Yrsa’s post got me thinking about what myths and fables we Brits have to terrorise our children into obedience. I came up blank until my wife pointed out to me that I’d just told our two eldest - seven and six respectively – that if they didn’t shut up and go to sleep then Father Christmas might think twice about delivering the presents they wanted this Christmas. That’s what Santa is – a tool to buy your children’s compliance. I regret the lack of a witch/child boiling character in the Gryla mould, though. Particularly for those nights in the middle of summer when a threat about Santa and Christmas carries little resonance…
Yet the Wicked Witch of the West was as nothing compared to the second of my childhood bogeymen. I grew up in West Yorkshire in the 1970s and 80s during the era of the notorious Yorkshire Ripper. He preyed mainly on prostitutes, but there was not a woman in the county who felt safe while he was loose, and the fear was as tangible as rain or mist. You barely saw a grown woman out unaccompanied after dark. I was surrounded by women and girls and their unease was contagious. The whispered conversations, furrowed brows over newspapers, anxious glances when someone needed to venture out, all permeated my childhood brain so that every dark corner, every shadow contained the waiting Ripper and every second a person was delayed or late on their way home meant He had got them. I was too young to understand what he was doing or why, or the litany of police incompetence that allowed him to carry on his killing spree for the best part of a decade; I just knew a malevolent, almost demonic force was out there and it was proving impossible to stop, and that I and the people I loved might be next on his twisted list.
When he was eventually caught and unmasked as Peter Sutcliffe – as is often the case, revealing a sad, insignificant little man - the subsequent relief was almost joyous. Church bells didn’t ring, nor was there any bunting, but a county of women and numerous small children slept peacefully in the beds for the first time in years.
Dan - Friday