Profile: Beyond forgiveness?: Myra Hindley - Geraldine Bedell on the child murderer with an enduring capacity to make friends in high places

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MYRA HINDLEY is coarse, hard, and scheming. Or she is pious, kindly, and thoughtful - it all depends whom you ask. The philanthropist David Astor sees her as 'a victim; a normal human being who has been through hell'. Lord Longford, her supporter for 25 years, sees her as 'religious, likeable, and very brave'. Janie Jones, who was in prison with her, considers her 'a pathological liar . . . very intelligent, cunning, hypnotic, brilliant at manipulating people, and utterly ruthless'.

Myra Hindley has been an image of evil since she was convicted at Chester Assizes in 1966 of the murders of Lesley Ann Downey, 10, and Edward Evans, 17, and as an accessory to the murder of John Kilbride, 12. (She and her former lover, Ian Brady, also confessed five years ago to the murders of Pauline Reade, 16, and Keith Bennett, 12.)

The Sun was fanning the flames again last week with front-page revelations that Mr Astor, the 81-year-old former editor of the Observer, has paid about pounds 2,000 towards Hindley's legal costs, for her newspapers, and to assist her mother. The paper made much of the circuitous route by which these funds reached Hindley - passing from Astor to his friend and fellow supporter the Rev Peter Timms, then to another Methodist minister, before reaching Hindley and her barrister.

Mr Timms insists this 'laundering' was merely 'charitably efficient, and to make the donations anonymous'. Whatever, the Sun carried leader articles for three consecutive days, denouncing it as 'an insult to the children who wept and begged for mercy before they were butchered', and insisting that Hindley's crime 'was so vile that it's beyond forgiveness on this earth'.

Hindley herself has offered different versions of her crime over the years: she was Brady's reluctant dupe, or a willing accomplice who has since repented. What is known is that she drove the vehicles that took Pauline Reade, John Kilbride and Keith Bennett on to Saddleworth Moor to be murdered; that she was in the room when Lesley Ann Downey was tortured, and in the house when Edward Evans was killed. Her 1987 confession also highlighted her involvement in the abductions: she reflected at that time that children were bound to trust a woman more than a man.

It is this, her womanhood, that has allowed her to become what her solicitor, Andrew McCooey, refers to bitterly as 'the symbol of crime'. The Sun still devotes front pages to her, 28 years on, because she is a female serial killer, and a female serial killer who murdered children. Higher standards are expected of women when it comes to the care of children: Hindley betrayed her sex. Worse than that, she exploited her sex so that children could be sexually assaulted, tortured and killed.

Her sex may also explain why she has become such an object of concern to ageing aristocrats. Hindley is a fallen woman who has repented her past. She is attractive (having looked 40 at 20, she now looks younger than her actual 50); educated (she has taken an Open University degree); self-possessed and quietly spoken. Sometimes, talking to her supporters, you get the sense that if she is no longer evil ('I expected some Medusa,' said Lord Longford) then she must, by definition, be redeemed. 'It is not the worst crime a woman has committed,' says Mr McCooey. 'Anyway, she has repented. There's a great humanity there.' Mr Astor asserts that 'she is without bitterness. That's an extraordinary achievement.' Lord Longford repeatedly used the word 'disgusting' about her treatment. 'This is a question of intelligent opinion against the rabble-rousing of the tabloids.'

On both sides, Hindley's case has become a crusade, good against evil. Myra Hindley the person has been dwarfed and obscured by Myra Hindley the symbol.

HINDLEY was born in July 1942 in Crumpsall, a Manchester suburb, the first child of Bob Hindley, a building labourer, and his wife, Hettie. When she was four, a second daughter, Maureen, was born: Myra went to live with her grandmother to give her parents more space, and never really returned.

'Much has been made of the fact that Myra supposedly came from a broken home,' says Jean Ritchie, Hindley's biographer, 'but the family hadn't broken down, and she was not unloved. You could see from her mother's back bedroom into her grandmother's: it was an ordinary Manchester working- class family, and if her father was undemonstrative and enjoyed a drink, well, that was common enough.'

Myra narrowly failed her 11-plus, and went to Ryder Brow secondary modern school. Though always in the A stream, she had a poor record of attendance, being too often allowed to stay at home to keep her grandmother company. As a child, she was considered sensible; as a teenager she conformed to the general expectations - to leave school at 15, and marry young.

