“A rain of blood has blinded my eyes …
We are soiled by a filth that we cannot clean,
United to supernatural vermin.”
—T.S. Eliot, “Murder in the Cathedral”
“Art is what you can get away with.”
Who currently reads Pamela Hansford Johnson, or even recognizes her name? Yet once she ranked among Britain’s 10 favorite living novelists. Born in 1912, she produced between 1935 and 1963 bestseller after bestseller, including The Unspeakable Skipton; This Bed Thy Center; Too Dear For My Possessing; and Night and Silence, Who Is Here? (Clearly she had a knack for memorable titles.) Broadly speaking, she appealed to that audience which also gravitated toward authors better remembered these days: Anthony Powell, Nancy Mitford, Barbara Pym, and C.P. Snow—who became her second husband and, eventually, Lord Snow. All were grunge-free zones; all purveyed not-quite-satirical but sharp-witted narratives of genteel malice. Then, after 1967, the progress of Miss Johnson’s career went somehow, as billiards players would say, out-of-true.
In that year she issued a monograph called On Iniquity. There she did something almost too frightful, too dishonorable, and too loathsome for words. She postulated—and this amid Swinging London, forsooth—three unfashionable theses. First, that a nation’s entire mass culture could become morally toxic without any blackshirts or commissars smashing skulls, without even Madison Avenue washing brains. Second, that the British mass culture of 1967 bore unarguable signs of such toxicity. Third, and most appalling of all: she dared imply that in extreme circumstances a case conceivably existed for censorship, whether applied to the pornography of libidinous appetite, or to the more menacing pornography of violence.
Hers was not a Dwight Macdonald-style philippic against dumbing-down. There is almost no doctrine in her book at all. No party-political program is advocated (albeit Lord Snow served in Harold Wilson’s first cabinet). Nor does On Iniquity invoke any religion, other than rare and mildly approving references to the Christian creed, and an implied endorsement of Orwell’s maxim that “bourgeois morality” means no more than “common decency.” Johnson gave her readers a sequence of pensées, in which the flow remains logical but unpredictable.
Desensitization: that is her specific nightmare, on every page. She probably never encountered Saint-Saëns’s warning: “Why cannot we understand that in art, there are some things to which we must not accustom ourselves?” But repeatedly she asks, in different language, Saint-Saëns’s question. A few excerpts might convey the volume’s flavor.
At one point, she quotes a young Englishman whose employment had forced on him frequent visits to Hitler’s Nuremberg before Kristallnacht—in other words, when Jews were being spat on, derided, dismissed from workplaces, and thrashed, but seldom actually killed. This is what the youth told her:
The first time [when he saw thugs tormenting Jews] it was such a shock, I felt so sick, that I simply took to my heels. … The second occasion I felt it was my duty to see just what was going on, so I stopped just for a minute. I felt as sick as ever, and did so the third time I tried to watch.
On the fourth I stood in that jeering crowd for quite a while. It seemed awful, but not quite so awful as before, almost as if it were a play. … I was in serious danger of becoming acclimatized, to feel all this was a part of life, the way things happened. And then I took to my heels for the second time, and I went back to England as soon as I could get my bags packed.
Johnson’s gloss on the above: “For the second time he took to his heels. For many of us, there might be no second chance to run. I wish I had not forgotten his name, because I shall never forget what he said.”
Earlier comes Johnson on Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov:
Novelists are conceited people; they tend to believe there is no mind into which they cannot imagine themselves … [Dostoyevsky] has such demonic projective force that we tend to swallow whatever he tells us. He believes in the ultimate triumph of repentance in the murderer, that he must come to hate what he has done. … [Yet] I believe very few of the guards in the concentration camps were true sadists: what had disappeared in them was the capacity to think of those they tortured as human beings at all. The prisoners were animals; they didn’t have the same feelings as ourselves. There have been far more horrors committed in our time by the affectless than by the pathologically cruel.
Near the end occurs a discourse on what the progressive will usually die rather than admit: the sheer financial greed of so many voyeurs and their pimps, for all their squeals about “liberation,” Getting In Touch With My Feelings, and so forth. “One of the oddities of the entire situation,” she avers, “is that, in becoming so un-prudish about sex, we have suddenly become extravagantly prudish about money.” (Katherine Anne Porter, in an overdue Damascene conversion to taste, admitted in 1960 that she and her fellow anti-censorship lobbyists had “championed recklessly the most awful wormy little books we none of us would have given shelf room … [to gratify] a low cynic cashing in.”)
But it might be asked: why should Johnson’s thoughts have been pointed on such lines in the first place? Because of what she says at the outset: “I was asked by the Sunday Telegraph to spend a day or so at the Moors Trial and write of my impressions.”
To anybody within the former British Empire—as well as in Britain itself—who remembers the mid-1960s, the words “Moors Murders,” “Myra Hindley,” and “Ian Brady” have not forfeited one iota of their power to induce revulsion. The cause for this revulsion may be tersely, and in bowdlerized manner, recounted.
Hindley and Brady, well before they took to slaying youngsters, were already whining, rutting, race-baiting, animal-slaughtering trailer-trash. Brady possessed highbrow pretensions of an incoherently National Socialist kind. In their folie à deux they kidnapped and killed five persons—the eldest 17 years old, the youngest 10—with numerous refinements of erotic cruelty. Arrested and tried in 1966 for only three murders (the relevant victims’ names were Lesley-Ann Downey, Edward Evans, and John Kilbride), the pair took till 1985 to admit to the other two. In the dock, they waged demarcation disputes over who did what, but they never simulated either lunacy or guiltlessness. A few years beforehand, the scaffold would have awaited them, but in 1965 Harold Wilson’s government jettisoned capital punishment. So the judge handed down life sentences. Then the fun really started.
