Saturday 21 November 2015

Review: They All Love Jack

They All Love Jack - Busting the Ripper by Bruce Robinson
Fourth Estate 2015

They All Love Jack
Bruce Robinson - best known as the writer and director of Withnail and I - believes that Michael Maybrick was Jack the Ripper. The question is: why?

Not why did Maybrick do it, but rather: why does Robinson believe it?

I've read enough Jack the Ripper books in my time for me not to expect the cut-and-dried proof of culpability that is so often promised by overoptimistic subtitles along the lines of The Final Chapter, The Final Solution or Case Closed. I'm just looking for a reasonable case to be made, which might lead others to investigate further, perhaps to bolster the case, perhaps to refute it.

To that end, I find a good starting point is to discover why the authors first came up with their initial suspect - why they believe they've finally cracked it. In the case of Paul H. Feldman and others who suspect James Maybrick it's pretty obvious: the discovery of a diary which, if genuine, inescapably suggests James Maybrick was the Ripper. In the case of Patricia Cornwell suspecting Walter Sickert it was because ... er ... someone mentioned to her that he was already a suspect.

Walter Sickert and James Maybrick
Suspects: Walter Sickert and James Maybrick

And so something must have led Bruce Robinson to suspect Michael Maybrick, yet he never mentions what it was. One can only assume that the reason is the obvious one: that Michael's brother James was already a suspect, but since the initial suspicion is such a large part of why an author believes in their case, it really should be shared with the reader. Not to do so seems to be an attempt to portray a false aura of impartiality. Cornwell attempts much the same trick, leaving unmentioned virtually any of the books that had gone before, both those that claim Sickert was the Ripper and those that refute it. Robinson does discuss the diary, but never makes clear if it, or anything else, was his starting point.

But it's not where you start it's where you finish, and Robinson's starting point doesn't much matter if in the end the case against Michael Maybrick is clear. Not iron-clad; simply clear.

The problem is that in all of the 800 plus pages, Robinson doesn't even attempt to make a case against Maybrick. The best I can pull together is this:

1) The Ripper was a Freemason. Michael Maybrick was a Freemason.

Personally, I think there is a case that the Ripper might have been a Mason. It's not strong and there's nothing much here that's not been derived from previous works on the subject, but it's possible. Robinson certainly produces clear evidence that Maybrick was a Mason. But the problem is hardly worth pointing out. Robinson himself spends pages bewailing the fact that British society was riddled with Freemasons. The Ripper connection could point to any one of them. Again the question arises: why Michael? Again there is no answer.

2) Michael Maybrick matches one of the few eyewitness descriptions.

Robinson spends a lot of time discussing how the police either ignored or suppressed the evidence of Matthew Packer, a fruiterer who claimed to have seen a man accompanying Elizabeth Stride shortly before her murder. Given Robinson's belief that the police - particularity Commissioner Sir Charles Warren - were trying to cover up the the true culprit, Packer's testimony takes on additional significance. Sketches were published based on Packer's description, and certainly one of them looks a little bit like Maybrick.

Packer's Suspect
Sketches from the Daily Telegraph 6/10/1888

Michael Maybrick
Michael Maybrick

Evidence at last?

Clearly not - and for the same reason that the masonic link is not evidence: thousands of people could roughly match that sketch. Indeed, a vagrant called John Langan was arrested in Boulogne on the basis of the sketch, and later found to be innocent. Or was it Joe Barnett, Mary Kelly's lover, and for some a Ripper suspect?

Joe Barnett
Joe Barnett

The sketch is so rough it could be any one of 10,0000 men. But the problem for Robinson is more profound than this.

Packer did not just provide a sketch. He watched Stride and the man standing side-by-side for almost half an hour and described the latter as between 30 and 35 years old (younger in some versions of his statement) and of medium height (5'7"). Michael Maybrick was 6'1" and 47 years old at the time of the murders. Packer may or may not be a reliable witness, but whatever testimony he offers, it stands against the idea that Maybrick was the Ripper.

3) The Whitechapel murders cluster around Toynbee Hall.

They certainly do. Toynbee Hall was (and is) a charitable welfare centre at the heart of the East End. At the time of the murders it was often used as a venue for concerts and other entertainments for the local people. Michael Maybrick - by profession a singer and composer - might well have gone there to perform. Indeed Robinson offers much evidence to demonstrate that several of Maybrick's friends and colleagues did visit the hall. And yet he offers no direct evidence that Maybrick himself was ever there. That's not to say that Maybrick was never at Toynbee Hall, but whatever evidence there is would surely point to one of those we know was there - several of whom were Freemasons - than to someone who may or may not have been. And even then, Tonybee Hall is far from being the only building in Whitechapel which the the Ripper might have used as his lair.

