Ian, Myra and Me

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The Independent Online

I used to practise a little social experiment to ascertain a person's views on crime and punishment. Inviting them to hold out their hand, I would put a letter on it, ask them to read it and wait for their reaction. If they screamed and dropped the letter, they were invariably in favour of hanging. If they did not, they usually opposed it.

All that it took for it to work was for the reader to reach the signature: "Best wishes, Myra" or "Yours sincerely, I Brady".

I no longer conduct the experiment, having discovered that it revealed the penchant for hanging that lurks inside far too many people, yet the fascination with the correspondence lingers on in those who saw it (even though I never let them see private disclosures).

It has been a bizarre feature of my everyday life since 1994, when, at the instigation of Myra Hindley's then solicitor, Andrew McCooey, I was invited to write to her. Our contact began gingerly, then blossomed into telephone calls from her to my home during the summer of 1998.

The first call was nerve-racking – her voice husky and measured – but I came to look forward to them, to her confessions, to her desperate desire to be thought of as normal. Shortly after the publication of my interviews with her, and the failure of an appeal against her sentence that summer, she stopped writing to me. But, as one door closed, another opened; Brady had seen the things she had said and, at my request, began an occasional correspondence that continues to this day.

Some might be horrified that I should have nurtured such relationships with the killers of five children. And, yes, the arrival of an envelope from either of them, or the sound of Hindley's voice on the phone, would sometimes generate trepidation and an illogical morbidity imbued by two generations of newspaper headlines almost always prefaced with the word "evil".

But journalists and writers are by definition creatures fuelled by curiosity, often in the face of moral outrage. Take Colin Wilson, for example. Last week, it was disclosed that the respected criminologist – and fellow correspondent of Brady's – had co-written a book with Brady, from which the Moors murderer would profit.

The Daily Mail was outraged, but Wilson argued that we might learn something from Brady. I tended to agree. So I dusted off my old letters and sat down, remembering what they did and what they said about it to me.

Hindley and Brady's crimes shocked the nation and remain rooted in its collective psyche. They would abduct children, and Brady would usually sexually assault and strangle them, burying their bodies on Saddleworth Moor above Oldham. After a jury heard a tape-recording they had made of one of their victims, Lesley Ann Downey, 10, pleading for mercy, they were jailed for life at Chester Assizes on 6 May 1966 for killing her and 17-year-old Edward Evans. Brady was also convicted of murdering 12-year-old John Kilbride, with Hindley an accessory after the fact. Twenty-one years later, they confessed to murdering Pauline Reade, 16, and Keith Bennett, 12.

In the light of such awfulness, what can anyone learn from corresponding with them? Well, the first thing I learnt from my letters (which, depending on your point of view, make depressing or uplifting reading) is that, if you ever felt a desire that Hindley and Brady should suffer, you can rest assured: they have. Incarceration is killing them both slowly.

Take this from Hindley, during an interview with me in July 1997: "I know I could be out one week before someone assassinated me. But at least I would have had a week of freedom. I will take my chances. I would prefer one week of freedom to the security of a lifetime of incarceration."

And this, in a letter dated 22 May 2001, from Brady: "I commenced a hunger/ thirst strike... my objective being to die and exit the penal system entirely... It is better to be without any hope now; it is the final mechanism of freedom." They are two expressions of desire, one to live in freedom, the other to attain it through death, and they demonstrate the stark relief that exists between the two: Hindley has a lust for life; Brady wants to die. She is a social animal who dreams of the outdoors; he has not exercised in the fresh air for 26 years. Hindley finds it easy to express remorse; Brady does not.

To those who believe that the Moors murderers are simply "monsters", such distinctions are immaterial. But for those of us who have a less comfortable view about society's moral responsibilities towards those it imprisons, the difference matters.

Brady has said that he never wants to be released. Hindley, on the other hand, was crushed when, in January 1995, she was told that she would never be freed. Yet she also demonstrated a will to live. When I asked her how she was feeling, she replied: "On Friday 13 (the date has little significance since every day seems to be Fri 13th). I was told that someone at Head Office [the Home Office] had ordered me to be placed on suicide watch in spite of the doctor, nursing and managerial staff, who see me on a daily basis, asserting that I am not suicidal." She said that she fought for the watch to be stopped, insisting she would not kill herself.