Hindley got religion. You might think that a quintuple infanticide who insists that the Holy Spirit descended on her in Her Majesty’s Prison, Holloway, and converted her to the Catholic faith would have been unable to convince a bong-toting kindergartener. Sadly, you would be wrong. Not one but two adult media panjandrums frantically backed her cause. These men were no Émile Zolas passionately committed to proving Captain Dreyfus’s innocence. They knew Hindley had done everything for which she had been convicted. And still they wanted her released.
Panjandrum #1 was Lord Longford, the airheaded spouse of brilliant historian Elizabeth Longford. Few associated this egotistic earl, pre-Hindley, with anything much except his heavy-breathing reverence toward JFK and an unexpected distaste for homosexuals. For Longford, the “save Myra Hindley” crusade just lay waiting. There are Longfords in every neighborhood: when they do not gush over peroxide-haired child-killers, they solemnly announce that the moon landings and 9/11 were faked, that the pope sends them secret messages through their dental fillings, and that the European Union is controlled by giant subterranean lizards. Today they proclaim these dogmas in upper-case emails to absolute strangers and are usually thwarted by the anti-spam button.
Panjandrum #2 was wholly different: Bernard Levin, a bellicose columnist with considerable anti-Soviet courage, with adolescent glee in others’ sufferings, with a reputed tendency to lionize Wagner even when under general anesthetic, and with the most boorish prose idiom since Theodore Dreiser last vomited alphabet soup.
In 1977 Levin needed a new heroine and found one: Hindley. He accused those who decried a possible Hindley pardon of being actuated purely by vengeance: “The inevitable fury,” Levin complained, “is, of course, based on the theory of punishment that is supposed to have no place in our system, to wit the retributive. Myra Hindley did terrible things to children; therefore, runs the instant but unreasoning answer, she must rot in jail for the rest of her life.’”
Clive James, with children of his own—Levin had no offspring, though two long-term concubines—responded:
The whole article takes the same high tone of judicial detachment. He sounds like Solomon, Cato the Elder and Oliver Wendell Holmes all rolled into one. Levin likes nothing better than to hand down a ruling. But although it is probably true that the majority of the public would be furious if Myra Hindley were released, it is unlikely that their desire to keep her locked up has anything to do with revenge. They just don’t want her to do it again. … This might seem an elementary point to make, but when you are dealing with Levin’s high-and-mighty treatment of world politics you are forced to make elementary points all the time.
Successive British governments—Old Labour, New Labour, or notionally Conservative—sided against Levin and with James. Levin’s beatific vision of England’s green and pleasant land rendered even more pleasant by a liberated Hindley’s mischievous frolicking remained at the utopia stage.
Canada scrapped the death penalty in 1976, Australia in 1984. No Scandinavian realm has carried the penalty out since Denmark shot its last war criminals in 1950. The results, not least on the characteristic televised British crime bulletin, confirm Lord Melbourne’s lament: “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.” When capital-punishment abolitionists get their way, the very nature of bloodbaths, not merely the rate of them, changes.
Number of rampages in Britain, Canada, Australia, and Norway when executioners still had jobs and almost every household still had firearms: zilch. Rampages in these lands after abolition: here we go.
Fifteen people murdered within minutes at Hungerford, Berkshire, in August 1987 by a gunman whose victims included his own mother. Fourteen female students murdered on a Montreal campus in December 1989. Sixteen children butchered at Dunblane, Scotland, in March 1996 by a pedophile. Thirty-five tourists eliminated at Port Arthur, Tasmania, in April 1996. Twelve wiped out in a brief killing spree at Cumbria, England, in June 2010. (Um, about those post-Dunblane gun-confiscation laws…) And latterly, of course, Anders Breivik’s spree in July 2011, leaving 77 corpses. The only reason Oslo lawyers disseminate the consummate lie of Breivik’s psychosis is the pitiable hope that a certified maniac might endure slightly more inconvenience than the 21 years’ taxpayer-funded lodging which forms the maximum possible chastisement for Norway’s sane.
The rest is almost silence. Hindley died, still a prisoner, in 2002. Twenty morticians refused to cremate her before the 21st consented. Brady survives to this hour, having improbably found—to quote Hannah Arendt on Eichmann—some members of the human race willing to share the earth with him. Longford passed away in 2001. Three years later Levin succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Any syllable of Hindley-related remorse that either Longford or Levin voiced has not been documented.
Of the foregoing horrors Pamela Hansford Johnson knew, thankfully, zero. Her death in 1981 occurred at a time when British public culture retained a certain civility. David Cameron’s England—that militaristic porno-despotism tempered by Sharia, where Fourth Estate “freedom” amounts in practice to the choice between Julius Streicher and Jacques Hébert—remained, in 1981, unsuspected. Yet On Iniquity hints that Johnson might have guessed, in some cloudy witching-hour, at what her grandchildren would experience.
One more incident must yet be mentioned. The Brady-Hindley courtroom heard something that scorched the most blasé correspondents’ souls. What was that something? A reel-to-reel tape (innately exotic: few Britons in 1966 owned tape-recorders at all, and cassettes constituted a still more bizarre novelty) on which the Moors Murderers had recorded Lesley-Ann Downey’s screams and sobs for help while they tortured her to death. Their tape lasted 13 minutes.
The other day, a middle-aged author abruptly recollected, from his distant boyhood in rural New South Wales—and despite vigilant parental censorship—a tabloid announcement of that tape. On the very same day there came to him the news that Batman’s Joker had arrived at a cinema in Colorado. Which even now (blessed be the name of the Lord) consoles its bereaved by sanctioning, for the Joker, lethal injection.
And suddenly, ashamedly, that author could no longer staunch his tears. He wrote, for better or for worse, the essay you have just read.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.