a chronic liar attempting to conceal her complicity in a series of callous murders in order to secure release from prison.

It was usual as part of their murder strategy for Brady to provide Hindley with the name of a popular song with an appropriate lyric, such as 'Girl Don't Come'. I was reminded of three popular songs while reading the book: Morrissey's 'Suffer Little Children' is the most obvious, although Crass's more obscure pacifist indictment of hypocrisy 'Mother Earth' ('It's Myra Hindley on the cover') also played in my head. But it's probably a coincidence that Beasley Street is where Hindley lived in Gorton and that the 'Salford bard' John Cooper Clarke wrote a song called 'Beezley Street', although two lines of the song are chillingly true:

'their common problem is
 that they’re not someone else'.


The someone else that Brady and Hindley created was essentially a private world with a population of two, with everyone else being either irrelevant or temporarily useful – but ultimately expendable. Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it should sweep away any illusions a person might have of Hindley merely being a weak, gullible young woman in thrall to a very powerful, egotistical monster. That's perhaps the impression she liked to give, and although Brady is just that, Hindley was still a very callous, devious, scheming person in her own right. Would the Moors murders have happened without her? That of course is impossible to answer, just as we can never have a 'definitive story' of the Moors murders, even when Keith Bennett's remains are found and Brady is dead.

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