Let me tell you that right now it is 10:14pm on Monday, 8 June 2015, and I’ve just walked home from Ipswich town centre on my own. What’s more I felt safe and was safe. I’m not advocating that women walking alone at night in urban areas is a good idea and depending on how late and dark it is I’m more likely to get a lift. But it’s important to state that I feel safe this evening in Ipswich, the town I’ve called home for 12 years.
Tonight I saw a special preview of London Road, the film adaptation of the stage musical and this technically is a review so here are a few details: the screenplay and lyrics are by Alecky Blythe and the composer is Adam Cork. The director is Rufus Norris. All the words in the theatre show – now immortalised – are ‘verbatim’ performances, speech taken from recorded interviews with real people, set to music and shaped into narrative. London Road offers a perspective on how the murders of five young women in the winter of 2006 numbed and horrified a community. Like a lot of Ipswich people, I have a vivid recollection of events unfolding at the time. Seeing this film brought back emotions and details I’ve forgotten. I didn’t want to see the show when it was on at the National Theatre in 2011, no matter how good it was, because it felt too soon for me and so I can only comment on the screen version.
Here are my thoughts. The work is sensitive and honest. The cinematography is stylised with a muted colour pallet like Nordic Noir and shot (thankfully) in another location. You can tell that it’s based on theatre and the transition isn’t seamless, but credit for staying true to a vision, plus, you have to admire anybody who succeeds with an original musical in this day and age. The performances, including those by Olivia Colman, Tom Hardy and Anita Dobson, are top-notch. The presentation of Ipswich people is slightly skewed towards ‘yokel’ and a little insulting. Of all the things the movie might’ve got wrong, the inclusion of a football supporter wearing a red scarf was the biggest clanger of all. (Red? Really? Unbelievable.) And yet some of the interpretations of real people were so brilliant we knew immediately who they were. Councillor Carole Jones, played by Claire Moore, is as fab-oo-luss as she is in life.
A personal aspect
Since being published in 2011 I have avoided at all costs mentioning that I was involved in local partnership work to address street prostitution before, during and after December 2006. My author biography in print and online mentions jobs in the public and charity sectors, working for a member of parliament and at a women’s refuge. However I didn’t want to draw attention to such a recent, dark episode in our town, nor in any way to be misconstrued as benefitting from it while I had a book to promote. The unfortunate truth is that for many people – outside of lovely Suffolk – Ipswich reminds them of the murder of those girls. While the memory was still fresh it’s all they wanted to talk about. When it was happening here it’s all we could talk about too. It was dreadful.
Is a decade is a long time? Long enough, I hope.
Sumac: the five murders
Just to be clear there are no inside scoops here. I was very junior, my job description was a mishmash of objectives set by different agencies temporarily funding my post and I don’t believe I made a tangible difference to anyone connected with Operation Sumac (the case name after the five victims were linked) nor to those at risk of street prostitution, the way Iceni, Suffolk Constabulary and local community leaders did for example. I didn’t have the skills or influence. I was on a steering group but arguably I was meat in the room.
Some things I recall distinctly.
The underwhelming response by local agencies to street prostitution before Sumac. The issue was entrenched and there weren’t many resources to address it. This was not from lack of sympathy, it was simply that other issues had higher priority and so harm reduction and enforcement stayed at low level.
I remember being told in the meeting that 19-year-old Tania Nicol was reported missing and how our colleague hunched over when he said this.
I remember hearing that Gemma Adams, aged 25, was missing and the feeling of creep. The national press hadn’t caught on yet, but they were about to.
CCTV footage of Anneli Alderton, 24, on the train from Colchester was released following her disappearance. You may remember it also, she was the girl checking her hair in the train window reflection.
I remember being in a room with police officers who keep their radios on at all times, even while their drinking their tea, a burr of signals and information in the background so constant you stop hearing it; I remember the chatter fell silent as news came through that another body had been found and then, moments later, another. Annette Nicholls, 29, and Paula Clennell, 24, had been discovered in close proximity to one another.
As a town we were used to being ignored because Ipswich isn’t sexy. Now the world’s media descended upon us and gave a view in every editorial. Residents were pestered. People who had gone to school with one of the victims, even if they hadn’t spoken to her for years, were tracked down by journalists. Ipswich is a smallish place and many felt a personal connection to what was happening. A condolence book was opened in the town hall. One newspaper criticised the decision to hold a minute’s silence at an Ipswich Town football match (I’ll leave you to guess which one).
This was Christmastime and streets were empty after dark. Workplaces paid taxi fares for their female employees and a local businessman offered a reward for information because the women working in his company were the same age as the victims. Thousands of personal attack alarms were given away, a detail shown in London Road. Suspicion, loss and uncertainty, also shown. Some of us regarded our male friends differently for a time (sorry guys, it was nothing personal). No one was feeling festive and the local economy suffered deeply.
Street prostitution went from minor nuisance – to top priority, along with the resources and wherewithal to back it up. This is what happens following a tragedy: it focuses attention on a problem which was invisible before. Other towns now looked to Ipswich for best practice, for leadership, believe it or not, and organisations worked at the highest level to devise and deliver an action plan that had at its centre helping women exit.