Contrast that with Brady. On 30 September 1999, he was forcibly moved from his cell in Jade Ward, Ashworth Hospital in Liverpool, to Lawrence Ward, a punishment block, for, he claims, no reason. His arm was broken in the process. Then he began a hunger strike, on which he remains to this day, being force-fed via a tube in his nose.

Twice he has appealed to the courts to be allowed to die, but each time he has been refused. I asked him why he wanted death so badly, and he described a truly miserable existence.

He wrote: "I get up at 5am every morning and am on the force-feed tube by 6am, where I then sit in a room for five hours on the force-feed machine. The nasal tube goes down the throat and into the stomach. It is permanently inserted. I taste nothing that goes down the tube. I then return to my room for the rest of the day to read, write.

"My visits [by other people] were halted over three years ago – including my mother of 90 – and will not be resumed. Similarly, my social phone calls were halted over three years ago and will not be resumed... My only remaining contact with people is correspondence. I smoke 1oz of strong tobacco a week just to break the boredom... I find relief in watching scenes of ordinary life and people on television.

"For the first three of my 18 months on Lawrence Ward, the only furniture I had was a bed; I then got a chair; never had a table. I use a Samsonite briefcase on my knees as a desk... 26 years ago I halted outside exercise and will never again walk in the open air. And this is the life the authorities and judiciary take great trouble to prolong and I'm expected to value."

Should we pity him? I don't think he wants us to. But it is harder to react so coldly to Hindley. From her trial judge, who secretly recorded that he believed she could be rehabilitated, to prison governors and psychologists, who believe she has been, her release has been repeatedly thwarted by Home Secretaries who dare not set her free.

During one of our interviews, she described herself as "a monster as guilty as Ian" because she had lured the children to their deaths. Then, in a statement, a sort of confessional rather than a letter, she explained why she got involved in the murders. "I was under duress and abuse before the offences, after and during them, and all the time I was with him," she wrote. "He used to threaten me and rape me and whip me and cane me. I would always be covered in bruises and bite marks. He threatened to kill my family. He dominated me completely." She described a litany of abuse, from threats of poisoning against her family to violence.

Describing one incident, when she had looked at another man, she wrote: "He [Brady] raped me anally, urinated inside me and, whilst doing so, began strangling me until I nearly passed out. Then he bit me on the cheekbone, just below my right eye, until my face began to bleed.

"I tried to fight him off strangling me and biting me, but the more I did, the more the pressure increased."

She added: "After the first murder, as we were driving home, he told me that if I'd shown any signs of backing out, I would have finished up in the same grave as Pauline... I just said, 'I know'."

Brady's letters have changed since he went on hunger strike; in 1998 and early 1999, they were much more lucid, less urgent. Complaining about his inability to invite selected journalists to visit him, he wrote on 14 October 1998: "The only way I can combat such Kafkaesque... tactics is by referring people to outside independent sources who can testify that I am articulate, balanced and perfectly capable of conducting marathon sessions of stimulating dialogue with anyone."

By 10 June this year, his tone had changed. I had asked him whether remorse or regret featured in his desire to be allowed to die (his favoured method would be lethal injection). He replied that the question was "in the circumstances, academic to the issues and my undemanding purpose, but I understand the public's obsessional interest in the inconsequential."

Demonstrating a clear difficulty with expressing remorse, he went on: "Point One: I don't explain, I act. Point Two: I've never applied for parole and never will, so erase that motive from the equation." Instead of articulating sorrow or regret, he said he had tried to do good deeds: "In 1970-71 I petitioned the Home Office to donate a kidney. Permission was refused. In 1985-86 I confessed to murders charged with and not charged with."

He said that during the 1960s he began to translate books into Braille, a practice that was later taken up in other prisons.

"But talk is the brand of remorse the public's fishing for, isn't it?" he went on. "The ostentatious variety, the public recantation and repentance expected of captives, which flatter the UK penal system and parole board, aid social control and deterrence, engender moral superiority in the tabloid masses (who mostly can't differentiate between morality and a mortice lock), generate sanctimonious speeches in a swill of politicians and gratify the hypocrisy of society as a whole?"

So that's where we are today. Brady's letters remain challenging intellectually and a little scary when he loses his temper, whereas Hindley's were filled with hopes destined to be dashed. One simply can't help feeling that, whereas his wish will one day be fulfilled, hers will not.

I don't know whether Hindley or Brady will ever write to me again. But I shall miss it if they don't.