Cathi Unsworth on London’s Dark Past

Author Cathi Unsworth is a mine of surreal and fantastic London folklore gems. She’s lived in Ladbroke Grove for more than 20 years, and has penned three novels set in and around this shifting, sprawling city. So when Cathi kindly conceded to confide some of these secrets, I was keen to discover which London-based beasts, ghosts, mysteries and monsters she could tell me about.

So, what’s your strangest memory or anecdote about London?

‘I started writing a character for my new novel; a talented female artist, studying at the RCA in 1959 at the same time as Peter Blake and the pop artists, a glamorous blonde who lived around Ladbroke Grove. About six chapters in, thinking I had invented a plausible character, a friend gave me a book about Pauline Boty, a very glamorous blonde pop artist who studied at the RCA in 1959 and lived in the next road to where I live now, just off Westbourne Grove.

‘One of Pauline’s bugbears was the modern, Brutalist architecture springing up in post-War London, and she did all these demos outside the buildings that particularly irked her, waving placards that said: ‘No More Ugly’. She and her fellow protestors got in all the papers, mainly because she looked so fab.

‘Anyway, about halfway through writing the book, I was walking down Westbourne Grove when I saw a bunch of people carrying placards that said: ‘No More Ugly’. I stopped dead in my tracks, actually thinking I was seeing a timeslip. Then I got up closer. It turned out to be a promotion for a new furniture shop, and underneath the huge, capital letter words ‘No More Ugly’ it said ‘Furniture’ in much smaller writing. But I really couldn’t believe the coincidence of it; it was her phrase, in her neighbourhood.

‘Although Pauline died tragically young, and has largely been overshadowed by her more famous male peers, she obviously still wants to be heard. You can find out more about her at an event I’m taking part in at the Barbican in January.’

Cathi’s latest novel, Bad Penny Blues, is inspired by the true unsolved crimes of a 1950s-’60s prostitute murderer, who came to be known as Jack the Stripper because of his penchant for leaving the corpses nude. But why do serial killers hold such a powerful fascination for us?

‘At the time, Jack the Stripper was the biggest operation the Metropolitan Police had ever undertaken, but he was never caught. His memory has faded fast from the public consciousness; because he is too near to us, because he is in living memory and because he still could actually be alive, we cannot yet get a vicarious thrill from turning him into a folk monster.’

With Jack the Ripper it’s another matter entirely. Why are so many people still obsessed with him after all this time?

‘Because they never caught him! Because he could have been a member of the royal family or an eminent surgeon and he was even better at publicity than Alistair Campbell. Also, because he is so far back in time he doesn’t actually threaten us, and becomes instead part of the whole intrigue of the Victorian era, the gaslight and fog, the Dickens and Conan Doyle, Whistler and Sickert sense of the capital in those times. Murdered prostitutes haunt London, there are so many of them. I believe when the same crimes are carried out in the same parts of London over and over again, they get trapped there in the ether; I have lived here long enough to see the theory of psychogeography work in action.’

Tell me more, tell me more; which parts of London have the most intriguing pasts?

‘When I started writing my first novel The Not Knowing, I set all the murderous parts along the Grand Union Canal, between King’s Cross and Camden, simply because it seemed to me to be one of the bleakest, scariest parts of London. Earlier this year I was asked to curate a Murder Walk around Camden and sure enough, the amount of bodies that have gone into that canal, chopped up in pieces and thrown into bags and suitcases to be discovered by small children fishing is astonishing.

‘Even the infamous Camden resident John Harvey Hawley Crippen could have disposed of his wife’s body parts by this method, so it has a long heritage. The canal and the intersection between Camden, Chalk Farm and Kentish Town, along the train tracks where the Hawley Arms recently burned down is also the scene of many a grisly dismemberment and Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, A Night In Hell. Camden started off as a coach stop pub named after a local witch, The Mother Red Cap, outside of which highwaymen hung on gibbets. Appropriate considering it’s still thronging with Goths!”

Image courtesy of Serpent’s Tail

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