Myra had three typing jobs before joining Millwards Merchandising, a chemical company, when she was 18. By then she was a peroxide blonde, brassy and smart. She was also a virgin, although she had had boyfriends, and was briefly engaged to a Co-op tea blender. She met Brady, a stock clerk who had worked at Millwards for two years, on her first day: she was later to say that he was the first man she had known who had clean fingernails.

Brady was illegitimate (which humiliated him); he had never known his father. When Hindley met him, he was 23; when he was 17, he was sent from his native Glasgow, where he had been fostered, to live with his natural mother in Manchester as a condition of parole for house-breaking. He had subsequently been in borstal, and developed a Hitler fixation, reading Mein Kampf in the office canteen at lunchtime. Myra mooned after him for months, until he invited her to see Trial At Nuremberg.

Over the following months, she became obsessed. She wore the 'Germanic' short skirts and waistcoats Brady liked; she carried a photograph in her handbag of Irma Geese, the woman guard who was known as the Beast of Belsen; she joined a gun club, bought guns, and lay on the Moors with him planning armed robberies. 'They were convinced they were different,' says Jean Ritchie; 'they drank wine and listened to classical music when no one they knew did that.' But there are also indications that she was afraid of him: early in the relationship she sent a friend a letter asking her to go to the police if she should be found dead, and tell them it was Brady.

Together they committed the five Moors murders, including the horrific 16-minute taped torture of Lesley Ann Downey. And - this is what was so shocking - Hindley did not call a halt. David Astor believes anyone could have abandoned morality in this way. 'She was completely in thrall to him. I personally compare it to Hitler's control of the German people.' In fact though, Mr Astor does not accept that she did not try to stop it. 'He threatened her life. She wasn't a wholly voluntary accomplice.'

If she had said this herself at her trial, she might very well now be free. But her court demeanour was stern and uncooperative; she refused to do anything but support Brady. Had she asserted that he had terrified her, as she has sometimes done subsequently, she would have aroused public sympathy as well as revulsion.

SHE HAS now been in prison longer than she was outside. Until 1977 she was in Holloway, where her daily routine is recalled by Janie Jones, a fellow prisoner to whom she wrote impassioned love letters (though Jones denies they were lovers): 'She worked on her tapestry, went to the education department, took courses and attended church. She occupied the rest of her time by reading, writing, and listening to music, all kinds of pop music.' And she had lesbian affairs, some short and simply physical, some deep and emotionally involved. After about four years, as these affairs pushed her relationship with Brady aside, she stopped writing to him. (He is now in Ashworth special hospital, diagnosed as schizophrenic). One affair, with a prison officer and former Carmelite nun, Patricia Cairns, ended in 1974 when both of them, and a prisoner who had helped them, pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to trying to engineer Hindley's escape. Cairns received a six-year sentence.

Jones, once a close friend, now hates Hindley, seeing her as a chameleon figure who could 'be whatever people wanted her to be. Even then, I noticed two sides to her. One was temperamental: she'd throw a tantrum, shout and perform, and they'd just lock her in her cell where she'd sit and sulk. The other side was very gentle and kind, and this is what made it so difficult to come to any conclusions about the woman'.

Though Hindley has had lovers and friends in prison, she has also had to contend with prisoners urinating and spitting in her food; with verbal, and, on occasions, physical abuse. After five years in Durham, she moved to Cookham Wood in Kent, where she has remained since. Knitting has become her main pastime since she got her Open University degree: mainly for babies (she is godmother to at least three children); she also reads newspapers and feminist literature. Feminism, she has said, is 'my only politics'. Posters of Martina Navratilova line her cell walls.

'If she ever comes out,' says Lesley Ann Downey's mother, Ann West, 'she will come out to die. I will kill her. It isn't just the murders, it's the torture, the way my innocent child died. The children would never have gone with him. She's evil, and all those rich old aristocratic men who support her, they're just cranks.'

But all the arguments about whether she should be freed - how culpable she was, and whether she has reformed - are probably academic. Local review committees have twice recommended her release, but parole would have to be approved by the Home Secretary. That would provoke a tabloid furore, and lose countless votes. It is not worth any politician's while. Her supporters want her at least to have a 'tariff', a release date to work towards. But even that would be politically highly charged. The final verdict seems to be Hindley's mother's: 'I don't know where she would go. People wouldn't let her alone. She might as well die in prison. Life means life for Myra.'

(Photograph omitted)

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