The London Magazine | February/March 2020
Burn prods those turds. Eats them, to see how they taste. He wants to know how they got there.
It will have come as no small amusement to Burn that these floods took place in Gloucester, site of 25 Cromwell Street, the ‘House of Horrors’ where Fred and Rose West commit their horrendous crimes. In Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, Bingley and its environs, in spite of everything, retain a hardy air of civic respectability. In Happy Like Murderers, his book on the Wests, the whole of Gloucestershire feels compromised. Herefordshire too. The caravan parks. The rough pubs where Fred West shows pornographic photos of inside Rose to anyone who will look. The wanton incest – father-daughter, father-son, mother-son – of his home village of Much Marcle, where he buries decapitated and dismembered remains. The squalid streets between Gloucester Park and the site of the former Sir Thomas Rich’s School, teeming with addicts, runaways, deviants, the flotsam of permissiveness.
In contrast to the cool detachment of Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, a tone of moral outrage enters the text, about the couple’s ‘corruption and human cruelty almost beyond imagining’. He restates their crimes, as if shaking his head. Amid the Wests’ unutterable world of duct tape and hacksaws, you sense Burn’s attachment to the surrounding communities. The elderly West Indians in the Seventh-Day Adventists’ Church next door. The makeshift camaraderie of loud building sites with their private codes of visual signals and jokes. The rural-bred anti-authoritarian tradition – jerrybuilt sheds, jobs on the side, perks made from scraps on factory time – that Fred West takes to its monstrous conclusion: these perks on the side are contraptions of sexual torture; avoidance of ‘the man’ means getting away with decades of murder and child abuse. An evil parody of local ways. You feel Burn’s anger that the Wests have perverted this land, debased it. Fred West works on building sites, on the construction of the M5: he corrupts the very soil.
Burn died much too early. You wonder what he would have done, say, with Raoul Moat; with Jade Goody, who he was researching when he died; with Jimmy Savile, who pops up, eerily, in both Born Yesterday and Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son. You wonder how he would have engaged with social media, already making its presence felt in Born Yesterday but now many times multiplied. So consistent and durable are