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Fred Vermorel – Dead Fashion Girl: A Situationist Detective Story (Strange Attractor Press, 2019)

Reading Fred Vermorel’s latest book under lockdown has made me hyper-aware of what anxious, nationalistic, and divisive times we are living through. But the period Vermorel is describing is that of mid-1950s, predating Suez, the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the Profumo affair, which, according to common wisdom, successively disturbed a long-running Tory snooze, causing Britain, eventually, to wake up. Since 2016 we seem to have nodded off again, and now it may be that we are experiencing a nightmare. Ah well, as Guy Debord, co-founder of the Situationist International, put it: “the spectacle is the guardian of sleep.” From our current groggy perspective, then, it’s important to follow this book’s investigation into the unsolved murder in 1954 of 21-year old Jean Townsend, in South Ruislip, in the same neighbourhood the eight-year-old Fred Vermorel also lived.

Just after the book’s opening, Fred describes cycling over to look at the murder scene, which was surrounded by screens and sacking, on waste ground. Throughout what follows, screening is developed as a powerful metaphor, describing being prevented from seeing what’s there, or of wanting to see and to pry – instincts that prove equally at home in the obsessively private worlds of suburbia, where Jean lived and died, as they were in the upmarket and fast-moving London fashion world where she worked. Vermorel, writer of “anti-biographies” of Vivienne Westwood and Kate Moss, among others, is keen to get under the surface of the ‘50s fashion industry, exposing ugly truths.

Sharply attired, Jean was strangled with her own chiffon scarf while walking home from South Ruislip tube station, on the night of September 14th. It would have been very dark, because in those days the street lights didn’t stay on all night. Her body was discovered the following morning. The police found no evidence of sexual assault. But her underwear had been removed and placed nearby. Nobody has ever been charged with her murder.

The police files on Jean’s death are embargoed till 2031, because they contain “sensitive information that would substantially distress or endanger a living person or his or her descendants.” Vermorel follows several lines of enquiry into the reasons for this. Was the murderer a US serviceman from a nearby airbase, who may have been flown back to the States to escape prosecution? Or was he someone, perhaps a famous someone, whom Jean already knew? Whoever it was, people said she would have fought back, if she’d sensed she was being attacked. But there were no signs of a struggle.

So, what makes this a situationist detective story? Well, for the early Situationists, the modern city – London in this case – was itself a detective story. Unitary urbanism and psychogeography were games you could play to make it come apart and reassemble, rather like a detective untangling a knot of theories or following a lead. And Vermorel, a veteran of the Paris uprisings of 1968, certainly follows leads, and does a lot of untangling. Moreover, for this 1950s moment, the book maps out London’s very own “Society of the Spectacle”, by becoming what Debord would describe as “A social relation among people, mediated by images.” And this book is full of images from the period, including newspaper front pages, postcards, family snaps, wedding shots, the covers of pulp novels, and clothing designs. So many layers, screens, masks.

A former student at Ealing Art School, Jean worked at Berman’s Theatrical Costumiers, near Leicester Square. She’d started as a seamstress and later became personal assistant to a designer, Michael Whittaker, aka “Mr Fashion,” the man who ended up creating the catsuit worn by the late Honor Blackman’s character, Cathy Gale, in the Avengers TV series, from 1962 to 1964. Whittaker is just one of many personalities in the investigation who had, however, a secret, dark side. He hosted regular orgies and turned out the occasional S&M-themed pornographic drawing featuring men in Nazi-styled military uniforms and gasmasks, involved in acts of bondage and submission. At times Vermorel goes where you didn’t know you were going to end up going, and maybe didn’t want to. Secret places. But Fred has to do a lot of digging to find out about Whittaker. This, he says, is because Whittaker “doesn’t fit the enthusiasms and fetishes informing google algorithms,” unlike (in an amusing footnote) “the pointless fashion darling Isabella Blow” who gets 2,000 words on Wikipeadia.

Two doors away from Berman’s on Irving Street, was another secret place, a private club called The Londoner, where Jean spent her final evening, before catching the last Central Line train back to South Ruislip. At the Londoner, Jean had been celebrating with friends. She’d joined a “pyramid club,” a craze of the time involving invitations, donations, and parties where you rubbed shoulders with complete strangers. Her winning pyramid party would have taken place next day. At the time, her death was nicknamed the Pyramid Club Murder in some of the tabloids.

But under scrutiny, the exclusive Londoner venue reveals far murkier secrets – from its thoroughly dodgy manager, George Baron, to its clientele, a mixture of underworld heavies like Dennis Stafford (whose career inspired the 1971 film, Get Carter), showbiz glitterati including Shirley Bassey, Johnny Ray and Diana Dors, and (of course) toffs and royalty, like the Duchess of Argyll, Lord Boothby, Princess Margaret and Prince Philip. The atmosphere was free of the social constraints of class and rigid heterosexuality. But behind the scenes, some people, like Baron, were frequently out of control and brutal, as his ex-wife Liz testifies.

This book is not the first unofficial attempt to solve the murder of Jean Townsend. Vermorel tracks down another ex-neighbour of Jean’s, Reg Hargreaves, who tried and failed to re-open the file on Jean’s murder, in 2007. Surprisingly the court proceedings revealed that eight out of nine of the forensic items retained after the murder have since disappeared and a significant number of witness statements also went AWOL. Police incompetence seems to have combined with a cover-up, making it impossible to discover what the cops originally recovered. But Reg has his own suspect, adding yet another weird twist to the list: an Anglo-Italian “Count” called Frank Carlodalatri, who fled the country in late 1954. As with all the other suspects, there’s frightening information here, but guilt is impossible to prove. When Vermorel states his own conclusion as to the identity of Jean’s killer, or, possibly, killers, he avoids conspiracy theories, stating that it was “like most crimes: random, sordid, and absurd – accidental. With no glamour or high-flown conspiracy, nor any particular meaning.”

In the book’s final chapters, a “wildcard methodology” throws a number of wider cultural contexts into the air to see how they land. Vermorel compares these to Freudian “screen memories” – hmm, those screens again – pondering moral panics of the time surrounding imported horror comics, sex manuals, and flick knives. Then there’s the forgotten importance of Brits disappearing for pastures new, like Australia, counterbalancing the emphasis many (white) Brits now prefer to make on immigration. Vermorel even finds meaning in the way people walked in the 50s, and the clothes they wore, revealed in street photographs, details cropped and enlarged.

Other images feature the author himself, as a child, with his mum. On the occasion of a “surprise picnic,” mother and son smile into “Auntie” Iris’s camera, on a patch of, wait for it, wasteland. More multiple meanings are disentangled from that setting, as wild and overgrown as it could be creepy and dangerous. But the wasteland in question was the same patch Jean Townsend’s body was found, about a hundred yards away, a few months later. It’s haunting.

– Bob Dickinson 

 

 

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