Monday, 18 November 2013

An Alternative Jack The Ripper Tour: conspiracies and comedy

After taking a Jack the Ripper Tour last week and seeing just how many there were pounding the streets of the East End, I decided that I really had to take at least one more in order to be able to make some sort of comparison between them. That's how I ended up taking the Ripping Yarns Jack the Ripper Tour.

The starting point of the tour was Tower Hill tube station. This is a little more central than Whitechapel and properly on the tourist map of the city. I don't know whether we started here because if it is easier to get tourists to come here or because our guide was a Beefeater, who work and live in the Tower of London, pictured behind. In any case, I had heard that the less serious even sensationalistic tours are more likely to be found starting at Tower Hill and I was looking forward to something trashy. Once our guide started addressing us, however, I realised that this was not one of the B-list tours but was something altogether more respectable. Ever so slightly disappointed (no cheap laughs tonight!) I settled into the tour that I was actually being given and listened with interest as our guide Barney started warming up the group and introducing the tour and the story of Jack the Ripper. 

The tour took us through unfamiliar streets that were not obviously part of the Jack the Ripper story, but the locations were used to tell us about what East London was like in the 1880s and about the lives of the ripper's victims, all of whom were working as prostitutes. It flowed naturally enough and we finally joined the now familiar route stopping at the first site that the previous tour had also stopped at. We would shadow a similar route to theirs through much of the tour, making slight alterations, but essentially visiting the same locations. I had to ask whether this uniformity of route is due to the locations themselves and how the streets are laid out (one murder site is omitted as it is too far off route) or whether it is as much due to the way the narrative is told. I guess this is something that guides have spent considerable time thinking through and you would probably need to depart from the chronological telling of the murders in order to make a significantly different route.

Our guide was a gifted storyteller and natural joker who had been giving this tour for some four years so he knew his script inside out. Maybe because of that, and in order to keep it fresh, he also allowed himself to talk about funny things that he had seen and heard recently whilst being a guide. He knew the details of Ripper story well so we remained on that thread but he found ways to personalise it and see the funny side of it at every turn. He spoke quickly and with a choice turn of phrase and I wondered if foreigners whose English was not good would be able to follow him. He did explain some phrases from time and his energy was itself infectious, so I suspect it would all work out fine for most visitors. 

Once again there were the A4 laminated pictures distributed around our group showing the victims, locations and so on. He used fewer than the previous tour, however, and carried the story more through his patter, which was more than able to paint the scene. The pictures that we did see were generally less clearly printed and certainly a good deal less gory than the tour of the other night. He made far less of a point of trying to shock us with gruesome images and viewing them was very much an optional thing for the curious.

I heard that there had been an American woman who had taken one of the competing tours and had written an article complaining about them. I had a look for this online but was unable to find it as there is such a deluge of information and reviews about the various tours on offer. I also had to reflect that there will be some people who will inevitably find such a tour in bad taste, but I have the impression that they will probably be a minority. The group I was amongst seemed like a petty normal bunch of people and not a blood thirsty mob of sickos, much indeed like the previous tour group who were on the other Jack the Ripper tour I took. What is probably a more interesting question to ask is, how is it that this story has become popular and acceptable to be interested in. 

Whilst each tour is working with the same basic story and historical records, which will be more or less familiar to the guide, the tour will have a distinct focus and point of view that sets it apart from the others. So where my previous tour was historical in tone, even historical to the point of being about 'Ripper Studies' this tour focused upon the identity of the killer. In this sense it took the police force's point of view which made perfect sense given our guide was an ex-serviceman. The way this take on the story was delivered was very present and convivial and this brought it out of the detective story frame as there was no urgency or suspense to it and took us much more into the tourist frame of reference.

Just as on the other evening, the small Spanish group were out and once and again they managed to arrive first at this vantage point. Whilst the attitude between the guides and different groups seemed more or less harmonious, when a small group took the best spot while a large groups had to settle for a second best location, it did't sit so well with the crowd. It is all public space, however, and nobody has more or less right to it so the best thing was to do as our guide did and just get on with it from the other side of the road.

Much was made of the this message that was purportedly left by Jack the Ripper. He suggested it can be interpreted as relating to the freemasons.

When we came to Mitre Square we saw not one but two other Jack the Ripper groups. The group behind ours was on the murder site of 'Ripper Corner' while the second group had to content themselves with the building site and we parked ourselves by the offices. This gave me the idea that it would be rather amusing to sit in Mitre Square one evening and watch the various groups come and go. I might just do that and count them.

We were near the end of our tour which was to take a total of two hours and twenty minutes. I was fine with this duration but I did hear some people in our groups talking to one another about getting cold and tired by this point. The extra leg of the journey that comes from starting at Tower Hill certainly adds to the duration and makes this longer than the average Ripper tour. I imagine if the weather was poor that would compound this. Fortunately it was merely dry and cool which I'll happily settle for.

The prime suspect was revealed at the end of our tour and a plot involving the royal family imagined. This was the point where the tour went beyond the realm of the historical and into conjecture, which we were perfectly happy to accept as the Ripper story, being so far away in time and encountered via Hollywood, belongs more or less to the realm of fiction, even if it is based around real events.

The tour concluded with collecting £8 from each of the twenty people who were on the tour. This was done on the basis that there was no need to pay if you were not satisfied. Everyone paid and we made our way back to Tower Hill and into the night.  

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