Yorkshire's Ripper

I never knew him; his life never ruined mine. Yet the news of his death is a small sharp stone eased out from the sole of a worn shoe, that I hadn't realised was there. In my first novel, The Geometry of Love, I wrote about Sheffield in the early 80s: the clubs, New Romantics, Northern Soulers, Anti-Maggie demos; Peace Gardens and Miner's protests. Yet those wild girls, walking home on their own at night, looked over their shoulders. As the bus pulled away, every shadow was the man who killed women. He was my mother's bogie-man.

My friend lived near Endcliffe Park - it was behind her school that he was finally caught - and, when I crossed the park late at night, we'd defy him together: I'd run as fast as I could across the black space and we'd call to each other as loudly as we could. When I got to the other side, I'd punch air and shout - then she knew I was safe.

Sometimes I imagined he might pick me, but with the naivety of a teenage girl, I'd be the one to get away; I'd be the one to provide evidence to put him away. Yet there was a strange shame there too. A Northern shame ... we were always famous for undesirable things. If we were on the 6 O'Clock News from London at all, it would be some spoil pit, riot, dole queue or someone in a headscarf "gettin there 'air off" to camera. The fact that the Ripper was killing us and our police couldn't catch him made us ashamed.

Two novels later and I've just finished writing about Wales in the 1750s - where you could be hung for stealing a ram or dragged behind a cart, topless, and whipped in public for being a vagrant. I've fought hard all my life to keep faith with an anti-capital punishment stance, but it isn't easy. Until I'd heard that he died today, I hadn't even realised that he'd been festering there all these years. Far easier for the victims' families - the lancing purge of a short rope hanging from a high tree.

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