Richard Cabut explores Fred Vermorel for eyeplug.net
Fred Vermorel is a writer of some repute...
Fred Vermorel is a writer of some repute and, well, disrepute if you are a Kate Bush fan, renowned for his individual approach to pop biography (from the Sex Pistols to Kate Moss) and for his jagged ideas of celebrity and pop consumerism.
Rock critic Simon Frith dubbed the biogs ‘anti-biographies’. Perhaps because their real subjects aren’t the artists they profess to cover, but wider and deeper issues. There is always a twist to them – free-flowing but full of strangeness and multiplicity.
Similarly, Vermorel’s new book, , ostensibly an account of the 1954 murder of Jean Townsend is far from a standard true crime book.
For fun, let’s call it an anti-true crime book.
‘Ha,’ says Fred, when we meet in London’s West End, Piccadilly/Soho way. ‘I didn’t mean it to be!’
Nevertheless, not only is Dead Fashion Girl a successful investigation into the unsolved murder, it also offers, free of charge, thrown in for good measure, the lowdown on infamous early-60s ‘Jack the Stripper’ slayings.
Moreover, the book uses the ‘54 crime as a useful prism via which to illuminate the ‘dark’ corners of the Fifties – violence, sex, nightclubs – all the cool stuff.
And, it offers a psychogeographical tour of grimy, seductive 50s Soho – an un/glamorous transgressive transmission form London’s sexual and criminal underground.
What is more, by inserting the author himself into the story, the book examines why someone might want to write – and perhaps read – about true crime in the first place.
In September 1954, on her way home in South Ruislip, fashion designer Jean Mary Townsend was strangled. She wasn’t raped but her underwear was removed and left neatly by her body. The case was never solved – the result, it seems, of both a police cover-up and cock-up.
Eight-year-old Fred Vermorel, who lived just down the road at the time, cycled over to see the screened-off crime scene – ‘Like an art brut installation with Freudian undertones’. Later, he poured over the evening paper looking for clues. And decades later he still found himself looking.
Perhaps, a certain fixation or obsession is a prerequisite to writing a true crime book of such intensity as this. Even though that can sometimes become problematic. For instance, writer Robert Graysmith’s exhaustive obsession with the Zodiac murders drove him tottering on the verge of lunacy. Other true crime authors have ruined their marriages thanks to their infatuation.
‘It’s like the guy who wrote the Jack the Stripper book, David Seabrook – he was definitely a bit peculiar. I found the book obnoxious because it was trivialising what had happened,’ says Fred about the late Seabrook’s Jack of Jumps – ‘A manic trawl… Seabrook is a tart observer and knows that his obsession borders on the pointless,’ wrote Chris Petit in his Guardian review.
In Seabrook’s defence, sometimes, the most interesting work is carried out not by well-balanced writers, but those with irregular edges who leave a more curious mark. Even so, Fred was careful not to fall down that same rabbit hole.
‘I was obsessed with Townsend but I made myself obsessed. My obsession was a performance,’ he says ‘When I was 16, I was taught at art school by Theo Ramos that you don’t get anywhere unless you become obsessed by whatever you’re doing. But my obsession wasn’t really an obsession. I could turn it off and on – while I was researching this, I wrote four or five other pieces of work.’
This sort of dissociative role-playing is a useful trick, and has been used by Fred to some effect in the past.
He has written two (anti) biographies of Kate Bush, and in both, he plays a different role. In Princess of Suburbia he is a tabloid journo (the title Dead Fashion Girl is a pungent gutter press parody, of course – the tone is one of the macabre, voyeurism and sensationalism, of the sort that in its normal context precludes serious attention), and in the Secret History of Kate Bush, he is an obsessed, possibly deranged, stalker.
This prompted some controversy, especially amongst Bush’s fans. Comments on Kate Bush forums include: ‘This guy is potentially dangerous’, ‘This Fred guy … he gives me the creeps… just a nasty thing’, ‘May Fred go to hell’, ‘Nutjob’ and ‘Over the edge (the edge of sane/insane that is)’. I could go on.
