Crime in Culture: Portrayals of Fred West

There is no where else in the world quite like Glasgow, and no people quite like Glasgow people. The

 best illustration of this is the fact that when interviewed about Fred West’s connection with

Glasgow the so-far only funny joke I’ve heard about a serial killer is told.

“People ask me if the Gorbals was tough, and I say ‘Well, Fred West was my ice cream man.'”

Part of the reason I laughed out loud at this line in the Sky documentary Fred West: The Glasgow Girls, is the delivery with a cheeky smile, but also the underlying honesty of Glaswegians who refuse to either sweep things under the carpet, or sugar coat things.

For most of us Fred West indelibly linked with 25 Cromwell Street. However before he moved to this address he had lived for sometime with his first wife and her daughter in Glasgow.

Rena, originally from the small town of Coatbridge, had conceived a mixed race child out of wedlock – breaking two taboos of the time. This societal shaming saw her move south where she met West, and then moved back closer to home once they were married and she was safer from prying and gossip.

This is not a part of West’s life that has been poured over and analysed as others.  Hearing the recollections of those who lived in the Gorbals at the same time as West makes it clear that he was considered dangerous and someone to be avoided even back then.  We hear from one woman who as a child West tried to abduct and who thankfully escaped, and another man tells us that there were several young women who disappeared from the area at that time, who no one has heard of since.  The implications being that West had killed in Glasgow, and never been caught.

We’re then told that West’s allotment, which may have been a disposal ground has since become a motorway and it is unlikely that police will ever get to investigate it.  However the documentary goes even further back, and the first glimpse we get of West’s future is when his thirteen year-old sister becomes pregnant and confesses that her brother is the father.

One of the conundrums around the deaths at 25 Cromwell Street and other places is pointed out in the Glasgow Girls, the fact that he does not fit into the normal picture of a serial killer.  A commentator tells us that he was charming and so was not like other serial killers, another that he had great patter for chatting up girls.  However one wonders at this given the large amount of serial killers who have been branded charming from HH Holmes to Ted Bundy if this characteristic is really so unusual among this population.  Given that many people also describe West as “creepy” and various other negative synonyms “charming,” was at least not an universal descriptor.

This apparently “charming” man is portrayed chillingly by Domonic West, in Appropriate Adult, an ITV series focusing on the social worker who attended all the police interviews with West due to his learning disabilities.  Dominic, portrays a slightly bumbling West, not a charming criminal mastermind.  However the prejudice in Britain against the West Country regional accent, means that many will hear it and will make immediate assumptions that there is a blunt and dull mind behind it.  Dominic’s portrayal makes it clear that West finds his learning disabilities an effective excuse to try and obfuscate his role in the myriad deaths and disaperances of women around him.

Focusing on his early offending and the vulnerabilities of the women he exploited and killed, the Glasgow Girls does not do more than touch on his upbringing or the home that he made with Rose.  There are other media which can do this.  Love Always Mum X, by Mae West, daughter of Fred and Rose, while not having the investigative chops of The Fred and Rose West Tapes, is intimate in it’s portrayal of the home life of Cromwell Street, and a labrynth of depravity and manipulation.  It reveals details which would be very difficult for anyone to talk about, and even more difficult to broadcast on TV or radio given their terrible nature.  Mae sensibly centers her story on the human cost of the West’s crimes rather than their more prurient nature.  The Fred that Mae West portrays is neither charming, or stupid, but instead angry, dominering and terrifyingly single minded in achieveing his goals.

For those who seek to understand the crimes of Fred and Rose West from a genuine desire to prevent and protect in the future there is no canonical Fred West, no one interpretation of whom he is.  He can be both charming and creepy, he can be both bumbling and single minded.  How many humans are simple enough to be only one thing?  Isn’t easier for us to assume complexity, until it is proved otherwise, especially with those who commit the worst crimes?

The Glasgow Girls is a stark reminder that serial killers, rapists and murderers rarely start out at their career peak – that they are more likely to escalate their offending over time as they gain skills and confidence.  Which means it is vitally important we get better at catching and intervening in offending behaviour early, and making sure we create a society where no child, young person or their family feels that it is not worth it to go to the police.  In that respect, we still have a long way to go.

For more on 25 Cromwell Street, check out Unheard: The Fred and Rose West Tapes.

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