4) All the Ripper letters were genuinely written by the murderer AND Michael Maybrick wrote all the Ripper letters.

Clearly if both these propositions are true then it's an open and shut case, but they're both patent nonsense. The Ripper letters came from all over the country - indeed all over the world - and were written in a variety of hands. Most Ripperologists (Robinson doesn't much like Ripperologists, mostly because of their failure to spot what is so obvious to him) regard few or none of them as genuine. That's not to say that some or many of them may be genuine, but you really have to make a case for each one of them - not take on a blanket assumption. Hundreds were received and Robinson treats them all as being sent by the murderer - even those which don't even make that claim themselves and are merely letters about the murders.

From Hell
The 'From Hell' Letter
The evidence that Maybrick wrote the letters is insulting to the reader. The letters came from all parts of the country and Maybrick, in visiting concert venues, travelled across the country. But for all that, Robinson offers only one example of an occasion when Maybrick was in the right city at about the right time to coincide with a letter's posting. This should be a rich source of evidence. Maybrick's concerts were widely advertised in newspapers. One might expect a clear analysis cross-referencing letters with concert venues, but none is given. Whether Robinson shunned this kind of forensic approach, or pursued it and decided not to include the results, I don't know.

Robinson explains the letters from the USA by pointing out that someone could board a ship in a British port (say Liverpool), post a letter in the on-board mailbox and then leave the ship. The letter itself would travel to the States, be franked there and then would come back on the next boat, apparently sent from abroad. It may well be that this could be done, but there are still a few dots to join up in demonstrating that it was done, that it was done by Michael Maybrick (rather than anyone else who happened to be in Liverpool sometimes) and that the author was the Ripper.

As to the handwriting, well as Robinson points out:

Michael Maybrick himself had many styles of handwriting, and used many different pens - his table was 'littered with quill pens', noted the New Era article.

There's no direct evidence to support the idea of multiple handwriting styles - but it's evidently a well-known characteristic of people who have several pens.

Even if you ignore the nonsense of travelling from one side of the country to the other in a single day, and having multiple handwriting styles, the fundamental problem remains. Like all evidence based on the letters, it's a case of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. With hundreds of letters to choose from, you're bound to be able to find clues suggesting almost anybody.


And that's really it for the case against Michael Maybrick. He was a Freemason who looked a bit like one sketch of a possible suspect. The real reason for accusing him is that he's the brother of James Maybrick - who's a much stronger, though still unlikely candidate. The trouble is, James Maybrick has already been 'done'.

Robinson spends the last section of the book looking at the death of James Maybrick and subsequent trial of his widow, Florence, for her husband's murder. His belief is that it was Michael who in fact killed James and then contrived to frame Florence. In comparison with his charge that Michael was the Ripper, Robinson offers better (i.e. some) evidence, but what's new is not good and what's good is not new. The fact that Florence was innocent has been known widely asserted since the time of the trial and has been covered by many. Robinson provides some reasons to believe that Michael was responsible, but it's not close to convincing. And anyway, the book is supposed to be about demonstrating that Michael Maybrick was Jack the Ripper, not that he killed his brother.

Jack the Ripper - The Final Solution
There are a few positives from the book. Robinson makes a clear case for the incompetence of the Metropolitan Police in investigating the crimes, and conveys it with a evident passion, as he does his description of the inequalities of Victorian London. But this is no substitute for logic and accuracy. He bases most of his Freemasonry theory on work already done by Stephen Knight (in Jack the Ripper - The Final Solution) and others, but then misrepresents Knight's position on many important details, claiming that Knight said:

  • The Duke of Clarence1 was the Ripper. No, Knight said the Ripper murders were done by others to cover up Clarence's morganatic marriage. 
  • Annie Crook, Clarence's supposed wife, was a prostitute. No, Knight says she worked in a sweet shop. (I may be being unfair here. Robinson actually describes Crook as a 'whore' and it's hard to know whether this is meant to be taken literally or is just another of the abusive epithets he scatters through the book.)
  • Martha Tabram was a Ripper victim. No, Knight sticks to the canonical five and regards Tabram as being the victim of a different killer.
  • Catherine Eddowes was one of the women who tried to blackmail the establishment over Clarence. No, Knight claims Eddowes had nothing to do with the blackmail and was killed because she was mistaken for Mary Kelly.

