Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Guided By Law

Before you dismiss the scrappy, dark man audibly sniffing like a hound dog on the corner as a random crazy Londoner, think again; he’s actually actor-turned-tour guide Simon Law giving a London Walks “Jack the Ripper” tour. Miles removed from a dry, historical walk, the “Jack the Ripper” tour gives visitors a compelling narrative of the Ripper’s killings interspersed with stints of improvisational theatre.

It is obvious that Law is an actor before he even mentions Jack the Ripper. As he advises tourists to keep their heads up and look both ways before crossing the street, Law’s contorted facial expressions, wide gesticulations and even occasional spittle let visitors know this is no ordinary tour. As the tour continues, he only gets more animated. Law reads invisible letters aloud, mocks the terror of the men who discovered victims’ bodies, recites the victims’ last words, and even becomes Jack the Ripper himself, hiding stealthily under a cloak, pretending to slash flesh in an angry rage. Law's transformations allow tourists to fully delve into the experience and makes the eight pound admission more than worth it.

Remarkably, Law is not London Walk’s marquee tour guide. The descriptions of the tour on the London Walk’s site are sprinkled with praise of Donald Rumbelow, a guide whose extensive experience working under various government departments of crime in addition to a stint as the chief consultant for every major television and film treatment of the Ripper for the last twenty years might lend itself to a more historical tour. While Rumbelow might be the Jack-the-Ripper star, visitors guided by Law are far from robbed of a good experience. What Law lacks in criminal studies experience he compensates for with professional acting skills and a necessary understanding of the power of pathos on an excursion such as this.

In addition to Law's acting, his use of pathos makes the Jack-the-Ripper experience. Law understands the goriness inherent in the Ripper’s narrative and, with phenomenal animation, he is happy to explicate it, so that visitors are engaged (if not totally disgusted). Though somewhat sickening, his descriptions of how women were cut open, their intestines removed and, in a few special cases, their faces pulled off make the tour memorable and also very real; they add depth to the London streets that is simply impossible to attain from a tour of the British Museum or Westminster.

In addition to a gory recount of murder, the “Jack the Ripper” tour is also a tale of crime and punishment in a city plagued by hardship. Jack the Ripper’s narrative reveals important truths about mid-19th century London, where an influx of immigration coalesced with poor living and working conditions to create realities of racism, crime and social disturbance in the East End. Prostitution was just one of the crimes that ran rampant in the city, with London's Metropolitan Police Service estimating that there were 1200 prostitutes and about 62 brothels in Whitechapel in October 1888. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jack the Ripper’s tale is rooted in this hardship: all of his victims were prostitutes who were left destitute and defenceless on London’s late-night unlit streets. Moreover, it is theorized that Jack the Ripper suspects have various ties with both the Freemason party as well as immigrant groups. Cast in the light of economic struggle and racial tensions, the “Jack the Ripper” tour becomes much more than a show.

In the end, it is this depth that makes the tour a valuable London experience. As tourists tread the very cobblestones on which Jack the Ripper killed (and stand in front of the pub where his last victim was last seen, and, at an especially poignant moment, touch the bench on which his victim was found) they are given not only a show starring Law, but also an immense appreciation for a city which has seen so much victory, but also so much blood. Keeping in character, Simon Law concludes the tour by recapping the major points of the saga and letting guests make the final call. “He was never caught!” he reminds us, thus providing a riveting ending but also a nagging worry to carry with us as we continue touring the city. Even after leaving the tour, Jack the Ripper’s legacy of gruesomeness and destitution seems alive. He lingers in the silent alleyways of Tower Hill. He taunts us as we travel through the East End.

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