It was supposed to be a quiet night at the Scotia Bar in Glasgow, hearing people's poetry, reading out my latest dramatic monologue. But the place was crazy busy, exploding with noise and raucous singing. I lost count of the number of times I heard the words, The witch is dead.
It turned out that many of those toasting the demise of Margaret Thatcher had come from the celebration party in George Square, where champagne bottles were popped and people chanted Maggie Maggie Maggie, dead dead dead.
What a bizarre demonstration of humane values, to dance on the grave of a woman who has just died. She may have been hated by millions—and her policies were certainly hated by me—but she was also an ordinary person, who had family and friends. If you claim to care about people, how could you bring yourself to celebrate the death of any one of them? It's not a question of taste, as some people have said. It's a question of the most basic of values, that a human life is worth something in itself.
The cacophony of opinion about Margaret Thatcher has been deafening, even 21 years after she left government. Much has been what you'd expect, an examination of her political and cultural significance, dividing across party lines, but there has also been the usual misogyny, the visceral fear of powerful women that permeates our culture. It is, as far as I can remember, the first time a recently deceased figure has been pushed so publicly and unceremoniously into the medieval pit since the death in 2002 of the Moors Murderess, Myra Hindley, wrote Peter Stanford in The Telegraph, noting that he couldn't imagine the equally hated Tony Blair being celebrated in death as a warlock.
Comment on the web included the thought that if people didn't hold street parties when Myra Hindley died, did that mean they thought she was better than Margaret Thatcher?
It seems a preposterous idea—Myra Hindley participated in one of the most sordid crimes of the 20th century, the killing of five young people, sordid because their youth made them vulnerable, sordid because she used her femininity to entice them to their deaths. But is it so outrageous to see some kind of moral equivalence between murder and war? Is it outrageous to think that foreign dictators are not the only ones who inflict great damage on other people and that leaders of Western democracies could be tried for war crimes? Margaret Thatcher didn't get her hands dirty—her tools were rhetoric and political vision—but she was nevertheless responsible for the deaths of 323 people on the Argentine ship ARA General Belgrano during the Falklands war, by giving orders for its sinking while the ship was heading away from the exclusion zone. Her politics led to far more deaths than the Moors Murderers ever contemplated.
Thatcher's longing to be a great war leader has infected most of her successors since and infected our country with an acceptance of militarism that had begun to disappear during the draft-dodging 1960s. It's entirely appropriate that they bring out the gun-carriages for the woman who opened up the possibility of war in the British psyche after those few heady years of resistance to it. As a woman who responded with great vivacity to good looking men, she would no doubt have been gratified by the presence of 700 armed forces personnel.
Despite the costs, which will no doubt seem punitively high in the middle of recession, this overblown, militaristic pomp and ceremony is a far more fitting and dignified epitaph on behalf of all of us than people singing and dancing in the streets. You don't have to respect Thatcher's policies to object to people making petty political points out of someone's death. The people who belittle the passing of another human being are the people who dragged two British soldiers out of their car 25 years ago in Northern Ireland and beat them bloody. They're the people who taunted Saddam Hussein at the moment of his execution. That level of hatred is not what creates a warmer, more caring society.
I'm still not sure why the people in the streets in Glasgow and Liverpool and Brixton were celebrating anyway. Maggie Thatcher may have passed away but her policies are still with us. Ask the women who can no longer have their grandkids to stay because of the Bedroom Tax. Ask my friend Marion, who has cerebral palsy yet will lose her Disability Living Allowance. And above all, ask the people who watched their sons' and daughters' coffins being carried through the streets of Wootton Bassett because today's politicians want to be war leaders like Falklands Maggie.
I haven't won the Booker or dated Martin Amis or been offered a six figure sum for a supermarket bestseller, but I have finally achieved literary cool. I have a stalker.
My novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, arouses strong reactions, often before people have even read it. It's a fiction about Myra Hindley, a fact which seems somehow to disturb people, perhaps because they think fiction is simply an act of empathy. People are anxious about reading the book or censorious. They worry about the families of the victims. They worry about their own motives, my motives, my eye makeup. When the fabulous Deborah Orr offered to interview me for the Guardian, one of the trolls on the paper's website commented, '
You only need to look at the woman's eye makeup to understand that you are dealing with a person of dubious taste and sensibility.'
I'm still not entirely sure why an honest look at someone real should be so much more upsetting than the often lurid and sensational fictional works about serial killers that flood the market. But I can only think that a person who phones up a writer and claims to be Jack the Stripper is both misogynistic and in some way titillated by a book that has tried to be objective.
I was in France staying with my brother and his partner when he first phoned. It was 10 o'clock at night and my sister Mary, who took the call, thought he sounded drunk or drugged. When she told him I was away he launched into a rendition of the song, The Stripper. This went on for some minutes before he said he was Jack the Stripper. 'Do you really not know who I am?' he asked, when she ran through some of our male acquaintances.
He called again a few days later and I took the call. The voice was light and excited, with that febrile energy you get from DJs or television presenters. Mercifully he sang only a couple of verses of his theme tune, before saying he was Jack the Stripper and would he come round to perform his act?
The original Jack the Stripper murdered six women in London between 1964 and 1965. Their naked bodies were abandoned in alleyways, in industrial estates or down by the river. Some were stripped of their teeth as well as their clothes, and most were flecked with industrial paint. They had been strangled or choked to death.
