Cheap Nylons

I read Dead Fashion Girl by Fred Vermorel. This is mostly concerned with the unsolved murder of Jean Townsend in 1954, but it radiates outwards from that topic to take in its author’s feelings about the 1950s generally, a world full of mysteries and monsters he didn’t understand at the time.

Rather than repeat all the details over again, here is a link to a site with a handy digest of the main points and also a map of the area.

The book is divided into 3 sections, unequal in both length and depth. Part One, “Dead Fashion Girl”, covers the case itself and offers as much of a solution as we’re ever likely to get. Part Two, “Other Connections, Other Theories” runs through the flimsier ideas floating in the wake of the case, mostly left by other previous amateur inquirers. Vermorel himself doesn’t think these ideas have any merit, and he narrates them in a tone rather similar to the one used by Colin Wilson when looking down on rival esotericists. Wilson himself is one 50s cultural phenomenon oddly absent in this work. Even though the theories aren’t rated, they provide an excuse for a further delve in the demi-monde already encountered in Part One. Part Three, “Finding The Fifties: Snapshots” drifts away entirely into a mixture of reminiscence, regret, resentment and irrelevance. The final Appendix concerns a completely different crime, the “Jack The Stripper” case.

The persisting mystery around the investigation is why remaining documents cannot be disclosed, even though other cases from the era have been thrown open. The obvious inference is that there was some connection with espionage or crimes in high places that mean an embargo has to stay in place for at least another ten years. Vermorel notes that the last official panel to renew the restriction did not review the material themselves. So it is possible this may simply be a case of administrative inertia, as successive cohorts of bureaucrats just can’t be bothered to unwind the story or risk the unwanted precedents that might be established. That’s a nice thought, comforting if you want to be reassured that there are no big conspiracies, only small misunderstandings that won’t stop growing.

Unfortunately, Vermorel reports that he has heard enough hints and rumours and off-the-record interviews to make it clear there really was a bigger dimension to the case in the 50s, and that detectives were told to stop asking questions around it. That was on top of the sheer incompetence and carelessness that apparently marked the initial crime scene investigation, which he has reconstructed and found the official record to be a fabrication. This is likely a piece of coincidental mendacity, not part of a wider plot that came about later.

The most likely reason for the continuing cover-up is some connection to the nearby US airbase, yet the exact thread is still unknown. The base was to be “the European intelligence HQ of the American military in the Cold War” (pg. 161) but it seems to have had lax security. One ex-serviceman recollected:

There was a con man operating in the area… He wandered in and out of supposedly secure areas and talked to people he should not have met, and the police were very anxious to talk to him. He did things no spy would ever do, like play the quarter slot machine at the Officers Club with 5-franc pieces – a tactic that considerably altered the odds in his favour, and gave the cops hundreds of copies of his right thumb print.

We might wonder nowadays if this was in fact a spy hiding in plain sight by acting in a way to draw attention to himself, whilst being tolerated as an odd-job man or fixer of local difficulties. Though it seems the Americans were pretty much beyond the reach of the local law anyway.

The most likely suspect for the killing identified here is an Irish van-driver who was pulled in for being drunk and disorderly. On his way to the cells, he was babbling “I didn’t mean to kill her.” Found dead next morning, the officer who made the arrest came briefly under investigation but didn’t get in any trouble, and was told off the record that the Irishman murdered Jean Townsend. Nobody was too worried about such things in those days as long as everything got cleaned up and there wasn’t a trail of inconvenient paperwork. Vermorel does not consider that some others got in to the cell during the night and dealt the blows, as we would suspect automatically nowadays. That would be unlikely though – anyone anxious to dispose of him would not do so inside the station, or know that he was going to come in that night. However it does seem the station was full of plenty of men ready to look the other way or fix missing documents or just lose inconvenient ones.

Even back in the 50s possible connections with spies and other conspiracies were considered. Not long afterwards the Portland Spy Ring was exposed, and it turned out that the contact point for communications back to Moscow was the home of Peter and Helen Kroger in Cranley Drive, South Ruislip. They moved there in “late 1954”, the murder was in September, when they could have been in the area. Vermorel doesn’t think there is any chance of a direct link, and indeed it wouldn’t make much sense for them to hang around in the same area as a crime scene if they were involved with it. Some link with national security is most likely explanation for the continuing secrecy and non-disclosure of aspects of the Townsend case.

The other explanation popular with conspiracists and amateur investigators is that there was some connection with the London clubland and its penumbra that Jean Townsend and some of her friends mixed in. They were socialising and working with Very Important Men who behaved badly, and had to be protected from the consequences of their actions. Or perhaps a link to a less-famous man with violent tendencies. The high-class dangers may include Princess Margaret’s beau Anthony Armstrong-Jones, and it may be that old Prince Philip himself was at some of these events where rum things were happening. Young ladies were being procured, drugs taken, and traces covered up. The world of clubs like The Londoner depended on a large section of their clientele being men whose inclinations were illegal, and at risk from police crackdowns and entrapments. This also put them at risk of blackmailers, and we hear the story of Les Wallis, “a rather fattish old quean [sic]” (pg. 154). Wallis “started mouthing off about Armstrong-Jones being his toyboy”, and this earned him a visit from two mysterious strangers he claimed were from Special Branch. He did not follow their advice to cease and desist… and then disappeared forever afterwards.