I was given an action which surprised me. I was asked to do a literature review, which means reading and summarising all relevant information for my colleagues. Here’s why such a project is worth doing. Health practitioners, police officers and local government officials are experts in their fields and, at times of uncertainty, tend to revert to what they know. But prostitution with a street drugs component is such a complex subject, you need for everyone to take a rounded view. Admitting what you don’t know can be difficult. Accepting that there is no silver bullet and the only possible solution in the real world is a holistic one can get on people’s nerves.
Here’s some of what I learned and here’s what I think.
- ‘Prostitute’ is an offensive word. Call them sex workers please.
- What happens between consenting adults who don’t harm anybody is none of our business. We shouldn’t interfere with what is safe, orderly, discreet and done by people acting of their free will.
- I do not support legalisation of prostitution-related activities (and this is not a contradiction with the above). However, decriminalisation in consensual contexts remains worth exploring.
- Prostitution is like a spectrum of activities, ranging from the lucrative, lawful and freely acting . . . all the way through to modern slavery which includes violence, rape and a frighteningly high proportion of disappearances and murders, virtually all of them young women. ‘Prostitution’ is a catch-all term for these categorically different activities bearing little resemblance to one another. Street prostitution is its own thing and needs a unique response. Other types of activities require a different approach.
- Street prostitution is often linked with problematic drug misuse. This is when the question of consent becomes iffy because we’re into the realms of serious, complex social problems of which selling sex is just a part. I am loath to use the word ‘chaotic’ although it’s difficult to think of a better one. The women involved are marginalised and the help available to them severely limited. It is not safe, orderly or discreet when drug addiction plays a massive role.
- Helping women exit street prostitution is possible when the difference between urgent, basic support needs (e.g. harm reduction, drugs treatment, homelessness) and other support needs (e.g. counselling, debt advice, training for employment) is understood. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful model. A support package has to be holistic and woman-centred which means taking into account the full range of issues she faces and allowing for the possibility of relapse.
- Society has a hissy fit when the rights of sex workers are mentioned. People panic and it’s weird. This isn’t helpful, we cannot have a proper discussion with raised voices.
As part of the literature review I read about a very sane policy proposal from the Home Office a few years ago which would’ve decriminalised a sex worker who is based indoors, say in her flat, working with a maid for safety. Needless to say such an incremental, practical and controversial improvement didn’t make it to the statute books.
With so much insight and expertise out there, why aren’t we capable of giving this subject the consideration it deserves?
Stigma is what comes up time and again. Being a sex worker invites condemnation like no other job. This is demanding, risky, physical work – as indeed is servicing city drains, coal mining, waste disposal, being a professional soldier, working in a prison, and caring for adults with serious mental health disorders. Because it is mainly women, however . . . Because it is sex, however . . .
One of the saddest aspects to recur when sex workers become victims of crime is the view (from a minority, I hope) that they somehow brought their fate upon themselves; also the idea that the lives of sex workers might be worth less than those of women whose sexual practices are more ordinary. I for one do not think the lives of Tania (19), Gemma (25), Anneli (24), Annette (29) and Paula (24) were worth less than mine. I do not think there was a single choice they made that could ever, ever justify what happened to them.
In Ipswich people donated money to a fund called Somebody’s Daughter and later this helped to build Talitha Koum, a residential centre for women with addictions. As a direct result of their deaths, other women were helped and are still being helped.
There will always be women whose choices are limited and who are vulnerable as a result. There will always be more we can do to act responsibly, show our strength and give support. There will always be the majority who are compassionate – if puzzled – and individuals who emerge as leaders to address complex social needs. There will always be uncertainty.
Shortly after Sumac my literature review was put on the steering group agenda. I remember coming into the meeting room at Grafton House to find perhaps 20 colleagues not talking to each other because they were reading my paper. It was circulated by email and online for a while. I can only remember one piece of feedback: ‘Before this I didn’t know a lot about prostitution and now I feel that I do.’ Strange, because I wasn’t much wiser myself; research tends to raise more questions than it answers.
Outside of lovely Suffolk, Ipswich is still associated in people’s minds with the five murders and that’s regrettable. A movie musical based on these events reinforces the connection and gives me mixed feelings. Nonetheless after the preview we clapped because the work is good. The screening took place at Ipswich Film Theatre, a small, artsy cinema that has had its funding cut and is being kept alive by a band of committed volunteers. Alecky Blythe remarked on this as fitting. I like that.
I like that we have the New Wolsey Theatre here, officially the country’s most welcoming theatre. I like parkrun. I like Pulse festival. I like music day and the craft and vintage fairs. I like our historical connections to Cardinal Wolsey, Constable and Thomas Gainsborough. I like our more recent connections to Ed Sheeran, Richard Ayoade and Jimmy’s Farm. I like the Willis Building which was one of the earliest designed by Norman Foster. I like Ipswich Institute, Christchurch Mansion and Suffolk Book League. I like that an author called Eric Blair took his pen name from our river and became George Orwell. I like the Waterfront which has several of my favourite places to eat and drink, University Campus Suffolk, and Dance East. I like how people support ITFC (although football has never been my thing). I like Sutton Hoo, Aldeburgh, and that Nazis and UFOs are supposed to have landed nearby. I like that Ipswich people are generally kind and tolerant, and they come out in force for community occasions. I like knowing my neighbours by name. This place makes the writing possible and I feel safe here.