Back With The Killer Again

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 accounts who are logged in can actually see the page I’ve linked to, which isn’t very helpful]

‘Pop Is Always Looking For Trouble’: Popular Music’s Fascination With Celebrity And Violence).

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.



Gritty Bafta

Gritty. Bafta? Gritty Bafta.

I’ve decided to use this blog/my #AcWriBloMo challenge to directly engage with texts as I go along. So here is a kind of microblog closely looking at the comedy sketch ‘Gritty Bafta’ from (the otherwise unspectacular) The Kevin Bishop Show:– a response to and engagement with the famously bleak and northern ch4 drama series Red Riding (2009), consisting of a 3 part film set of adaptations of David Peace’s quartet of novels. {No I’m not going to properly format the title because nuts to you, you’re not my thesis.}

Its title references ‘grit’, in the context of a term for something which is both style and a genre of crime drama — a mode perhaps? a flavour? one that hinges predominantly around conveying certain types of locations and masculinities (and that is also found elsewhere, not just in crime, the Western for example is another – a genre that Red Riding plays with, and pastiches with noir, in a way that is in the direct lineage of both film and novel The Third Man). The other half of the title is the BAFTA (British Film And Television Award), creating a specifically British context, but also poking fun not only directly at Red Riding but also at the conventions of ‘serious’ drama and the tendency for such kinds of drama, dealing with “difficult” topics (in specific kinds of ways) to be over-represented in award success. This is alluded to in the glibly vague voiceover

‘it’s the 70’s, someone’s in care, probably, there’s a prostitute, almost definitely […] coming soon to channel 4, and all award ceremonies’

The genericness and vagueness of the pitch (‘probably’ – ‘and other people you sort of recognise’) combined with the use of a nonsense filler phrase rather than sample dialogue — the equivalent of ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ or ipsem loren — highlights the genericness and thus keeps the focus firmly on genre. The lack of verbal content also puts emphasis on the visual, spatial, sound elements, and the performance of the bodily actor as well as the meaning of the actor’s persona and how this inflects the text.

photo 2

[This bit where Kevin Bishop plays Sean Bean (in a mash up between the character he plays and the police setting, which we never encounter him in) is also a great nod towards the way RR deals with location and the frequency with which characters are portrayed in corridors, staircases, entrances, underpasses, underground car parks,  and other labyrinthine architectural structures — for an excellent blog post on Red Riding‘s use of this theme (also referencing The Third Man, go here.]

The star personas represented here are united by their status as high level British character actors, but low level celebrity staus (‘Samantha Morton, Sean Bean David Thewlis, and other people you’ve sort of heard of’), perhaps rendering their connection less of a ‘star system’ a la Richard Dyer’s conception, and more an ‘actor intertext’ (to use, as I frequently find I do and that it has filled a pressing need in my research, a term coined by Bethan Jones) — these actors, all northerners, also all have resumes stuffed with the gritty as well as the bafterous. (And indeed we may recall that Morton famously played Myra Hindley in the, award-winning of course, 2006 film Longford.)

In The Guardian’s Pop Culture 2009 list, just before mentioning the ‘Gritty Bafta’ sketch alongside its source material, RR was  described as having

‘an all-star lineup of maximum grit. Paddy Considine. Maxine Peake. Sean Bean: even the actors’ names sound like something you’d see written on a long-haul truck.’

Likewise, Justin Quirk, in his otherwise extremely sharp, astute and searching review of Red Riding, lists some of the cast in a throwaway fashion,

‘Lesley Sharp, David Morrissey and Maxine Peake also crop up, chinking tumblers of whisky and crying, “To the north – where we do what we want!” ‘

when quite patently only one of the actors listed (significantly, and hardly surprisingly, the only male one) is shown doing this. It may seem nitpicky, but, these kind of generalisations create a cumulative effect of implying that the northernness of these actors is of primary importance over their specificity, and that they, as is anyone othered in this fashion, are general, interchangeable, replaceable.

rr colour

 You may have already read some of my tangential musings on Red Riding‘s use of colour on my previous post about Utopia; well, if brown is the colour of history, washed-out is often the colour palette of late twentieth century grit. Gone are the stark black and whites (mostly black) of noir, in favour of murky mid-tones.