All these may be small errors, but they reflect a sloppy attitude to research. If I can spot all these mistakes in the two paragraphs Robinson writes on a subject with which I am familiar, why should I trust his reporting on other matters with which I am less so?


The figure of Clarence and Robinson's habit of flinging abuse at the characters he describes leads on to one of the book's more unsettling, if peripheral aspects. Robinson describes the Duke of Clarence's probable involvement in the Cleveland Street Scandal. Again there's nothing new here - a male brothel on London's Cleveland Street was raided and there was evidence that Clarence had been a client. Homosexuality was illegal at the time, but moreover many of the boys working there were under-age even by today's laws. 

Thus when Robinson describes Clarence as an 'effete little useless pederast' it's possibly true and given the nature of the crime it's difficult to object completely to the level of invective. It's disturbing, however, when his name-calling takes a more generally homophobic turn. Terms such as 'nancy' seem to say more about the writer than the individual described. In discussing Michael Maybrick's motive (that he was gay and therefore - obviously - hated women) Robinson gives us:

I don’t actually know if Maybrick was homosexual, but predicated on that infallible adage, 'If it walks like a duck, etc', he was probably a bit of a ducky.

Aside from the fact that Robinson doesn't 'actually know' very much at all about the case, one can't help feeling that those encounters with Uncle Monty, as told in Withnail and I, left a little bit more of a scar on the memory than we might have imagined.

Uncle Monty
Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty

Admittedly it's somewhat refreshing to read a book on Jack the Ripper that displays an angry contempt for the failures of Victorian jurisprudence rather than mere historical disinterest, but it should cut both ways. Robinson is at perhaps his most passionate when describing two flagrant miscarriages of justice: Florence Maybrick's conviction for the murder of her husband and the case of William Barrett, tried (though acquitted) for the murder of 8-year-old Johnnie Gill in Bradford in December 1888 (where Robinson can be particularly sure of Barrett's innocence since he knows that the Ripper/Maybrick, in a surprising change of modus operandi, was in fact the killer).

Both Florence Maybrick and William Barrett were almost certainly innocent - there was no more than a hint of a prima facie case against them. Robinson is right to berate those who tried to condemn them.

Perhaps though, in the case of Michael Maybrick where Robinson provides not even that much in the way of evidence, he might consider the plank in his own eye first.


1. Prince Albert Victor didn't actually receive the title Duke of Clarence until after the time of the murders, but this is generally how he is referred to.

Monday 13 April 2015

Come and Visit Your Good Friend Sweeney

Review: Sweeney Todd - English National Opera, London Coliseum.

Sweeney Todd
Dontcha hate it when you're enjoying a show, but the rest of the audience are clearly enjoying it more? Or, more accurately, when the rest of the audience are making it clear that they're enjoying it more? Sweeney Todd at the London Coliseum was a good show, but a standing ovation? What are the audience going to do when they see something really great?

I've seen quite a few Sweeney's in my time, both professional and amateur. The best two were probably the version starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton at Chichester in 2011 (later transferred to the Adelphi in London, where I saw it) and The Royal Opera House production of 2003.

Sweeney ToddThe ENO production comes in behind these, but not so very far behind. The most notable feature is that it's 'semi-staged'. This is probably its biggest fault. Sweeney's music and lyrics are among the best of the twentieth century, and stand up easily to concert performance and to recording. On the other hand, the sheer gruesomeness of the razors, the chair, the oven and much more really do lend the story to a full staging. Even the most parsimonious amateur productions try to make some attempt at realism with these aspects.

In being semi-staged, this production fell between the two stools - and worse than that, it opened by deliberately emphasizing the point. Throughout, the entire orchestra is on stage (impressive both visually and aurally) and the show opens with the cast lining up in front of music stands to sing, at which I felt a certain disappointment - but then came the twist. Midway through the opening number, the cast rebel, throw aside their music and stands, kick over some unnecessary set decoration and overturn the unconvincing grand piano to make it into a rostrum as they transform the stage into something more dynamic.

The point seems to be that we don't want this fusty concert staging, we want a full production! I quite agree, but it's a shame that this revolution can only deliver semi-staging. This is Liberal Democrats raging against the Tories, before pusillanimously adding, but let's not go as far as Labour.

That said, some of the staging was very effective. Todd's chair didn't deliver his victims down a chute to the bakehouse; he simply covered their faces with a cloth and let them walk quietly away, which worked fine. I've certainly seen it done worse: an amateur production where victims had to do the 'walking downstairs behind the desk' trick. Ultimately though, the limitations of the staging, particularly in the final scenes, meant that for me the tension did not build quite as well as it usually does.

