Like most children, I had some bogeymen and terrifying characters that scared me whilst I was growing up. However, the ones that really scared me weren’t Daleks, Cybermen, Trolls, giant spiders or other such mythical beasts. The bogeymen that really scared me were real people. Not that I ever met any of them; these were people in the news or off the television whose presence, image and reputation put the shivers down my young spine.
I grew up in North West London in the 1970s and in that place and at that time a child growing up became very aware of the world around them very quickly because old fashioned ideas about propriety, children being seen and not heard, and not talking man stuff around the womenfolk went out the window: In an incense perfumed West Hampstead of 70s liberal values, I got to see and hear stuff . A half-understood bulletin on the news, a photo and a headline in the newspapers, a poster slapped against a wall, those moments when I couldn’t sleep and I wandered downstairs to tell mum and dad, who were watching “World In Action” or some other serious show. It didn’t have to be a grown-up programme: Stuff aimed at teens and young people would filter downward to me. My mum and her friends and acquaintances would talk about stuff in the news. Big bad world stuff would find me, get misinterpreted and distorted in my childish mind and a fear would be born.
Looking at this list today, there are some people on it who have become footnotes of history; barely remembered figures who came, scared the crap out of me, and then went back to obscurity. Maybe some who weren’t scary at all, when viewed through adult eyes? People who existed in a bubble peculiar to that time, one who wasn’t considered scary at the time but has subsequently become a monster and one monster who roamed the land as an unknown figure. So without further ado, here is my list of my 7 childhood bogeymen (and women):
1. IDI AMIN
The biggest monster of my childhood was, indeed, big. Huge. A man mountain of terror and horror whose pervasive reach went around the world. To me, he looked terrifying with his massive bulk and full dress uniforms adorned with more medals than the US Joint Chiefs of Staff put together. A parody of British army uniforms, what made it particularly incongruous was that he would wear them in the heat of the African sun and it didn’t seem to make him wilt at all. Then there were the stories coming out of Uganda: He was a mass murderer, a cannibal who kept his dead wife in the fridge for snacks, a modern day African Mussolini with a dash of Hannibal Lecter thrown in. It was scary enough seeing snippets of him on the news ranting about power and death and revenge, but to top it all off he was a danger magnet, even managing to get involved in (or perhaps orchestrate?) the hostage crisis in Entebbe. Even putting “dada” after his name didn’t give him a fatherly quality, more like a German expressionist nightmare. The reality was he punched above his considerable weight; what could he realistically do to a child growing up in West Hampstead and yet I thought he would use his powers as the supreme test pilot of the Ugandan air force to take a plane, fly it to Britain, bomb North Bridge House school and whisk our remains to his Smeg in Entebbe.
He was a Frankenstein’s monster in a post-colonial era: A suggestion that we British created this monster, a view that was reinforced by the fact that he boasted of his service for the Empire and modelled his look on Field Marshall Montgomery in drag. A few years ago, Wifey and I went to see the movie “The Last King of Scotland” and she was barely aware of Amin but admitted he was scary but somewhat comical at the same time. It isn’t easy to explain Amin’s power if you weren’t aware of him at the time and every so often a rumour circulates that he’s still alive…somewhere….probably hungry.
2. BERNADETTE DEVLIN
Hardly anyone knows the name these days, unless you take a keen interest in the British political scene of the early 70s, but she has a place in history for a number of reasons even if her moment of fame (or infamy) was relatively fleeting. For those of you who don’t know the name she was Britain’s youngest ever MP when elected to parliament in 1969 at the age of 21. She was also a firey Irish nationalist and socialist who could be guaranteed to go off like a thermite bomb whenever she was angry, and she was always angry. Which is what scared me; my mum would just shudder at the mention of her name.
Whilst most of her contemporaries were just starting out in careers, studies or pining for David Cassidy, Devlin was in the House of Commons railing against everything that came within her sights. Not that I knew anything about that, it was her image and demeanour that scared me. Big intense eyes, pug nose, a gap toothed sneer on her face and sporting what girls in the early 70s wore: Miniskirts and knee boots. She looked to me like the babysitter from Hell.