Fred explained himself in Popular Music Fandom: Identities, Roles and Practices edited by Mark Duffett: ‘All games I played while researching The Secret History of Kate Bush, an absurdist experiment to see how far the rock bio could be stretched without snapping… I also stalked the woman, as a phenomenological acting out of that uneasy and twisted boundary between fascination and obsession. I still find discussions on the Internet debating whether ‘I’ was ‘really’ obsessed with Kate Bush, as well as allegations I not only had an affair with her, but that while researching her life I ran over her cat.’
Fred further examined celebrity culture in the 2006 book Addicted to Love: The Kate Moss Story, wonderfully described in the Observer as : ‘A strange hybrid, as if a copy of OK! magazine and an undergraduate textbook on postmodernism got into an argument, started fighting, rolled around on the floor and ended up kissing.’
As interesting and amusing as this avant-garde rhetoric and postmodern muscle-flexing undoubtedly is, what gives Dead Fashion Girl its sense of depth and perhaps gravity/gravitas is the lingering feeling that, maybe for once, provocative prankster Fred cares a little.
In the book he writes: ‘This has its roots in frustration… anger that these people got away with it. Her ashes interred by her parents in a crematorium wall. Then her case buried by the Metropolitan Police, her short life extinguished, local reputation trashed, memory obliterated.’
During our conversation Fred affirms, with a hint of softly spoken sincerity,
‘When starting the book, there was the thought that a man did this to a woman. I thought I should address this.
‘I also realised there was something very suspect about the case.’
Vermorel discovered that Jean Townsend’s case file, kept in the National Archive, was embargoed until 2058 – revised after protests until 2031 – and that some witness statements had been leaked, others lost.
The investigation into the reason for such extraordinary official secrecy/shenanigans becomes almost as pressing as the one into the murder itself. Fred’s line of inquiry quickly leads us to, ‘A cesspit of vice and violence.’ This is centred in ‘50s clubland with its gangsters, bohemians, showbiz celebs and perverts like Jean Townshend’s boss Michael Whittaker, a fashion bigwig, who also organised society orgies – the type of debauched gatherings involving the highest echelons of society later exposed by the Profumo scandal. Take a bow Snowden, Sarah Churchill and the un/usual array of libertines.
It’s a fascinating nocturnal exploration of the desperate and the damned, as it were.
Fred also adopts a ‘wildcard methodology’ for further probing the wider 50s.
Vermorel, whose day job is university professor, recounts: ‘I went to a party and an academic asked me about what I was working on. When I told him I was researching the 50s, he reeled off this typical list, the sort you would find on the web. I thought, that’s not the 50s – it’s a 50s, a received version of the 50s – but it’s not what I remember about the 50s.’
He writes in the book: ‘The ‘wildcard methodology is a way of throwing things in the air to see how they might land … unforeseen sequences and lacunae, micro-events, historical ‘nonentities’, erasures and ambiguities, and loose ends.’
Interestingly, this part of the book is given a section of its own.
‘Usually, these are the bits that are weaved into the narrative, but they are also typically the bits that the reader’s eye skips over,’ Fred explains. ‘So I thought I’d do the reader a favour and put them in a section of their own – and if they want to read a bit of theory and background, they can.’
Readers interested in an emotional chart of 50s society, with its misbehaviourisms and uncharacteristic patterns, are advised to not skim or skip this section. It includes: Frigidity, censorship, flickknives (impressions of lawlessness are often measured against an assumed idyllic era which today’s wrongdoings put in the shade with their level of disorder. This part of the book underlines the fact that typically such an idyllic age exists only in fantasy), 50s nostalgia for the 20s and 30s, experiments in mysticism, prudishness, erotica, the pulps (Confidential! Exposé!), Freudianism, the wasteland ( Jean was killed on a local wasteland – which assumes the quality of a metaphor for moral desolation and, more, a post-war dystopia), emigration, fetishism, and 50s female archetypes (the busty, brassy Pamela Green or the sophisticated, stylish Barbara Goalen? Fred chooses: ‘As a kid I would have thought Green was a more desirable approximation of femininity. Goalen was more like my mum!’ The difference between the two women is the difference between Mayfair and Soho).