I found an a good summary of this by Christina H on comedy list website Cracked,which actually (sort of) works as genuine critique in spite of its humorous intention

‘the visuals need to get the point across that this is a bleak, joyless world with no easy answers and no happy endings, which is equivalent to no distinguishable colors. In a world where you can’t tell an enemy from a friend, it just seems logical you wouldn’t be able to tell green from red.For example, Man of Steel showcased a Superman so conflicted he couldn’t even remember what colors Superman wears.

 (bonus points for how Christina’s example image gets in a bit of gritty corridor marching seriousness for good measure)

If you think trawling comedy sites for potential cultural studies references is bad, you should see how many eons of time I waste on tv tropes, counterbalancing my laughter by sighing that no-one’s written an academic book on most of it yet. My good friend Dewi Evans, the author of brilliant Agatha Christie blog Styles of Dying,  once said something to me along the lines of cultural studies is what starts when you stop laughing at something  and start examining it. I’m paraphrasing because we were probably in the pub when he said it, but, it’s a pretty excellent summary of the whole process (as well as a salve for my constant feeling of being gazumped by Chris Morris all the time). Comedy usually gets in first and laughs botyh last and loudest, but academia is (relatively) easier to get into, and involves far less being booed offstage in the initial stages.

The sketch this post discusses is engaged in identifying and re-presenting  important tropes in

  1. The text (RR)
  2. In the genre it more broadly lampoons

I mean, that’s basically the entire essence of satire, that it replicates that which it critiques.

We have, the body of an attractive female victim (which is a constant in visual crime forms – but the slab use felt particularly Prime Suspect-y to me), a brief salute in the direction of a dream, delusion, supernatural or occult element in her waking at the end, we have the typical locations, the use of faded, dim colours, the dialogue delivery style and type of actors we would expect (the stars of whom add to it’s ‘quality drama’ feel as well rather than the kind of jobbing actor training school — whose alumi retrospective create a set of star references — provided by, say, The Bill), we have the rain, the police, the costumes and styling. And furthermore, we even have the type of credits and moorscape that strongly resembles that of See No Evil (2006) – which I find a particularly interesting reference because of the use of the ‘Samatha Morton’ character is kind of a feint for Maxine Peake, who also played Hindley, but in See No Evil, and Helen Marshall in Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 . The sketch also creates an excellent miniature pastiche of Dickon Hinchliffe’s (amazing) soundtrack to this same film, merged with ‘generically drama-y music’ – nodding both to the generic audio tropes we expect from this kind of television but also to the specifics that made RR stand out.

Pictures Of Hank Williams Lovingly Drawn By People Who Apparently Hate Him

{{THIS IS A REPOST. Do not adjust your perception of time or sense of deja vu if you happen to know me and thus have been subjected to this already. There’s an extra bit at the end now though, featuring NEW art that wont make you have nightmares.
This internet artefact I bring you almost verbatim is from the Last Days Of Livejournal, a doomed-bourgeois-in-love sardonic comedy about …yeah that joke sort of tailed off a bit there, sorry. Let’s move on. INTO THE PAST.}}


What up. Turns out since I have a PhD proposal to write, I thought I would waste like an hour of my life blogging about terrible pictures of Hank Williams I have at various points prior to now found on the interweb. It’s like partially technically research anyway, this well counts as visual culture/social memory. Cough. Yes. Anyway.
If you’ve never listened to him, he sounds like a horse with a headcold, his songs are pretty yodel-heavy, and as such he is a genius. As a basis of comparison, here is the man himself, unmolested by the pencils of maniacs, and in my opinion not half bad looking really:

I didn’t actually even have to go out of my way to find bad drawings of him. If you google him, these are the drawings you get. There a few good ones, and a LOT of boringly bad, uninspired, mediocre ones.

And then there are these: the creme de la creme of crap:

This is clearly making reference to the fact Hank Williams’ death was drug-related. Classy. At the time of his death (aged 29) he had consumed alcohol and sedatives. However, the morphine found in his body had been administered by a doctor.
It’s an even more classy way to depict him when you consider that an important factor in his use of drink and drugs was that he suffered from spina bifida which gave him lifelong pain, and then he sustained a back injury in the 1950s which made his spinal pain even worse. #justsayinisall #prettycrassyo
Add to that the lurid fried egg sunset and the wonky car and it’s just beautiful.

I’m not sure I fully understand what I’m seeing right here. But hey, I love goth covers of country songs, so who am I to question this visual mashup?

