To make money in Britain, try a beheading or torture

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

September 01, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Like to take the Jack-the-Ripper Walk? Trace the scenes of his gruesome crimes in Whitechapel?

How about a visit to the London Dungeon on Tooley Street? They advise you there: Don't scream or people will think you're one of the exhibits.

Then, of course, there's the Tower of London. A fine lot of mayhem went on behind those walls. And right now the Museum of London has a campaign on to draw more visitors. The Underground is plastered with posters advertising the museum's exhibits on The Great Bubonic Plague of 1665 that killed 65,868 Londoners. There's also an exhibit on the Great Fire of 1666, and one on our old friend Jack again.

Is this a way to impress visitors? With stories of beheadings, tortures, dismemberings, creative uses of red hot pokers? Is this the way for a country to present its history, as one long, continuous horror story?

Yes, actually. It is if you want to keep your visitors interested. Tourists to this green and pleasant land spend some $14 billion a year eating it up. They don't come here just to watch the Horse Guards, marvel at Westminster Abbey, gape at Buckingham Palace, drink warm beer and visit the Cotswolds.

They come to hear the ruddy-faced Yeoman warders in the Tower-- the burley Beefeaters -- tell of the decapitation of Lady Jane Grey ("Thwaaak!"), or ask with a fine rhetorical archness full of sinister possibilities, "Under that floor [in the Tower chapel], ladies and gentlemen, somewhere, lay the bones of Anne Boleyn, and the remains of who knows who else?"

Indeed, who does?

And on Tooley Street, just on the other side of the Thames, over Tower Bridge, one finds what one commentator called "wall-to-wall death." Being a private emporium, free enterprise and all that, the Dungeon's creators felt no constraint whatever in the colors they chose to paint the picture of England's glorious past.

These are invariably blood red: Life-like dummies are hanged, decapitated, gouged, pierced, burned, hoisted up in cages, and the exquisite techniques of the archaic torturers are described in about four languages -- so all the foreigners will understand how it was done.

And even Madame Tussaud's is not the place for the queasy of stomach, for in addition to the wax reproductions of the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II and other respectable prominents, if one wanders into the crime and punishment section -- well, it might put you off your food.

What is all this?

Is it simply what G. K. Chesterton once called "the healthy lust for darkness and terror?" Quite likely. Dr. Alan W. Swingewood, a sociologist of poetics and aesthetic theory here, thinks it might all harken back to the struggle in Britain to rid itself of its feudal system.

"The Tower relates to that period, and it was a quite brutal period and struggle," he said.

But he also suggests this love of crime and terror as entertainment might relate to the fact Britain is such a well ordered society, and this is a way of finding release from the constraints of too much order.

"Britain has been a well-ordered society since about 1880," he says. "Maybe that sense of order shows itself in a fascination for deviance from order."

l This, of course, is all just speculation on the professor's part, just as it is on everyone else's. But it is at least evident that the English have a fascination with crime and deviance. They have created more fictional detectives than just about any other country, or at least fictional characters who endure for years in their popularity and gain world-wide reputations.

Mrs. Marple comes to mind, of course, and most of all Sherlock Holmes and his bumbling sidekick, Dr. Watson. Holmes is so vivid a character that even today there are people in the world who think he's real and occasionally write to him at his Baker Street address.

The question, of course, is not answered definitively. The answer is not, as Holmes would say, "elementary." But one thing is certain. The British may not know what drives their interest in crime and punishment, but they know it makes for good business.

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