What the Ripper nuts are missing

Jack is remembered as a metaphor for much deeper fears

Michael Portillo says that life as a journalist is more fun than life as a politician, and his diary is packed. A dizzying array of TV projects is in the pipeline. Meanwhile, he's on Radio 4 presenting The Things We Forgot to Remember, a series that looks at why some historical events lodge themselves in the collective imagination but others fade to grey. The first programme (27 November, 8pm) examined the 1880s. Why, he wanted to know, do we remember every gruesome detail of the 70-day reign of Jack the Ripper, and yet almost nothing of the violent riots across London during the same period?

Part of me thought this a dumb question - who doesn't love a murder mystery? - and when, in the opening scene, Portillo joined a tour of the East End with a bunch of Ripper nuts, I came close to switching off. I'm glad I didn't. Media people are always going on about how "relevant" history is, and I'm sure they're right, for all that getting commissioned is probably their primary motivation for pointing this out. But only rarely is it possible to pick up a real sense of this "relevance" from radio or TV. I mean, I'm as interested in Henry VIII and his amazing codpiece as the next woman; it's just that I fail to see what it can teach me about life in 21st-century Britain. This programme, on the other hand, was properly thought-provoking.

In the Britain of 1888 violent crime was hardly unknown. As one historian pointed out, that same year, the parents of an eight-year-old Shropshire girl chopped off her head and wrapped it in brown paper. Yet this story did not even make the Times. So why Jack's huge popularity in the illustrated press? The truth is that he was a metaphor for his time. The west of London (and, by extension, the well-to-do everywhere) feared the mobs that had begun marching from the east on Trafalgar Square - marches that often ended in violent clashes with the police. Unemployment was high (the word itself entered the dictionary in 1882) and housing scarce. There were communists abroad. Even the date was anxiety-inducing: would 1889 turn out to be anything like 1789?

As such, "Jack" embodied the mobile East End, swirling and febrile: he was terror incognito. The middle classes did not fear his crimes; they would not have dared to visit Whitechapel in the first place. But they worried that he was, in some sense, a sign of things to come. The more famous he became (and thanks to Robert Louis Stevenson's prescient novel of 1886, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, people could even picture him), the more he could be used as a propaganda tool. For liberals, he was an example of what would happen without social reform. For conservatives, he proved the need for control: for troops with fixed bayonets to greet the putative mob.

These facts were skilfully uncovered; Portillo's delivery is still a bit starchy, but his experts served him well. No one, however, attempted to draw comparisons between then and now, probably because they didn't need to: in my mind at least, the fog of Victorian London quickly gave way to the dust of the Afghan desert. We are right to fear Osama Bin Laden and his murderous theology. Yet there is no denying both that he has come to represent other unspoken fears, and that there are those in our liberal democracies who would use him for their own, insidious ends.

Pick of the week

England's Still Dreaming – 30 years of punk
2 December, 8pm, Radio 2
Everyone hit the mosh pit! Steve Lamacq narrates the story of punk.

Sunday Feature – Weird Tales: the strange life of H P Lovecraft
3 December, 9.30pm, Radio 3
Stephen King on "the greatest horror writer since Poe".

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