The big production numbers were generally well choreographed, the best of them being the Act II opener, More Hot Pies, which worked to a climax of Mrs Lovett being lauded by her adoring customers in a style that echoed Marilyn Monroe in Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend.
More Hot Pies

The on-stage orchestra was used to mixed effect. A plus-point was the interaction with violinists and flautists when Todd and Lovett discuss pies made from fiddle and piccolo players. In some instances, the musicians' equipment was used for props. This worked well when conductor's baton was used as a comb, or when one of the double-bassists' stools was used as Todd's preliminary barber's chair.

But the idea got more strained when musical props were used that did not come from the orchestra. A cymbal was used to represent (geddit?) the dish that pies were served on, but (unless I missed it) this was brought on as a prop, rather than taken from the orchestra. And the kettle drum which Lovett uses as a worktop (geddit? - no, hang on, it's a pie shop, not a tea shop) was twice brought on by stage crew, breaking any real connection with the orchestra. Similarly the trombone used to grind the meat (ged... no, don't even bother) was not taken from a trombonist; it was just an extension of the idea of musical instruments, the concept of why they were there having been forgotten.

By definition though, this was never going to be a production that stands or falls on its staging. Musically, it was pretty top-notch. The orchestra and chorus sounded good, and the supporting cast were generally excellent. Jack North's Tobias managed to avoid the straight-out-of-theatre-school precociousness that such a young role can sometimes deliver. Rosalie Craig's Beggar Woman was too young to make any sense in terms of plot, but a difficult role was excellently sung. 

Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel
Emma Thompson as Mrs Lovett and Bryn Terfel were both on top form. Terfel's bass brought a strength and sustain to the music that you don't hear in more musical-theatre voices, and his acting was just right in a part that has to be mostly understated, but of occasional devastating passion. Thompson's voice is a contrast in style, and has a clear break in it that I thought would irritate, but which I quickly got used to. She performed the comedy well, but not as well as much of the audience seemed to think.

The jokes in Sweeney Todd I find much like the jokes in Shakespeare: they're witty rather than funny and you've heard them a dozen times before. They need a lot of clever delivery to make them fresh, and while that was often successful, it can't be done on every line. Maybe I do the audience a disservice in assuming they're all familiar with the show, but even heard for the first time, many of the gags just aren't laugh-out-loud funny. And some of the best are impossible to deliver well. For example, Mrs Lovett's 'That's all very well,' after Todd's devastating rendition of Epiphany is impossible to time because of the thirty seconds of applause that follow the song. And yet it got a big laugh - not a reflex, visceral convulsion at the humour, but a demonstration to the rest of the audience that the joke was got. 

It's worth mentioning some of the cuts that were made. The two acts were 85 minutes and 55 minutes, so there was no real tightness on time, which makes me wonder at the reasoning behind some of it. As is often the case, the tooth pulling section of The Contest (don't think Seinfeld) is cut and having seen it both with and without I can't say I feel too strongly either way. 

More unusually though, all the toing and froing over Pirelli's death has gone. Traditionally he's throttled by Todd, but not quite killed, and dumped in a trunk. Then there's various business with both Lovett and Tobias coming up to look for him, while Pirelli's hand waggles, caught in the lid of the trunk, until Todd finally despatches him with the razor. I'm not sure it ever works that well, and probably would do less so in such a big theatre. But what the scene does do is set up the unpleasant ambiguity of Lovett's relationship with Tobias, fulfilled in the second act where her affection for him is revealed as pure sentimentality. As it is, Tobias simply disappears until the beginning of Act II.

The strangest cut, however, is not to include The Tower of Bray in Parlour Songs. While it's never going to be a hit, it's not long and is particularly haunting as a trio with Tobias below in the bakehouse. (This was attempted with Sweet Polly Plunkett, but wasn't contextualized and didn't work so well musically.) Additionally the dialogue around The Tower of Bray provides for some good jokes: 'LOVETT: How many bells are there? BEADLE: Twelve.' - I might even have laughed at that (though I've achieved as much by telling you that I might have).

In the end, it's about expectations. I love Sweeney and I was very slightly disappointed by a production I'd had high hopes for. Impertinent of me though it may be, I suspect some of the standing ovators were overcompensating for similar disappointment. For a seasoned Todd-follower there was plenty to enjoy and, as there always is, a little to criticize too. For a novice, I'd have to recommend full staging - maybe Thompson and Terfel should give it a go.

