Metro 42

Richard Herring: Monsters are a product of the madness of city life

Richard Herring asks: if we can edit out dispossessed or frightening humans, why can we not monsters?

I am sure many of you were amused by last weekÂ’s news story of a red-eyed, howling Bigfoot turning up in Tunbridge Wells. Unlikely? Perhaps. Impossible? Maybe not. Hiding in plain sight in an unexpected location would be the best course of action for any mythical creature. If you passed a medusa in Minehead or a frankingstein in Framley or a shrek in Shrewsbury, your brain would surely pretend they werenÂ’t there. How many people do we successfully ignore because they are lonely or dispossessed or frightening? If we can edit out humans, why not monsters?
Historically, sightings of seemingly imaginary beasties are more common than you might think. My personal favourite first appeared on Barnes Common in September 1837. A businessman was taking a short cut after a late night at the office when he was confronted by a bizarre figure, leaping supernaturally high over the cemetery walls. It was described as devilish with large, pointed ears and googly, glowing eyes.
The cowardly businessman ran for his life and this would surely have been passed off as a drunken hallucination or an owl taped to a Space Hopper, but reports of the bouncy Beelzebub came flooding in from all over the city. He was dubbed Spring-heeled Jack.
Servant Mary Stevens was walking on Clapham Common when an assailant grabbed her, kissed and ripped off her clothes, groping at her with his ‘claws’ which were ‘cold and clammy as those of a corpse’. This prancing phantom was scared off by Mary’s screams.
The bodice-ripping and breast fondling became a calling card of this unholy terror, yet while not condoning such behaviour, itÂ’s quite a charming use of such diabolical powers. For all his abilities, Spring-heeled Jack seemed to have the imagination of a hormonally crazed schoolboy: touching up women before realising he didnÂ’t know what to do next and pogoing off into the night, like a peripheral character from Carry On Screaming played by Charles Hawtrey.
Still, London was gripped with fear. The descriptions became more lurid: Jack wore a tight-fitting oil-skin, had eyes that shone like fireballs and shot blue flames from his mouth. Could any of this be true or was it just the city caught up in a wave of hysteria? The threat was taken seriously. A 70-year-old Duke of Wellington was so incensed that he came out of retirement, pulled on his wellies, grabbed a couple of pistols and rode into the night in the hope of apprehending this satanic supervillain. Was a septuagenarian any match for this flame-spewing Zebedee? The Duke claimed to have come close to capturing Jack, but the wily ghoul eluded him.
So who or what was Jack? At the time there was a theory that the whole thing was a prank by the Marquis of Waterford, who had provided backing for many convoluted Victorian hoaxes. He was athletic and had prominent eyes but surely he was not capable of leaping 25ft in the air (or breathing fire) and it seems unlikely that he had invented some kind of 19th-century hover-pack. In any case, sightings continued after his death.
Others theorised that Jack was a mad acrobatic fire-eater, a dressed- up kangaroo (but who dressed him and why was this marsupial so obsessed with human mammary glands?) or an alien used to the gravitational pull of a larger planet.
I prefer to believe he was a product of the madness of modern city life. A monster forged from the imagination of Londoners, who they willed into existence and who became one of them. But with slightly better manners.
See RichardÂ’s reworking of his hit show, Talking Cock: The Second Coming, on his nationwide tour.

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