Remember the houses of evil

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The Independent Online
Gloucester City Council's communications director was po-faced about it: "It was the council's decision that the interests of the city would not be served by 25 Cromwell Street remaining standing". Accordingly, demolition began yesterday, and the house will not only be torn down but every brick will be pulverised, every fitting melted down, every timber reduced to ash, and the cleared site covered by a thick concrete plug, as if it were full of nuclear waste.

It's obvious: the continued existence of Fred and Rose West's old home would be bad for Gloucester's image; attract the wrong sort of sightseers; remind all and sundry of an episode best firmly put behind us. Concerns about presentation and public relations may be invoked, but the urge is ancient and thoroughly English, preserved in such maxims as "out of sight, out of mind", "least said, soonest mended". In Dunblane, where the gym is to be demolished, a similar impulse is at work.

With respect, it won't work. Ten Rillington Place, where John Christie murdered at least six women in the Forties and Fifties, had its name changed and then in the 1970s was demolished. But it still attracts the curious, thanks to the Murder Guide to Britain, which pinpoints its location. Years after demolition, someone painted REMEMBER CHRISTIE in large red letters near the site.

If the reverberation of a crime in the popular mind is sufficiently strong, demolition and name-changing will not still it; on the contrary, a gaping, empty lot will only serve to suck in the prurient and ghoulish, imaginations working overtime. Walking tours of the East End attempt to retrace the steps of Jack the Ripper, and the fact that nothing remains as it was (Room 13, Miller's Court, where his fifth and final victim died, is under a car park near Spitalfields market) makes the experience more spooky rather than less.

Other sites of famous crimes, left alone, succeed in reverting to normality of a sort. The house in Cranley Gardens, north London, where Dennis Nilsen dismembered 16 young men, was later converted into flats and re-sold. Sonia Sutcliffe bought back the house she had been forced to sell to pay compensation to her husband's victims, remarking, "It's not a house of horrors, but a very nice home."

The Wests' house should have been left standing to acquaint the curious with the banality of evil. Places like the London Dungeon try to abstract evil from its human context and re-package it as entertainment. The result is trashy and horrible. But evil is all around us, and never separable from human suffering. Left standing, 25 Cromwell Street would have been a useful reminder of that.

Peter Popham