Vermorel takes us on a long excursion through the world of showbiz and fashion and how they intersected with gangsters and also the VIPs dropping by. He admits not much of this material is directly relevant given what he has found out about the Irishman dead in the cells, but it’s justified on the grounds that it is linked into the wider folklore of the case. That excuse stretches a bit thin during the extremely tiresome saga of “the Carlodalatri Connection”, which Vermorel tells us must be spurious, yet goes into much depressing detail. Its significance comes from a participant in Radio 4’s Home Truths telling John Peel that she knew whodunnit, but clearly she didn’t, any more than those US ex-servicemen who came forward years later claiming that one of their buddies got brought home for doing something bad in England. More than ever, a prurient tone comes in to the description of the sexual secrets of the terrible toffs. The tabloid-staccato style is awfully overused when this book tries to cast shadows around its secondary crew of choreographers, interior designers, failed playwrights and sad actors. Something accidentally wonderful happens when the portentousness and speed collide in moments like this: “Elena’s first marriage was to a homosexual. This was during the war, to a naval officer… They were married by the Bishop of Bath. The Bishop knew the officer’s orientation.” (pg. 288).

The world these people inhabited was one full of violence, much of it at home. Husbands beating wives, girlfriends, boyfriends and children; parents known by neighbours to be abusing their children (pg. 18), but also random strangers could threaten to abuse youngsters (pg. 15). The young women getting back on the last train to Ruislip knew they had to keep their heads and get home as quickly as possible, even before the murder had happened. An ex-copper remembers (pg. 230):

And the suicide was phenomenal. The suicide rate in the early years, just after the war, was absolutely terrific… Every copper in Ealing did at least two suicides a week. And some of them were pretty horrific.

For the plebs, life moved on established tracks from an early age: Jean and her generation were classed and graded by exams and assigned to different pathways, hers being the art and design college. The men circulating around The Londoner had already been consumed, processed and released from the great machine of The War. The black market, huge and unmentionable during the war years, had a long afterlife as rationing continued. The post-war landscape was full of bombsites, which were still being cleared from British cities in the 70s, where they could play as a backdrop for a generation that only knew about the Blitz from war stories for boys. Bomb sites were very useful for London’s gangsters, as places to do nasty deeds and also dump bodies, as mentioned in The Boy Hairdresser, the (at the time) unpublished, unpublishable early novel by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. The great London smogs of the good old days before the Clean Air Act were also a useful cloak.

The “situationist” aspect of this book seems to be inspired by one of the source texts it leans into: Honeytrap: The Secret Worlds Of Stephen Ward (1987) by Anthony Summers and Stephen Dorril, which was one of a number of books published in the year of the 25th anniversary of the Profumo Scandal breaking, and got quite a lot of attention. That book had a dedication to Guy Debord, of Situation Internationale, and as we see in a footnote to pg.257:

I’d been intrigued by the dedication of Honeytrap to the situationist, Guy Debord. I guessed this was from the Huddersfield Polytechnic graduate Stephen Dorril, rather than his Oxbridge/BBC co-writer, Anthony Summers. I also noticed that Dr Dorril was an expert in the British Intelligence services.

But why guess that when two great fans and promoters of situationist ideas in British media since the 1970s were Tony Wilson and Jon Savage, both Cambridge graduates? Apart from this reference, little use seems to be made of ideas about psychogeography in this book, other than a generalised sense that every place in a city as old as London is built above a grave, and within walking distance of a murder – in the past, present, or future.

The cultural backdrop is a way in for Vermorel to ventilate his own feelings about the 50s and how the post-war era is portrayed and memorialised. He has some strong points that there is a story of mass post-war emigration that gets neglected with the focus on the immigration coming in the other direction; however this is not quite right, since “the Brain Drain” of highly-skilled people moving to the US was noted in the late 40s. Life amongst the plebs seems to have been under the radar in every sense, since there are no direct statistics and the phenomenon has to be inferred from census figures. But this was an era in which many details passed unrecorded. The War Office did not keep a record of how many National Servicemen took their own lives or attempted to, but there is anecdotal evidence it was quite common. My dad told me that “the Angry Young Men” looked like over-privileged whiners to anyone further outside the belts of cultural influence.

What is implied in Vermorel’s final section is that the “post-War” (and the “post-war settlement”, that supposedly existed from 1945-79) was actually several periods, and they started and ended at different times in different places. The various cohorts born at different times had a sense of having missed out on or been cheated of something – a chance for valour, or for a better education, or to go to a marvellous party, or just to get a job. Waves of resentment rolling one after another. But some things may be the same, even if they don’t go by the same names, or any names. A quoted interview with the fashion model Barbara Goalen (pg. 326) mentions the topic of hate mail:

I didn’t find anyone vicious. The only vicious people I have ever come across are the ones who write one vicious letters. I think they are, absolutely, the scum of the earth. I don’t see how people can write to people they have never met, and whom they can never see, and say the terrible things they do and pretend they know you so well.

That sounds much like the experience of women today on the internet, where the anonymous letter-writers now connect electronically as “trolls”. But they have been haunting the psychogeography of cultural bombsites since the start of mass communication.

The picture in the banner at the top is from someone else’s blog about 50s fashion photography.

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