My modern Jack seems a less malign character, gleeful and maybe a little high on bravado. 'Do you think you could handle it?' he asked, amused by his own double entendre and unfazed by my polite refusal.
What a curious world we live in, though, where a stranger can insinuate himself into your life and thoughts through technology. My phone number is on my website, for work purposes, so I have only myself to blame for his knowing it.
But he said a 'generous friend' had offered to pay for his services. When I asked who, he said 'Mary and Catherine.' One of my sisters is called Catherine, but the only person who ever calls her that is her son, when he's trying to wind her up. The other Catherine in the family was my mother, but even a capable wee woman like her would be unable to book a stripper's services from beyond the grave.
It's not difficult to see how my friend Jack picked on those names. Even without paying credits any casual searcher can see on the people-finding site, 192.com, that I used to live with a Mary and Catherine. (My sister and I cared for our mother for many years before she died in 2010.) But Jack obviously didn't know any of the feisty, high-powered feminists in my family if he thought they'd consider a display of his anatomy a desirable gift.
I suppose he thought he was being scary, though he was too cheery to quite hit the mark. Most truly frightening people don't really have much sense of humour. But then I got the impression he doesn't read enough to know that, certainly not my book.
And I don't think he gets out much either.
What if Myra Hindley had looked ordinary when she was arrested? Would we feel the same revulsion against her? Would her image have become an iconic symbol of evil if she had looked as she did in later years, a brown-haired woman with a soft body and a warm-looking smile? Throughout her years in prison Hindley had to live with the fact that for most people, she would always be her 1965 police mugshot¾harshly bleached hair; unnaturally black eyebrows; a sullen, sensualist's mouth; insolent eyes not deadened by what they had seen but full of a malevolent force, trying to dominate the viewer.
No wonder she has been hated for nearly fifty years, hated more even than Ian Brady. Women are supposed to be mothers, nurturers, and a woman like Hindley, who flouted these so-called biological imperatives, is viewed as unnatural. As a feminist, I'm supposed to think that her demonisation is a sign of our society's inherent sexism, and no doubt there's some truth in that.
But I'm a woman, and I know what we are. I don't expect women to be just mothers and carers. Their behaviour and desires can be every bit as dark and destructive as men's, their anger just as ferocious. We are not always victims.
Hindley certainly was not. For me, she actually was worse morally than Ian Brady, because she participated willingly in some of the worst crimes we have seen in this country and it wasn't even her own idea. It was Brady whose urges and philosophy drove their 'existential exercise,' as he calls it now, Brady whose longings were skewed and violent. She went along for the ride, but without him she probably would not have committed murder.
Without her he could not. A lone man would have found it much harder to entice children into his car. No doubt he would eventually have found a way, but she was pivotal to his success. Even in those less anxious days, children were taught not to take sweets from strangers, not to go away with someone they didn't know. A sixteen year old like Pauline Reade, all dressed up to go dancing, would never have got into a car with a single man like Brady. Only when her neighbour, Myra Hindley, asked her for a favour, did the kind teenager agree to go with them.
Many people have talked about folie àdeux in connection with Brady and Hindley, but it doesn't seem a very useful label to me. All of the dictionary definitions talk about the shared delusions of a couple in such a relationship, but what were Hindley's delusions? She went along with Brady's Nazi fixation, learning German, listening to tapes of Hitler rallies, carrying a picture of a female concentration camp guard round in her handbag, but then she also ditched her Woman's Own for Wordsworth's Prelude in order to catch her man¾Brady had ignored her up to that point. Women in those days were still following 1950's patterns. They did what they thought their men wanted.
Brady wanted perversion, terror, violence, and Hindley went along with it as she'd have gone along if he'd wanted lace curtains and cocktails. For him the internal pressures were overwhelming and he would undoubtedly have murdered in the end, but Hindley made a choice. After the first murder, when she claimed to be terrified of Brady's violence, she started an affair with a policeman she sold her car to. Not a smart move if you really are afraid of a man. When Brady clicked his fingers and said he wanted to commit another murder, she ditched her lover and came running. She had the perfect get-out, could have confessed to her policeman and probably played the female victim card, but she decided the lure of blood and sex had more pull.
Hindley was a thrill-seeker, addicted to the heightened reality she shared with Brady. She had probably never felt more alive in her life than when they were committing the murders. As a child her father had been violent to her. Now, as an adult, she could revel in the power she and Brady had over life and death. So callous was she about their victims, that she used to stop Pauline Reade's mother in the street and ask if she had any news about her missing daughter.
Narcissistic and aggressive to anyone who crossed her, Hindley probably had a histrionic personality disorder. She craved excitement and emotional drama, sought the approval of others, needed to be the centre of attention, and had a desire for instant gratification. Had she been brought up in a middle class home with theatrical outlets for these personality traits, she might have become an actress or a musician, but the only way to satisfy them in her surroundings was to follow Brady.
David Smith and Maureen Hindley
She followed him into hell, which showed in her face when they took the notorious mugshot. People have often said her eyes were dark and dead in that picture, but it seems to me they show the depths she had come to. Photographs of her sister taken around the same time show the same fashion for bouffant hair and kohl-rimmed eyes, but Maureen looks like a normal young woman. Her eyes do not burn with the intensity of someone who has seen too much, done too much. Her face is not suffused with secret knowledge, does not brim with repressed anger. Myra Hindley chose the wrong path and it is written in every shadow, every hollow, every sharply angled plane of her face.