Walter Sickert and Jack the Ripper

Walter Sickert’s name has often been linked with that of Britain’s most infamous serial killer – most recently by the efforts of Patricia Cornwell – but the only definitive link between the two is this painting, completed in 1907, called Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom. It was inspired by a room Sickert was lodging in, as his landlady at that time believed that a previous occupant was guilty of the crimes, although this has never been substantiated and the lodger’s identity remains unknown. It’s a suitably dark, gloomy room so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find there was some truth in the idea.

It has to be said, though, that at this time Sickert was going through a phase of painting scenes linked with murders. Another contemporaneous work was the Camden Town Murders, finished in 1908, which shows a couple in a bedroom – she is naked in bed and he is fully clothed and sitting on the edge of the bed. It is unclear from my viewing whether they are killers or victims – or one of each. The painting’s alternative title, “What Shall We Do For The Rent?” doesn’t offer any clues either.

It is generally considered that the idea Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper is a conspiracy theory based in a fanciful story that first became public in the mid-1970s. It is unfortunate that someone of Patricia Cornwell’s standing and intelligence feels that there is a foundation to this idea; particularly when it is not really substantiated by many other Ripperologists (for want of a better word). For my part, I’m merely happy that the Ripper is dead, which is about the only thing we can say about him with any certainty.


Jon’s World – Philip K Dick

Time is one of those things that any science fiction writer worth their warp drive has to deal with sooner or later and, like reality and memory, is a concept that Philip Dick had a great deal of fun with. This story is a lovely example of why time travel is an inherently bad idea, but given a little spice with suggestions that mental illness may not be what we necessarily think it is.

Jon’s father, Ryan, has built a time machine with the intention of going back in time to steal the plans for an AI which, in their world, was used as a weapon and essentially turned Earth into a nuked out wasteland with small habitable patches. This actually reminded me a lot of MegaCity One from Judge Dredd if I’m honest. However, it is noted very early in the story that Jon is mentally ill, suffering from realistic hallucinations of an idyllic, agrarian culture – which in turn reminded me of Ancient Greece for some reason. Ryan goes back in time and achieves his mission, but makes a crucial mistake by killing someone who wasn’t meant to die…

Alternate history, where one crucial event in the past did or didn’t happen and thereby creating a different reality, is an entire science fiction subculture of its own. Some of it is very good and some of it – well, unreadable is about the best thing I can say. Dick’s treatment of it in this story is very cleverly done and very enjoyable, even if it’s not remotely subtle and you can spot the end half a mile away. It’s sad in places, exciting in others and not badly written. I found reminders of lots of things I’ve read/watched in the past, which just goes to show how influential Philip Dick’s ideas have been over the years.

Beyond The Door

I have a vague memory of my grandmother having a cuckoo clock – not a big one, mind, but loud enough when it worked – and it is a cuckoo clock that is the central feature of this story. You could argue that it’s rather more horror than science fiction, but that very argument could also be levelled against quite a lot of John Wyndham’s writing – and even The Birds, come to think of it – so I prefer to call it Hitchcockian. It’s normal to look at, but there’s nothing normal about it really.

The plot is incredibly simple. Unpleasant man buys his wife a much-wanted cuckoo clock. Wife is having an affair with an antique-loving neighbour, and is caught by her husband showing the neighbour the clock, which has always worked well. Husband throws her out but keeps the clock, which never works again. Husband then dies in highly suspicious circumstances.

You know how it’s going to be portrayed, but because Larry, the husband, is such an unlikeable person the reader is actually quite pleased that he dies at the end. Suffice to say, I’m now quite pleased that my grandmother’s old cuckoo clock never really worked properly.

The Cookie Lady

I’ve had two volumes of Philip K Dick’s short stories gathering dust on my shelves for far too long, so as I was in the mood for a bit of reality bending, I picked one up for a read on the train. I have to say that it was one of my better decisions, as almost immediately I remembered all the reasons why I love Philip K Dick’s short stories.

