I am astonished that it’s been almost two entire years since I have posted here. It feels very strange that an amount of time like that can go past without noticing, when a PhD itself is such a short chunk of a life (but such a LONG slog of a task as well). The passage of time during the thesis-writing process often feels like that of Green Wing, always speeding up and slowing down, glitching and looping, erasing parts of itself and repeating others in a way that is satisfyingly hauntological to write about and disconcerting in the extreme at times to experience.
In the time that’s elapsed half a PhD lifetime has passed. From being a second year, sitting on every committee I could find (mostly in order to avoid feelings of isolation, if I’m brutally honest), run ragged — but, also, having fun collaborating and engaging with colleagues and organising events, and working on my film and tv chapter and the quasi-comic, psychosexual, excess grotesquerie of embodied performances of toxic masculinity — to a sage (and/or haggard) old 4th year eking out the last months of their writing up year like some imaginary medieval saint scratching away in a cell. Since then, amongst other things, I have written a book chapter about the Gothic aspects of Maxine Peake’s Northern star persona (in David Forrest and Beth Johnson’s forthcoming edited collection Social Class and Television Drama in Contemporary Britain, Palgrave Macmillan 2016 (hashtag pluggy mcplugface)) the germ of an idea for which came from this very blog, and I’ve also considerably levelled up my chapter on representations of the Moors Murderers and Peter Suctliffe’s depiction in popular music (which you can see me give a paper on in Liverpool Hope at their Theorising the Popular Conference on June 28th-9th if you’re so minded, and/or read the abstract below:
[edit: I’ve added the abstract in full here, as I’ve realised only people with academia.edu accounts who are logged in can actually see the page I’ve linked to, which isn’t very helpful]
This paper will use popular music representations of the ‘Moors Murders’ and ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ cases as case studies to examine the ways that pop culture has responded to and shaped the figure of the celebrity criminal in general and the mythology surrounding these crimes specifically, and, the ways in which it has questioned official history and what has been designated as exceptional and what as unexceptional violence.
Featured in songs from punk and industrial music in the 1970 and 80s, to indie from the 1980s onwards, these killers’ proliferation as musical cultural commodities has emerged alongside the development of ‘alternative’ popular music and out of (and in turn fed back into) its mixed and often self-contradictory concerns around authenticity, fame, image, commodity, creativity, self-determination, ediginess, auto-didactism, rebellion, working-class emancipation, contested models of gender and sexuality, and suspicions of official establishment narratives.
Of the many songs available I will use the following texts as my main examples, providing both close analysis of lyrics and context of the publicity artefacts and reception around these cultural acts:
Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Very Friendly’ (1975), The Moors Murderers’ ‘Free Hindley’ (1978), Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Night Shift’ (1981), The Smiths’ ‘Suffer Little Children’, (1984), the satirical depiction of pop music’s depiction of these killers in the TV comedy Brass Eye (1997), and Luke Haines’ ‘Leeds United’ (2007).
Drawing on Lisa Downing’s work on the construction of the figure of the murderer as exceptional, overlapping with the figure of the artist, and, the epitome of the individualised neoliberal subject (The Subject of Murder, 2013), and David Schmid’s analysis of the particular cultural forces that have shaped the modern serial killer into the apparently obvious and self-evident figure of fame and fascination (Natural Born Celebrities, 2006), I will demonstrate that the construction of these celebrity killers and that of the celebrity musician share many important facets and are mutually self-supporting in their mythologies and the kinds of cultural intertext they draw upon to create and maintain their exceptionality and commodity status as society’s ultimate outsider insiders.
I’ve also moved from Birmingham, which I wasn’t a fan of living in, but was lucky enough to have use of a shared office, and, rather than isolation or lack of cv-boosting projects, often feeling too much opportunities came my way, to Manchester, which is a brilliant city, but where I have no affiliation with a university, no jobs, no community other than as a drifting dilettante at the margins, but also free as the air from meetings or organising anything.
Sometimes that feels very floaty in a scary and sad way, cut off from reality, like a ghost, or a little balloon that someone has let go of the string. But other times it’s relaxing and exhilarating to know I can plan my own time as I choose. Right now I am glad to say it’s the latter. I’ve just got back from a lovely long holiday (9 days! heaven), my first proper one since I started my PhD, and I’m not even being sarcastic when I use the cliche that I feel “refreshed”. I didn’t take any work with me, no laptop, no books, but I had a conference abstract (for Birkbeck’s True Crime Fictions conference on July the 1st) deadline while I was away, so I have decided to write it on my smartphone rather than have either the physical or mental burden of Taking Work With Me and thus allowing my thesis to remain in my thoughts feeling like the little ghostly You Should Be Writing fairy is hovering over me the entire time:
And so, that’s exactly what I did, and, as mundane a plan as it sounds, I was really pleased at how well it worked out. I used dropbox in safari on my phone to access my drafts to copy in a few phrases and refresh myself on ideas and then just wrote the abstract on the notes app whilst lying in the sun in a beautiful park in Barcelona. It might not be the most beautifully phrased or finely wrought abstract that has ever been written, but, I think it’s ok and gets my ideas across, and I count it as a big win in that I made and sent an abstract for an event that I’m really excited about but that unfortunately I otherwise wouldn’t have had time to apply to be part of, without feeling like I had sacrificed more than a tiny scrap of my lovely luxurious holiday.
If you’re interested, here is the abstract (which I am super excited to say I have since found out I will get to present in July — registration is here):
(this painting needs a delicate little trickle of blood at the corner of one cup to really represent it, but, I think you can see what I’m going for here :D)
Modernism and Materiality in True Crime
The key internal elements of true crime, in my analysis, are its intertextuality, its meta-presentation of media and history as constructed artefacts, and, most of all its materiality. As a genre it is strikingly homogeneous in its presentation of a close up view of the physical and commodified: of objects, spaces and the body.
In this paper I would like to demonstrate some of the formal uses of these features, first of all in a more straightforward form of true crime, drawing examples from a variety of canonical true crime texts including In Cold Blood, Happy Like Murderers, Killing For Company, Handsome Brute, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, and Beyond Belief.
Secondly I will trace some of the ways in which true crime emerges from, and draws upon the techniques and traditions of, literary modernism. This is most strikingly the case firstly in its repurposing of the Bildungsroman novel form — by which true crime creates a dark shadow narrative to this form’s dramatising of the moral spiritual development of a young man — and secondly in its crowded and minute attention to things, to the physical and commercial meanings of spaces, bodies and things.
Finally I will compare true crime’s use of these elements to their subversion and repurposing in true crime fiction (ie fictions based on and making use of traditional true crime) particularly in David Peace’s ‘Red Riding quartet’ and Jean Rafferty’s Myra, Beyond Saddleworth – both of which especially provide a meta commentary on history as narrative and ‘write back’ to official histories of their respective criminal cases.