To hell and back

August 24, 2007

As plans are unveiled for a major exhibition on Jack the Ripper, Clive Bloom considers the enduring cultural and scholarly fascination with both the killer and his East End hunting ground

There was only one Wacko Jacko in the 19th century - Jack the Ripper. There was also Spring-Heeled Jack and other penny-dreadful baddies, all Jack the Ripper wannabes, but none had the sheer wicked panache of everybody's favourite East End psychopath, big daddy of Norman Bates and Freddy Kruger and all the slasher movie monsters ever created - the one who got away.

From Mrs Belloc Lowndes' novel The Lodger (1911) to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell (1999), Jack has appeared in more books, graphic novels and films than you can shake a surgeon's scalpel at. Peter O'Toole and Johnny Depp have both had a go at the story. Batman was "created" by him in Gotham by Gaslight ; he makes cameo appearances in both Gilda O'Neill's My East End (1999) and Whitechapel Mary in 2001, a "ripping yarn" by Sally Worboyes; he's a song by Morrissey and a group in Japan.

For years, prurient interest in him irritated feminists so much that they fought to get the Jack the Ripper pub in Commercial Street to change its name back to the Ten Bells. It did so, but only to become a pole-dancing establishment.

There are countless factual works desperately trying to give him a name and a face. He is a Jewish slaughterman, a mad gynaecologist, a painter, a Russian revolutionary with an exact double, a mason, a black magician and a loony midwife (perhaps even a woman). He's your worst nightmare and a cosy Sunday afternoon thrill.

Well, Jackie's back in town with two new books and a major exhibition at the Museum in Docklands in March 2008. Agreements have been reached with the National Archives and the London Metropolitan Archives that will allow all the key surviving material to be exhibited. The exhibition will again explore the significance of those grisly murders back in 1888, emphasising Jack's longevity in cultural memory and his modernity (he was the first international "celebrity" created by the media, as famous in New York and Paris as in London).

With an evocative hansom cab parked outside to welcome visitors, the show should be the must-see exhibition next spring, expected to bring record numbers to the Canary Wharf venue - and its "East End-centric" emphasis should get the sort of intense media coverage usually reserved for more famous galleries. Indeed, Tate Modern paved the way for this type of show with its hugely successful Gothic exhibition in 2005, thereby reviving interest in the subject. This one is sure to do the same.

Among the highlights are the photographs of the five victims generally acknowledged to have been murdered by the Ripper, the original detectives' reports, The Minotaur by G. F. Watts (a painting that reflects metaphorically on the corruption of Victorian life), previously unseen photographs of the people of the East End in the 1880s, oral recordings of the residents of Flower and Dean Street as well as various more exotic and scary items, including the famous "Dear Boss" letter of September 25 sent to the Central News Agency and signed "Jack the Ripper". Do not, however, expect pea-souper fog effects - there was no fog in September 1888.

This, surprisingly, will be the first major museum exhibition on the murders and their perpetrator. It will be accompanied by a book, edited by Peter Ackroyd, that features essays by a number of historians and cultural experts hoping to put old Jack in his rightful social, cultural and demographic setting. For those who do not care for the words, it will also be the most lavishly illustrated book on the subject yet, incorporating discussion of the mythic images that make the subject so horribly seductive.

If you can't wait for some "Ripperology", there is always the excellent Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History , edited by Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis (Manchester University Press), which includes essays on the historical, cultural and media context of the murders and reveals the continued interest in the subject among academics. It is to be hoped that the exhibition and books will advance the debate and allow a re-evaluation of London's East End heritage, at once looking back to the 19th century and forward to the Olympics in the 21st.

The middle classes have always enjoyed slumming it among the poor of the East End. There were William and Catherine Booth, the tambourines and temperance of the Salvation Army, whose best efforts to convert the populace were met by mocking "skeleton armies" of beer drinkers and urchins. Charles Booth, armed with his coloured pencils and protected by a burly policeman, crept about making maps of poverty; Dr Barnardo saved ragged kids and sent them to the suburbs, while Lenin and Krupskaya embarked on open-topped bus tours of the masses. In the 1920s, charabancs cruised Limehouse in search of opium dens and a bit of Chinese how's-yer-father following the publication of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu tales. The middle classes simply cannot keep away and, in such a cacophony, the voice of the real East Ender is often drowned out.

With the election of George Galloway to Bethnal Green and Bow, the liberal elite finally triumphed over the poor. Gorgeous George, cigar-smoking and sharply dressed, the epitome of those for whom the East End is a "good cause"; the inheritor of a history that links the Jewish Bund to the Anti-Nazi League. The apotheosis of the self-made "flash" of the 19th century, Galloway combines the devil-may-care attitude of the flâneur with the vulgarity of the traditional East End demagogue. The East End has long been a special sociological "case" and Jack the Ripper a sort of "key" to its mysteries. The only trusted East End intellectuals are those who espouse a "cause". Then they become the authentic voice of the oppressed.

Yet actual working-class and lower- middle-class academics from the East of London (the East End borders Essex, remember) have always borne the stigma of their origins. On the whole, working-class intellectuals do less well in academia, are disparaged for their publications and rise to senior positions only with difficulty. It appears working-class intellectuals are still fair game.

Like Gilbert and Sullivan's own Lord High Executioner, Jack the Ripper is a "true philanthropist", "carving up" the East End for new researchers. Each generation seems to see what it wants, often reinforcing the very prejudices it thought it was challenging. Everybody's favourite suspect (without real evidence) remains Sir William Gull - a poor lad with the temerity to rise to the post of royal physician. He came from Essex.

Clive Bloom is emeritus professor at Middlesex University. His Terror Within: The Dream of a British Republic was published in June by Sutton, £20.

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