While police were preparing to swoop on the grave of John Mclnnes, a Scottish journalist was himself preparing to exhume the myth of Bible John. Deirdre Molloy speaks to Andrew O’Hagan about the murder mystery that gripped a nation nearly 30 years ago.
azor-gangs. sectarianism. industrial dereliction. Of all the disturbing chapters in Glasgow‘s recent history. perhaps the most potent story has resurfaced after a breakthrough in police forensic evidence: the unsolved murders in I968 and 1969 of three women in similar circumstances.
Labelled the Bible John case after the alleged serial killer‘s tendency to quote from the Bible about loose morals and ‘dens of iniquity‘. it sparked a massive and until recently. fruitless police hunt. The macabre details of the deaths and the suspect‘s invisibility was a notorious puzzle for police and public. ensuring the case a place in urban Scottish mythology.
In Calling Bib/e ./()/III. a Channel 4 documentary to be shown in March. Scottish journalist Andrew O‘l-Iagan attempts to explain the impact ofthc Bible John case on the nation‘s psyche. I-Ie suspected the case was about to be unearthed again — however literally. "I‘he police always kept their records away from writers simply because the murder cases were still open.‘ he says. ‘I won‘t say why. but I had a very tangible sense that the case was anything but dead.‘
The Bible John story featured in Glasgow- born ()‘Hagan‘s book The rl’lissing. shortlisted for the I995 Esquire-Volvo Non-Fiction Award. Tracing the route the writer‘s family had followed from the dilapidated tenements around Glasgow‘s Barrowland to new town Irvine in Ayrshire. the 27-year-old journalist inevitably encountered the shadow of Bible John in the testimonies of former residents of the area. ‘Everybody in the city was affected by it to some extent.‘ he says. "l‘here was a common fearfulness and a common purpose gathered around the whole Bible John business unheard of in relation to any other crime.‘
For ()‘l-lagan. closer inspection of the case‘s backdrop yields a vista of Glaswegian life rarely mentioned. The period‘s uncertain flavour was reflected particularly in the weekend nightlife revolving around the Barrowland Ballroom in the city‘s east end. where each of Bible John‘s alleged victims spent their last night. ‘The Barrowland was one of those symbols. the way dancehalls. shops. or churches often are.‘ says O'Hagan. ‘They serve essentially the same function to the community but they‘ve undergone a lot of change. and inside there‘s
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Bible John: the photollt used in the police hunt sparked by the murders of three Glasgow women
hndréu'i'o—‘iiag‘an: fascinated by the Bible John myth different people dancing to different music and perhaps with different sexual habits.’
As media coverage has highlighted. all three women were young mothers either separated or estranged from their partners. "The extent to which there was a real sense of sexual innocence and freedom at that time has always been underestimated.’ reflects ()‘Ilagan. whose interviewees spoke ofthc heady and intoxicating atmosphere in the venue. ‘I’romiscuity was in the air and people felt somehow newly independent with regard to sex. This was the scenario for this bizarre killer to stalk.‘
These raw vignettes are a gutsy riposte to the airbrushed boosterism of corporate Glasgow and to homilies about the good ol‘ bad ol‘ days. But what purchase can this spectacle have on its latterday audience? ‘Bible John’s killings
BIBLE JOHN FEATURE
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happened in a place that was intensely local and frighteningly recognisable to the majority of people at that time.’ says O’Hagan. ‘They weren’t Jack The Ripper killings which happened in a mythical distant territory of
.cobbled streets. too much fog and dark capes.
And that milieu is still recognisable to us today.
"I‘hose dancehalls that had been somehow free and safe suddenly seemed like places where violence could lurk. where people could come up against forces they neither understood nor had any control over.‘
For him. the anxiety and mythic force unleashed by the case bears comparison with the Charles Manson murders at the end of the 608 in an American state where hippy idealism had previously held sway. ‘Thc love-in in California was blown apart by that. and in Glasgow it was the end of a sort of innocence too.‘ says O‘Ilagan.
Strict parallells. he believes. are qualified by the specifics of Glasgow‘s social and historical make-up. Capturing the mood of the city at the end of the ()OS era is a project O'Hagan has tackled in his documentary - part of Channel 4's forthcoming late night series The Blue Light
‘Promiscuity was in the air and people felt somehow newly independent with regard to sex. This was the scenario for this bizarre killer to stalk.’
‘We‘ve stepped into the mythology in a very concentrated way.‘ he says of Calling Bib/e ./()/III. ‘It's a piece of filmmaking rather than an investigative report. It's about Glasgow: how killers. and the fear of those killers. becomes enmeshed in our sense of living in the city itself. The sites of these events — those bridges. those dancehalls. those taxis — become part of our fear
of the power and darkness of modern cityscapes.‘ The writer. who regularly commutes to
Scotland from his London work-base. adds: ‘I don‘t think every city in Britain has the same level of self-consciousness about place as you' ll find in Glasgow. People have a sense here that they‘ve had to pull through. You find it in Liverpool as well. It‘s a shared lament about the to-ings and fro-ings of prosperity and depression.‘
Rising above modish nostalgia. or a hankering for an uncomplicated community. the substance of ()‘I—lagan‘s reflections on urban West of Scotland brings the dark interface of the city‘s fabric to the fore. John Mclnncs may be sixteen years in his grave. but the exhumation of Bible John. the myth. could offer a catharsis when viewed through the prism of the l99()s. At the very least. it is an arresting approach to documentary. a punch in the guts to our habitual vegetative state.
Culling Bib/e John will be screened on Channel 4 (n1 Satan/(0' l6 lW(lI'(‘/l as part ()fiIs Blue Light Zone series.
The List 9-22 Feb I99619