John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Spring-Heeled Jack Straw is at it again, leaping up in demonic fashion to terrorise decent voters'
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The Independent Online

I've been leafing through the new Penguin edition of The Lore of the Land by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson, a fantastic compendium of England's folk and fairy tales. County by county, and sometimes village by village, there's all the scary paraphernalia of local myth and legend, complete with headless horsemen, demon barbers, incarcerated virgins, buried treasure, talking skulls, will-o'-the-wisps, the lot. You come away thinking: "Gosh, what a credulous, easily spooked bunch of fraidy-cats the English have always been."

Sometimes, however, they had every right to be scared. Some of the mythical figures in the book were petrifying. Like Spring-Heeled Jack, who terrorised Londoners in the 1830s. He first appeared in September 1837, in Barnes and surrounding districts, dressed as "a ghost, a bear or a devil" who - apparently egged on by unscrupulous upper-class friends - would enter the gardens of suburban gentlemen "for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house," wrote The Times, regretfully reporting that "the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses".

More reports and complaints poured in from all over London, and a clearer picture emerged. He was a man dressed in a tight-fitting white costume, like an oilskin; he wore a helmet, large claw-like gloves and boots fitted with compressed springs, with which he could leap over garden walls before shouting "Boo!" to the quaking householders.

Vigilantes kept an eye out for him as he terrorised whole neighbourhoods. A girl called Jane Alsop opened her front door in Bearbinder Lane, Bow in February 1838, and found a man there who said he was a police officer. As she looked for a candle, he suddenly vomited blue and white flames and tore at her dress and her hair with his frightful claws. She said the hands were "metallic" and his eyes were like balls of fire. Rewards were offered for his capture. Lots of people stayed home that spring, with their doors locked.

Nobody could decide whether he was a madman, a prankster or somebody doing it just for a bet. He was never caught, but he was taken up by penny dreadfuls and had many adventures.

A scary figure - but a familiar one. Not only is he the obvious forerunner of Batman, Spiderman and their lycra-clad brotherhood; he also resembles, in some respects, the Leader of the House of Commons. Throughout his career, Spring-Heeled Jack Straw has made a habit of suddenly appearing, in a weird, demonic fashion, to terrorise mild and decent voters. In 1966, he went to Chile, a radical firebrand fronting a student union visit which quickly disintegrated into faction-fighting; he was named "the chief troublemaker, acting with malice aforethought" by the British Council in Santiago.

When he became shadow Home Secretary, he routinely sprang to the dispatch box in the Commons, promising to scare the living daylights out of "aggressive beggars, winos and squeegee merchants". Oo-er.

And then, as Home Secretary, he breathed blue and white flames against terrorists and tried to increase police powers against them. In his Blackburn constituency, he became famous for popping up out of the blue, just before elections, standing on a soapbox in the high street and striking terror into the locals with his strangely hesitant debating technique.

Now, after a period of silence, he's suddenly appeared again (ta-dah!), asking ladies to unveil their noses and mouths to allow for easier communication (yeah, right) and, according to a lady on Radio Ramadan, telling them off if they refuse. He now has the country in uproar about alien dress codes.

Is he a villain? Is he a prankster? Is he doing it for a bet? Well no, actually. Straw is a very enlightened Islamophile. In 1987, as shadow Education Secretary, he argued that Muslim schools should be allowed to enter the state system, and demonstrated that Muslim women had enjoyed property rights centuries before their European sisters. He's not really trying to scare the country into action. But I still think someone should check the soles of his boots, just to be sure...

***

Geordie Greig's Tatler magazine continues its remarkable series of scoop interviews (Tom Wolfe, Jerry Hall, Madonna) with some revelations about Lucian Freud, the octogenarian painter and enviably successful ladies' man. He has never, it seems, been without a queue of willing girlfriends, except for the occasions when he contracted syphilis and, with scarcely believable restraint, knocked off the sex for a couple of weeks.

So what is it about these goatish old painters - Picasso, Augustus John, Matisse, Freud - that they can persuade attractive women to sleep with them at the end of their lives? I have a theory. Over the years, in hundreds of studio encounters, they have learnt how to make women relax in their company for hours on end - learnt some subtle, transgendered, soft, cooing, harmless lingua franca of connection and empathy that works, whether they're dealing with (as it were) Kate Moss or Elizabeth Windsor. That must be it. It's a form of hypnotism.

And then one reads what the great man has to say about seduction. According to the article, eligible females are required to approach him and instantly reciprocate his romantic gestures. "I need rather instant reciprocation," he says.

Well, eeeeeuuwww, as the children tend to say nowadays when told of gross (grown-up) behaviour. When translated into spoken English, this seems to mean that girls are supposed to come to him, like supplicants before a throne, and if he likes the look of one, he'll say: "Hello darling. Fancy a shag? Right this minute, obviously, before I go off the idea." Ah, the sacred mysteries of the aesthetic vision...

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