Fred has a lifelong association with the latter. ‘Lina’s deli in Brewer Street has been there since the 1940s – I used to go there with my mum to get garlic, spaghetti, olive oil, which you couldn’t get in South Ruislip,’ he tells me.
‘And when I was fifteen, going into Harrow art college, trying to build up a portfolio, I was groomed by a guy who gave me a copy of Rimbaud’s biography because he knew I wanted to be a poet. He invited me to accompany him and his group of gay friends, including people from the nearby US airbase, on their jaunts to various spots in London – including the Pink Elephant club in Newport Place. I was obviously only a kid, but I think they used to let me in because they thought I was rough trade! It was a gay club, and I remember being amazed by the dykes, sophisticated and beautiful dressers and dancers. The guys I went with tried to get me drunk by putting vodka in my orange juice, but I was too crafty for them.’
Inevitably, Soho is a topos of danger, threat and criminality, amongst other magnetic things. Although these days, Fred lives a quieter Soho life, just across the road and around the corner from where we are talking, with his family. ‘There’s quite a sense of community, we’ve got to know all the traders on Berwick Street market; they all say “Hello Fred!”
‘Despite the building sites, much of the area is the same as it was. There’s still Green Court, which has two exotic cafes, selling pretentious cakes, one sex shop and two brothels – it encapsulates all of Soho past and present.
‘The sex doesn’t bother me. But what does worry me is that it’s all available on the Internet for kids to see these days. I don’t believe in censorship, but I don’t know how you get around that.’
The book was originally subtitled A Soho Affair, which was then changed to A Situationist Detective Story. ‘That was because of the derive aspect. I realised as I was going around Soho during my research that what I was doing was Situationism in the old sense – the Debordian sense – the old guys who used to go in for these ramshackle random explorations, psychogeographical excursions called derives. I realised that was what I was doing without even realising it, I didn’t mean the politics of it all, although the link to the Situationists emphasises that there is something angry about the book.’
Vermorel has history with the Situationists. And not just in a fanboy or academic sense. While studying French Civilisation at the Sorbonne in 1968, he was actually involved in the infamous May 68 events/riots, in which the Situationists played a central role. ‘The interesting thing I noticed,’ he told me in a 1986 interview I conducted for Zig Zag magazine, ‘and I’ve verified it with other people who were there, was that it wasn’t the actual students who were doing the fighting. Students are middle-class people with a very soft approach to life. There’s no way they would have fought people like the CRS. Basically it was a hard core of Situationists, a lot of unemployed French kids and some Algerians.
‘The Situationists split up but the ideas have been absorbed by different things which is healthy. Images and ideas have been absorbed by pop culture in this country, which has radicalised a whole group of people, which when I was young would have been astonishing. I’m amazed that large numbers of 18 year olds are tuned into, what we would’ve called hard anarchist philosophies. In my time students who played around with them for three years before going off to be magistrates or whatever. Now the ideas are belong taken up by people who’ve got a lifetime ahead of them on the dole or in some crappy job. So it means much more to them. They’re really internalising those ideas and in that sort of way ‘living them out.’
Vermorel’s writing on Situationist theory, most notably in his Vivienne Westwood biog Fashion & Perversity, is some of the most astute to be found anywhere. Via his ‘insiders’ pique’ it details the sick-to-the-very-soul malaise at the heart of the Spectacle that, as Fred writes, ‘only took a slogan, a shifted perception, to turn this discontent into rebellion.’
Fred places punk as the ‘fashionable expression’ of that revolution.
It’s in the Vivienne Westwood book, with his ideas about punk, that Fred confirms his reputation as an original thinker. There aren’t many of those around. They are to be treasured. Not for him the regurgitated narrative that everyone who’s read Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming comes up with.
For instance, Fred insists that punk was born not of a democratising DIY sentiment, but from Malcolm and Vivienne’s – high art aficionados – elitism: ‘Far from being, as it is so often represented, an attack from below, punk was a snob’s revenge from on high… At the core of punk was the aesthete’s hollow laugh.’