Monday 16 March 2015

I Am Not As Other Men

Last year the results of an experiment were published that demonstrated that Americans are irrationally prejudiced against atheists1. Participants were described the life of an evident psychopath who in his youth tortured animals and in later years murdered homeless people. They were then asked if it was more probable that this person grew up to be 1) a teacher, 2) a Christian teacher, 3) a Muslim teacher or 4) an atheist teacher.

The results were that almost half the people surveyed went with an atheist teacher (with lower figures for a Christian teacher and even lower for a Muslim teacher).

The problem is that all those answers are wrong - categorically and unarguably wrong. It must be more probable that the person was a teacher. Given that there are some teachers who are not atheists, it is clearly more likely that the person (that any person) is a teacher of unspecified religion rather than an atheist teacher (or indeed a teacher of any other faith). Even if you hold the strange opinion that all teachers are atheists then options 1) and 4) become equal. It cannot be more probable that the person is an atheist teacher.

It's an example of what is known as the Conjunction Fallacy2, an example of Cognitive Bias3 that occurs in many situations.

In Britain it affects political opinion, as a recent survey reveals.

Now when it comes to economic policy, I reckon I'm a tad to the right of the UK population as a whole - which puts me way to the right of most people I discuss politics with. I should emphasize that this is only with regard to economics - on social policy I'm reliably informed that I have opinions so liberal they make David Cameron feel physically ill4.

That said, I think that I am on the right because of my opinions, not the reverse. I have made no decision that I am right wing and therefore adopted opinions favoured by the right. Indeed, in the past those same opinions have put me slightly to the left of centre.

And as most of us do, I'd always thought that most other people think like me. Not that they come to the same conclusions as me, obviously, but that they base their alignment on their opinions and not vice versa

A YouGov survey conducted last week demonstrates that I was wrong5.

Participants were asked the same question regarding various public services ranging from hospitals to banks. The question was whether the service was best run by the public sector, the private sector or that it doesn't matter as long as standards of service are maintained. 

The answer is no-brainer. It doesn't matter as long as standards are maintained. That's assuming that people actually want good public services, which for the most part I'll take as read. But given that assumption, the answer is just as clear as that the psychopath is more probably a teacher.

Seems I'm in a minority, however. Our survey said:

The immediate conclusion we might draw from these results is that 18% of the population want hospitals run by the private sector, but I see something far more depressing. What we can read from that first line is that 92% of the population do NOT want standards to be maintained in hospitals. Given the choice between standards and observance of political dogma they chose their own flavour of dogma.

Now you might disagree with my interpretation, you might say that what people are saying is that they favour public hospitals because that's the best way to maintain standards. That may be how people are thinking, but if so it's another fine example of the Conjunction Fallacy. Only if you have absolute certainty that your way of doing things is the way that maintains standards do the two options become equivalent. That's a megalomaniacal degree of certainty. And even then, it only makes the two options equal, so the answer should be 'don't know'.

I've tried to think of other explanations. Maybe the participants were just too busy to think about it and defaulted to a dogmatic response? But the problem is that here the pragmatic answer is the easy answer: we want what's best. It's only in the real world that things get difficult, when asking for what's best prompts the difficult follow-up question: and how are we going to achieve that? If people aren't even prepared to think in the easy case, what hope have we in the difficult?

I can't make sense of it, and yet it makes sense of much of my experience of politics. I'd always assumed that people were like me, that even when we disagree on policy our starting point is what is best for the country. But it turns out that that isn't the case - when  asked directly, most people favour dogma.

What's missing from the survey is a more direct, neutral question: Do you favour a) whatever maintains standards or b) an ideological solution. I suspect in that case more would favour option a), but if so it would only tell us that people don't recognize their own opinions as ideological.

There was one further breakdown of the data, however, looking at the tendency to choose the pragmatic option (maintaining standards) broken down by party support:

In all cases but one, Conservatives were more likely to choose the pragmatic option than Labour voters. It's not great news for them - the pragmatists are still a minority - but it still seems to be a significant difference.

Which is odd, since one of the most common accusations thrown by the left is that is that it is the right who are ideologically driven. It seems that if there is a difference, dogmatism is slightly more a feature of the left.

But that's a digression. Being pragmatical doesn't mean that you come up with better policies, but it does at least give you a chance. If you can't even admit that you'd prefer good standards to the implementation of an ideology, what contribution are you really making?

I'll always place myself firmly in that minority cyan block in the middle of the chart. And if, like most people, you don't place yourself there, then what's the prospect of any discussion between us?

UPDATE: For a good general introduction to cognitive biases try this handy guide.