This story starts volume 2 of The Collected Stories (I own volumes 2 and 5) and, like a few of his tales, is set in what I can best describe as 1950s suburban America. There’s a rickety old house at the end of the street, children pass it on their way to school and nobody thinks anything of going to a little old lady’s house and eating the cookies she bakes for them every day…

Of course, it wouldn’t be Philip K Dick without that little mindwarp at the end, and to say any more would give the game away really, but it is a very clever variation on the vampire theme that I really enjoyed. What struck me, though, was the complete and absolute lack of malice; selfishness, yes, but not malice. Admittedly, there’s not enough of the story to merit turning it into a film (unlike two of the stories in the collection which have been) but if there is another series of Electric Dreams, then I think this could be a candidate for an episode.

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

I have an awful confession to make. I’ve never seen either of the two film versions of this story (both called Total Recall; one starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, the other starring Colin Farrell in that role), but I have read the story a number of times and know it quite well. So my comments here are based on the story, not on the films and if they differ in any way, as far as I’m concerned that’s to their detriment.

Doug Quaid is a clerk who wants to go to Mars. He doesn’t just want to go – he really, absolutely, has to go. He doesn’t know why, but he has this feeling that Mars is the place for him. I know how he feels, I’m like that with Transylvania. Anyway, there is absolutely no chance he will physically gets there, so he pays a commercial company to implant fake memories of a trip to Mars that, to all intents and purposes, will appear completely real to anyone who questions it. It’s just that there’s a small problem…

I love this story, and I particularly like the delicious twist at the end. Knowing my luck, I’ll get to Transylvania and find out that I had been there in a previous life and that’s why I’ve always wanted to go back. The nature of reality and the nature of memory are two things that Philip Dick plays with a lot in his fiction and this is a great example of just how nebulous these things really are. I can see how Hollywood would have tweaked it to get a feature film out of it, but I much prefer the little dramas played out in the story.

Lost In A Pyramid

One of the best vampire short stories I’ve read recently has to be Lost in a Pyramid, not least because it’s a really interesting take on the genre, but also because it proved revelatory when I considered the last work by this author. It’s written by Louisa May Alcott, best known for that saccharine take on sisterhood in Civil War America, Little Women. I always wanted to be Jo, mainly because she was the only one who seemed to have any personality.

Anyway, back to the subject in hand. Lost in a Pyramid is, in my mind, two stories in one; the first half details the expedition to Ancient Egypt and the latter half details events following what they found. To say any more is to give it away, but it really isn’t what you think it is and I thought it was really very clever. More to the point, it was nothing like Little Women, which I found amazing!

I don’t know if Alcott wrote any more horror fiction (I suppose this does count as horror, as it’s quite creepy in places) but if she did, it really does deserve to be better known. I found this in my copy of Dracula’s Brethren, a recently released paperback featuring a number of late Victorian and early 20th century vampire stories which I really do recommend.

Where Are All the Women?

When one is reading a novel as short as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – I think, in fact, it is really only a novella – it is very hard to find something that hasn’t been discussed before. And when the novel is as well-known as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it’s well-nigh impossible. If you’ve read anything like this before (and probably done better) I apologise, because I’m carrying on regardless.

If you’ve read it recently – and this is only the book I’m discussing, as the films are completely different – you may have been struck by the distinct lack of female characters. Such women as there are in the book are mere sketches, rarely mentioned and never named. Given that even a minor male servant who appears only at the book’s climax is named as Bradshaw, it’s startling that the crucial witness to the murder of Sir Danvers Carew is simply known as “Maid”. None of the characters appear to be married or have any kind of “love interest” – it’s as if women simply don’t exist.

Some commentators have suggested that this is due to Stevenson’s latent homosexuality, but I’m less sure. I think, if I’m going to be honest, that women simply didn’t feature in the story he wanted to tell – it was late Victorian men doing things that late Victorian men did, and the fact that none of them was married was incidental. It could have been explained by Enfield, Utterson and Lanyon all being elderly and Jekyll himself being too absorbed in his experiments, but I’m disinclined to read much more than that into it.

Still, it would have been nice if the eye witness had a name.

Edward Hyde as Addiction

I have to concede that this realisation hit me like a slap in the face. Edward Hyde is the representation of Henry Jekyll’s addiction – to what, is anyone’s guess – and all the clues are in the text. If we assume that Jekyll is addicted to laudanum, let me illustrate my point.