She was like this old Testament prophet of doom whenever something blew up, courtesy of the IRA. Although her connection with the IRA was always rumoured but never proven (she never stayed with any political group long enough to claim “links”…every group seemed to piss her off greatly), nevertheless when they did strike she’d be there, mad eyes glaring and saying “I WARNED YE! I WARNED YEZ ALL!” Although there was Ian Paisley doing similar things on the Unionist side, he was never scary to me when I was growing up; there was something too pompous, too inert about him. Heckling the Pope was his rebellious act, Bernadette Devlin went one further and decked the Home Secretary in the House of Commons. She brought violence to Parliament.
In an era of angry youth, here was one who had access to legitimate authority. Now imagine some other angry young people in the 70s armed with bombs and machine guns and you get….
3. THE BAADER-MEINHOFF GANG
I spent a lot of my formative years getting accustomed to things exploding at regular intervals. Today we worry about one big attack by Al Quaeda but back in the Seventies bombs went off regularly and for a short time afterwards you could play the guessing game of who did it. Was it the IRA, the PLO or my next guests, the Baader-Meinhoff Gang? I had school friends whose parents worked in government departments or big companies and they had to look under their cars every morning or any time they left them idle for someone to come and plant a bomb under them. Fortunately, I don’t think even the IRA would have bothered planting one under our blue Mini Cooper.
The IRA and PLO didn’t scare me as a kid; there was something too anonymous about them what with their balaclavas and combat jackets. No names, faces or identities but the Baader-Meinhoff Gang, that was a different matter. Everybody knew who they were and what they looked like; it was where they were and what they would do next that nobody knew. That’s what made them scary.
Ulrike Meinhoff was a well known left wing journalist but one day she upped and went and joined the gang for a spree of jollies, rebellion and blowing things up. That’s like Polly Toynbee running off to join Hammas. Most of the gang were the middle class children of respectable families so there was this undercurrent of rebellious offspring about them; despite all we gave the kids, they turned against us and fired off 500 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition in our direction. Photos of them were prominently displayed in papers and on TV: Some of them looked sexy, some were downright creepy but despite knowing their names and what they looked like they managed to avoid capture for years. Again, put this in today’s terminology: “What do you mean, you can’t find them? It’s Julie Burchill with a rocket launcher! How difficult is it to track her down?”
They attacked Sweden as well! Nobody attacks Sweden, it just doesn’t seem right. Fortunately they confined themselves to continental Europe so Britain was spared their special attention but at the time we didn’t know that. And just when the authorities got Baader and Meinhoff, the gang just grew new members and kept going. Technically they’re still going but it’s more like paying for a domain name and not having a website. Blimey, the news was scary back then….it’s a good job that back in my childhood we had quality family entertainment.
4. FANNY CRADOCK
…Or a terrifying harridan instead. Britain’s first celebrity chef was a nightmare figure who exuded hate from every pore. She looked frightening enough: An unholy combination of 1950s ballgown chic and 1970s polyester with make up care of Polyfilla and hair welded into position. But Barbara Cartland modelled that look as well and she was nowhere near as frightening. What gave Fanny the edge was her famous rudeness and withering stares. Her partner, Johnny, was the butt of her spite for most of the time (live televised spouse beatings “DON’T TOUCH THAT JOHNNY! *SLAP*) but don’t think she wasn’t above taking her anger and disdain out on the audience and viewers as well. Food wasn’t prepared by Fanny Cradock, it was subjected to rigorous torture. She took particular delight in beating eggs into submission or whisking cream until it didn’t look like cream anymore. Surely someone like Amnesty should have stepped in at one point?
Of course, Fanny had a nemesis and it wasn’t Johnny. It was nice, loveable Graham Kerr; The Galloping Gourmet. He liked his ingredients (especially a quick swig from a bottle of wine whilst cooking), he cracked bad jokes, bragged about his wife (who he clearly adored) and then invited a member of the studio audience to share a bit of the meal he had just prepared. That’s the way to do it. The Galloping Gourmet was the Van Helsing to Fanny Cradock’s Dracula and I liked his show, but my mum (who wanted to learn some more French style cooking) would watch Zero Dark Fanny instead, sending me running from the room. Still, La Cradock wasn’t the only scary ass looking malevolent TV presenter out there. Oh no…
5. JIMMY SAVILE
I’m not going to claim that, even as a child, I somehow knew that Savile was a wrong ‘un. Even if he was innocent of all the sexual assaults and molesting and was really the charitable guy who gave people wishes on his show I would still find him to be a scary-ass weirdo.
