Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ripper tours

In response to my previous post, my Clarion 2004 student Trent Hergenrader writes:
Have you done a Jack the Ripper walking tour in London? A must-do event on the chance that you haven't.

I have, once, and I much enjoyed it. I tagged along one summer day when Judith Clute led Sydney's class on a walking tour of Whitechapel.

Sydney was teaching "Madness, Monsters and Murder," a class on the British Gothic, in the Alabama at Oxford program at Wadham College in summer 2004, so Judith emphasized not only sites associated with the historical murders but sites featured prominently in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic novel From Hell, which was on Sydney's syllabus.

The most notable of the latter was Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church Spitalfields, a place of occult power in both From Hell and two books that greatly influenced it, Iain Sinclair's Lud Heat and Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor. The folks who keep the church going put on their website the least sinister photo of the place I've ever seen, and valiantly remind us through their good works that Christ Church is, after all, a church, albeit one of more architectural interest than most. But in truth, the thing does loom over its surroundings with a sort of geometric Wrongness, and it casts quite a shadow. (Catherine Wright offers a good short appraisal of Hawskmoor that takes the recent occult interest into account.)

An exceedingly interesting thing Judith did was start the tour at its most redeveloped, least Victorian spot -- an unrecognizably paved-over murder site, a few paces from the Whitechapel tube station and street market -- and lead us into progressively more "preserved" areas (which meant, of course, increasingly narrow streets, claustrophobic courts, etc.), so that in effect she led us from 2004 into 1888, and left us there. I admired that deeply.

Trent, I presume you've taken a Ripper tour yourself; tell us about it. I would love, when I'm next in London, to take the tour led by Donald Rumbelow, author of The Complete Jack the Ripper. That came out when I was 11, and was one of the books I checked repeatedly out of the Lexington County Public Library in Batesburg, S.C. My parents never objected, God bless them. (Rumbelow updated his book in 1990 as Jack the Ripper: The Complete Case Book, but I treasure my copy, acquired in adulthood, of the original.)


Charles Schoenfeld said...

Becky and I took Donald Rumbelow's tour on our honeymoon. It was shortly after Patricia Cornwell released her book claiming to have solved the case, and Rumbelow made short work of the book when one of our tour group asked about it.

He was entertaining as well as informative. Here is an excerpt from Becky's recap, which she wrote at the time:

“As we get deeper into the East End,” he explained, “you may see some strange things. In my years of conducting this tour, my tour groups have seen the murders being dramatically reenacted in apartment windows. Once, a naked man appeared at a window, much to his embarrassment and our amusement. And often, the group is approached by what can only be described as very friendly drunks, who don’t think I’m telling the story properly and want to tell you their own version.

“If something does happen, it will most likely happen behind me, since I will be standing here at the head of the group, facing all of you. So, if something is about to happen, I would very much appreciate it if you would warn me.”

At one point, as we were all gathered on a street corner, a taxi pulled up at a red light behind Rumbelow. The cab driver held up a sign that said “He’s a liar.”

Rumbelow turned around just in time to see the sign before the light turned green and the cabbie drove off.

“That’s all right,” Rumbelow said. “After eight o’clock, he’s a robber.”

Trent said...

Hey Charles! You're not Trent!

Amy and I did the Rumbelow tour as well, in late October of 1996 when she was studying in London for the semester. 'Twas a bit chilly, damp, and suitably misty, and night fell early that time of year.

As Charles says, and you could probably guess, Rumbelow is quite the showman. I believe he said almost the exact same thing to begin our tour--which I never would have been able to dig up from my own memory but recognized it instantly. My favorite bit of the tour was after we'd been walking and chatting awhile, he stopped under a streetlight, asked a young lady for her hand. He raised it above her head and said, "This lovely woman is standing in the exact spot where Jack the Ripper's first victim was found." I can still remember the group's collective shudder.

We bought his book at the end of the tour (who didn't?--brilliant marketing) and years later Amy lent the book to her brother, who has yet to return it. It's still a cause for consternation to this day.