Fred met McLaren in 1965 at Harrow School of Art, when they were respectively 16 and 17 years old, and embarking on a pre-diploma course in Fine Art. They remained friends and comrades for decades after – it was Malcolm that Fred phoned with reports from the May ‘68 battleground, urging him to come to Paris and join in the fun.
Punk was, Fred writes in Fashion & Perversity, in its style and form of expression, an echo of Malcolm’s suspected Tourette’s Syndrome tics and swearing – ‘A way of being a punk… spastic performance gestures, and confrontational obscenities coded into its performance, deportment and fashion… I thought it remarkable that the mannerisms of one individual seemed to have proved ‘contagious’ to the extent that they spread so precisely from Malcolm to the circle around the Sex Pistols, and eventually became a worldwide behavioural rhetoric for rebellion, anger and protest.’
Elitism and Tourette’s in the UK! I think it remarkable, too. And fairly believable. As a young punk in the mid-70s, I remember enacting the exact very spasmodic behaviour Vermorel describes.
‘Malcolm swore a lot,’ Fred tells me. ‘It diminished as he grew older, which is typical of Tourette’s sufferers. It was most pronounced when he was 17-29. He was ferocious.
‘Sometimes I dream about him. But I don’t miss him as much as I miss Tony Wilson [with whom Fred also worked] – he was a nicer man. The world has really lost something without Tony. But with Malcolm… I do feel sorry for his wife but I feel… not negative, but neutral about it.’
Sometimes we recount stories to liberate ourselves from them. To outgrow them. Fred has released himself from the big presence of Malcolm – ‘We influenced each other. I’m now free of my past – having written about Malcolm and Vivienne so much, it gets tiring.’
Dead Fashion Girl, meanwhile, ‘has enabled me to move beyond my usual zone in some sense.’
That sense, really, relies on the strength of Fred’s self-belief to bend the true crime genre to his will rather than vice versa. He eschews common-or-garden/common sense interpretation and popular generic conventions and avoids prevailing discourses.
At the same time, it’s obvious that Fred knows, instinctively perhaps, that people like true crime for a variety of reasons, including car crash reading (we can’t look away), natural human fascination with good and evil, the love of stories (crime stories are usually great dramas).
Most importantly perhaps, readers like to see that justice has been done and suitable punishment has been administered. The problem with the Jean Townsend case is that the killer has never been found. A problem that Fred circumnavigated, via tenacious detective work and a big helping of luck (which, as we know, every good detective sometimes relies on), by presenting his own solution to the crime, one that seems absolutely plausible. Reader satisfaction is guaranteed.
But the book’s big reveal is, in fact, not the killer of Jean Townsend. By interacting with the narrative, the author too, becomes a compelling personality in the story. So the book ends up being a story of why the author tells this particular story. And the psychological crux of the book involves the young Fred watching his mother in her boudoir. Every (crime) writer has an origin story, this is Fred’s: ‘Above all I witnessed the rituals of lingerie: how knickers are stepped into: tentatively, one foot at a time, then riskily seesawed… shin…calf… knee…thigh … up to the suspender belt dripping with ribbons and clips…
‘… All such intimacy, transposed to a scene of brutality and a public arena like Jean Townsends wasteland death, was unthinkable – travesty beyond belief.’
His mother’s underwear… Jean’s underwear… the horror.
It’s a brave piece of writing – ‘If you’re going to write something in that vein you’ve got to be courageous and say it all really. Otherwise there’s no point in doing it,’ Fred tells me. But it often takes such bravery to connect protagonists with a larger social arena as well as bury personal ghosts, not through public, but through private, personal revelations.
‘Have I freed myself?’ Fred, who dipped into the works of Freud in his local library at the age of 13, and who has, in his time, blamed psychoanalyses for celeb culture, concludes, ‘I’m not free of any problems in any sense. But I feel like I can set my sites on something else.’
© Richard Cabut and Eyeplug.net 2019