“I’m planning on painstakingly crafting a likeness of my hero, Hank Williams. What do you think I should paint it on?”
“I dunno dude, how about this piece of wood I just found lying in the road? I think it might even be part of an old-timey toilet seat.”
“Cool! Ok. I think I’m going to try and make him look like his face is made of spam too. In homage to the other great love of my life.”

Just what is this. I know Django Reinhardt became an unbelievably amazing guitar player with the use of only two fingers on his left hand (I think?). And I’m not having a go at anyone who genuinely does have only one functioning hand, because, well, that would be an awful thing to do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s going to make you look much cop as an artist if you go round drawing people who have two hands as if they have only one and some sort of tiny weird looking appendage poking out of their massively oversized sleeve because you’ve just remembered they’re supposed to be playing the guitar. See also: giving them someone else entirely’s face.

It’s not the artwork here I have an objection to. I like the pace and the way his death is cut with scenes from his performances. It has a very cinematic quality that I like. But I’m including it because it makes me feel really uncomfortable depicting a real-life person who existed in living memory soiling themselves in death. Does he have to be weeing himself? Really? I mean, it’s not even like he’s some sort of hate figure. While that added detail does create pathos, it feels a bit cheap and unnecessary to me. Have a little respect for the dead.

Possibly this artist has confused Hank Williams with Gollum.

NB this is obviously a nightmarish copy of this photograph, in which you can clearly see his arms are the same length as one another and he looks like a human being.

Possibly this artist has confused Hank Williams with The Insane Clown Posse.

I recommend staring at this for a good few minutes. It’s like some sort of out of body experience.

Words cannot convey how utterly terrifying this is. Seriously. Look at the face. I can’t even.

Another goth/country mashup: vampire Hank Williams. Now with added Cold Dead EyesTM.

This is my favourite. Every time I look at it I cannot stop laughing. I think it’s something about the look of angry yet weary resignation on his (weird, wizened, lopsided) face, as if he knows some bastard is doing this (incredibly detailed, painstaking)drawing of him, and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s somehow quite aesthetically pleasing really, despite every single thing on it being wonky. His jawline. His eyes. His ears are drastically different distances up his head. If he wore glasses they would be permanently aslant. Even the spot light that he’s standing in is in no way circular or symmetrical. It’s a triumph of feeling and detail over any kind of visual sense.
And it’s the gift that just keeps on giving: it wasn’t until the third or fourth time I looked at it that I even noticed he has got two (weird, wizened) arms poking out of the same sleeve, playing guitar. Presumably to redress the balance on the other odd-handed picture we saw earlier.
This is a masterpiece of the shit pictures of Hank Williams oeuvre, and I like to think his expression of wry yet accepting annoyance is his comment from Heaven on the genre as a whole.

And, if you’re not all Hanked out already, check out these ones that were not drawn with malice or cackhandedry, and actually are great:

Howard Finister was a Baptist minister. Which sounds like the start of an excellent song. Maybe I’ll write it one day. Anyway, he was an outsider artists who did devotational art featuring famous people like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Elvis. His work was discovered by the mainstream media in the 80s and he did album art for Talking Heads and R.E.M. Here’s a sample of some of his Hanks:

Hank Williams in cake form:

You can read all about how Alicia, a wonderful human being and apparently a great cake artist, made it for her friend’s birthday here.

BREAKING NEWS *clutches earpiece*: I have just been informed that vampire Hank Williams is on the loose and appearing in rubbish Dr Who spin offs near YOU. Members of the public are advised to be on their guard, as he had no known weaknesses apart from perspective, anatomical accuracy and shading.


In an added bonus to this totally enthralling and not at all massively TL;DR post, check out some ACTUALLY GOOD art of Hank Williams:

These are by a guy called Jon Langford, who’s drawn 30+ portraits of the ‘legends of honky tonk’ (which I would LOVE to see collected in like an Osborne mythology guide), and thanks to whom I had the unalloyed pleasure of googling the phrase “Hank Williams nudie suit” in a public place and potench facing los consequences. APAZ his famous white music note suit was designed by Nudie Cohn (IMAGINE having Nudie as a first name), who, according to Professor Wikipedia was a Ukraine-born American tailor who designed decorative rhinestone-covered suits, known popularly (and hilariously) as “Nudie Suits”. It’s amazing the things you find out when you’re avoiding redrafting a chapter about serial killers having a hand shandy.