I’m talking about pre-Jim’ll Fix It era Savile here: The Top of the Pops incarnation. This was the stuff of nightmares. Don’t believe me? Look at this…
The incongruously bright blonde hair shaped like Dougal from the Magic Roundabout on a middle aged man, the mad staring eyes, the twisted Mr Fish suits set against a psychedelic background, it gave me the chills….and remember, I grew up in West Hampstead in the 70s where every other man looked like Peter Wyngarde and there were enough stoned weird looking people to make it look normal. Even given the fashion of that era, Savile looked creepy and strange.
Then there were all his affectations as well; the cigar chomping, the metallic Yorkshire accent…speaking…staccato and what was with that “uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh” noise he made? It put me off watching Top of the Pops…that and The Dooleys. Jim’ll Fix It went some way in redeeming Savile as a not-horror comic until the revelations started coming out about him. Each startling bit of information about his crimes seemed more bizarre than the last until the truth started to reflect the nightmare vision that once hosted a chart music TV show. Abusing children in hospitals, necrophilia (wtf?) and his possible association with…
THE YORKSHIRE RIPPER
Whaaat? Jimmy Savile knew the Yorkshire Ripper and possibly aided and abetted him? That’s one of the more shocking claims about him and, yes, one of the Ripper’s victims was killed within yards of Savile’s home. As experts have pieced together the story and identity of The Yorkshire Ripper over the years, he’s become a notorious but slightly forgotten about character. However, he was a mystery and on the loose for years which was what frightened me.
OK, I wasn’t a girl or living in Yorkshire so I wasn’t high up on his list of targets but the idea that there’s a maniac out there and the Police can’t find him was scary. You grow up learning that the Police catch crooks, they protect people and are the good guys but then comes something in the news that erodes your confidence in them. In an era of bombs, where one went off in the UK every 14 days, and children’s TV presenters were assassinated (Ross McWhirter from “Record Breakers”), the police didn’t seem that capable anymore…especially since their mistakes were highlighted on the news. I think the 1970s was the beginning of that breakdown of trust between public and police. I can also vividly remember the Balcombe Street Siege which took over all television for days (depriving me of a chance to watch Kojak, Starsky and Hutch or Space:1999) and the fuss about what the police were doing.
I noticed a change around home as well: One day I was allowed to play with the other neighbourhood children on some local common land, or venture into the surrounding area on our bikes and then one day the parents insisted on coming too, the range of where we could go shrank, the doors were steadfastly locked and I had “the talk” about stranger danger and being on the lookout for perverts and murderers. The Ripper was but one in a series of high profile maniacs out there that they couldn’t catch and as a result, my world became more guarded.
The Yorkshire Ripper was giving the authorities the run around as the body count rose and I became a teenager by the time they finally got him and he turned out to look like some beardy art teacher. The actions were more terrifying than the image, which is the opposite of this…
7. THE CARELESSNESS KILLS POSTER
This poster was designed in 1946 but for some reason Camden borough council decided to resurrect it and slap it on busses, billboards and lamppost signs because freaking out a demoralised post-war society once wasn’t enough.
It’s meant to be a road safety campaign poster but to me it’s a study in pure terror. I remember as a child looking away or hiding my face in my jumper every time I caught a glimpse of the poster and dreaded having to drive through Camden for fear of seeing it. Doing a Google search for it still gave me a bit of a start; it was worse than I remembered it! It’s not hard to see why it’s creepy: I know the woman is meant to be grieving but those eyes…diverging and looking in two different directions like a pair of 1000 yard stares, the lips set firm but just at the point of opening…either to let out a spectral moan or else devour you whole…the pallid flesh, the black outfit that merges with the woman’s hair and the ghostly aura around her. It’s a poster from 1946, re-released in 1976 and looking like it could be a woman from 1906. Maybe she isn’t a widow but a ghost? Is she grieving because she lost a loved one in a car crash or did she cause the crash itself? Careless kills, but who was careless? Keep death off the road, do they mean her? She seems to me to be the embodiment of some of the most notorious ghosts like the Borely Rectory haunting. Seeing a poster like that and getting the creeps would be more likely to cause an accident than prevent one. Imagine if your last view on this earth as you gradually succumb to your wounds inflicted from wrapping your car around a lamppost was this poster? Irony from hell.
So, that’s a look at my childhood terrors…I’m over it despite knowing that the Yorkshire Ripper is incarcerated just 5 miles down the road from me.