Early in the novel, Utterson is invited to dinner with Jekyll and contrives to stay behind to discuss Utterson’s distaste for Hyde. Jekyll replies that “he can be rid of Hyde at any time”. Anyone who has tried to give up smoking or drinking (or eating) will tell you that they can stop at any time – they just don’t. And so it proves with Jekyll, the temptation to concoct the potion and get away with murder is simply too strong.

Later on – in fact, during Jekyll’s confession – it becomes apparent that Hyde is appearing without the need for the potion, and Jekyll has to go to some lengths to hide his transformation. He describes the oncoming transformation as an “urge” or a “craving” – something any addict would understand immediately. And having to hide Hyde (sorry, but that was going to happen sooner or later, so I got it out of the way now) is just the next stage in the denial process – I don’t have a drink problem, but I keep a spare bottle of gin in the dog basket for emergencies, that kind of thing.

As far as I can tell, Edward Hyde is addiction personified. The only question, which despite three readings I still can’t happily answer, is what Jekyll is addicted to. But all the clues are there if you don’t believe me.

Mithina’s Sad Tale

It’s an interesting contrast, given what I’ve recently learned about Dido Belle, to consider the story surrounding the sitter of this small watercolour by Thomas Bock. This is Mithina, an indigenous Australian from Tasmania and was about eight years old at the time of this portrait.

If she seems rather well dressed for 1842, it may be because she had been “adopted” by Sir John and Lady Franklin, the governor of the province at that time, although they took pains to crop her hair and force her to wear shoes, which hurt her feet. However, here the comparisons with Dido fall away; Dido was given an income, her freedom and was able to dress well, even if she could not mix in polite society. Mithina was, to all intents and purposes, abandoned at the nearest orphanage when the Franklins returned to England and was dead before her eighteenth birthday.

As a convict artist, Bock almost certainly had some sympathy with the indigenous population, driven out of their ancestral lands by white colonists and convicts alike. He painted a series of portraits of various native peoples, treating them with the same respect a society painter would have painted the Franklins.

For me, though, the story behind Mithina’s little portrait is heartbreaking. She wasn’t treated as a person – she was a novelty, an object, fit only to be left behind with the unwanted furniture. This is the legacy of colonialism throughout the world and it’s appallingly sad. It does make you realise how fortunate Dido was, even if she remained a second class citizen herself.

Variations on a Gimlet

Before I get carried away on the many variations of this classic gin cocktail, it might be a good idea to ascertain firstly what a gimlet is. A gimlet is a cocktail of gin, and lime cordial over ice – and the variations come in the proportions of gin and lime (the ice is just to top up the glass). Amazingly, such a simple change can produce vastly different flavours, so this was an experiment I was quite looking forward to.

Because I can’t do a blog about a cocktail without having drunk it, can I?

First of all, there is the classic gimlet. This is equal proportions (one shot glass each in my case) of gin and lime cordial, shaken with ice and poured into a glass – or in my case, a 330ml beaker. If it reminded me of anything it was the old fashioned lime fizz boiled sweet, and was certainly not unpleasant. If it hadn’t been the fact that I was doing a taste test, I’d have stopped there and poured myself another.

The first variation is two parts gin to one part lime cordial. I was surprised at just how sweet this was; you get a very definite hit of lime which goes really well with the sharpness of the gin. I rather like this one as well, if I’m honest. But then again, the gimlet contains two of my favourite things, so I’m on a winner whatever happens.

Variation Two is three parts gin to one part lime cordial and is probably the closest thing to perfection I can think of that doesn’t include either sprouts or beetroot (my other two favourite things). The balance between sharp gin and sweet lime is spot on. Lengthened with a fair bit of soda water and this could be the perfect summer drink. Better than Pimms, anyway.

Variation Three is four parts gin to one part lime cordial. Essentially a lime martini, this is just when you need to disguise the fact that you’re an alcoholic. Very, very dry.

I think there may have been another version, but I couldn’t entirely swear to that, as by this time I was finding the whole experience far too enjoyable and had to go and have a lie down afterwards. If you are going to recreate this tasting test for yourself, please do so responsibly, don’t drink the entire cocktail unless you don’t have to get up in the morning and please try and remember which one is which so you can let me know what you thought.