In the impressive and beautiful book Londres Noir
(La Felguera Publications, 2015), we find an anthology of thousands of profiles and chronicles published in The Newgate Calendar, situated between two priceless pieces of journalism: an account by Charles Dickens
of his visit to “London’s bleak deposit of shame and misery” and a brief history of the Maiden or Scotch guillotine, predecessor to the revolutionary French contraption by the same name. We’ve contacted with Servando Rocha
, from the La Felguera collective, so he can tell us a Little more about this project and about why bands such as The Pop Group
, Sleaford Mods
, Sex Pistols
o English Dogs
have been chosen for the furiously punk playlist that they recommend as a musical accompaniment to the book (the list is below, don’t be so impatient!).
In-Edit Beat: Tell me about how you discover The Newgate Calendar and what made you decide to use this collection of tales as the opening to your True Crime series.
Servando Rocha: We’re all very attracted to the whole True Crime genre and we were very surprised to discover that, to date, no one had published a specific collection on the theme. When you travel to England or to the United States it’s very common to find a section in any book shop dedicated to True Crime. At the same time, in Spain many people have asked themselves the questions “what were the «penny dreadfuls»?” after having seen the famous and magnificent series. Our idea was to narrate the literary precedents of subjects that have drawn our interest at the Publisher’s, such as the entire universe surrounding Jack the Ripper. We can look at the Newgate Calendar as a sort of big brother in that world; it’s a source of inspiration and an example of how the world of criminals and crime turns into a literary phenomenon. We have to bear in mind that the Newgate Calendar was a monthly executions newsletter produced by London’s sadly infamous Newgate prison’s guard, and not only did it influence the apparition of the “penny dreadful” novels, but also the gothic and detective fiction genres. We started working on old manuscripts, carrying out a careful selection of crimes and criminals. The Newgate Calendar can easily total a thousand pages, so we had to make a selection. We chose the different profiles that we found fascinating, making sure not to repeat the same assassins, those guilty of poisoning, pyromaniacs or political conspirators. There were hundreds of examples of each. We even chose some pretty shocking and pitiful criminals, to attempt to reflect that not everything that appeared in the Newgate Calendar was so tremendously outrageous. We are of the opinion that the result is a work, the spirit of which is at the height of what it relates or it aspires to relate. The next step was to work on another selection, this time of old images and old inscriptions, so that each profile would function on its own. We must bear in mind that, not even in the original edition were the criminal’s real faces faithfully represented, this was something we picked up on immediately. So we used sequences of images and illustrations in their own right that could uphold and justify the story. We think the result is really fun.
Towards the end of the XVIII century it was advised that English children read the Newgate Calendar as a sort of lesson in morals, in what terms would you recommend it nowadays?
I think that the good thing about all the stories included in Londres Noir is that there’s a real distancing. I think each reader should take it as they choose and start the book however they like. However I think it’s more enjoyable when, through the read we start to grasp all of that English tradition that fascinates us so: Thomas de Quincey or Charles Dickens, the universe surrounding Jack the Ripper or even el From Hell by Alan Moore. I think it’s really fun. You have to bear in mind that, at the time, it wasn’t well looked upon as it seemed to glorify the criminals, despite there always being a copy of the Newgate Calendar in all English homes. The result is that English kids grew up with those names and images. That marks you.
As it happens, in the book’s introduction you say “the English were as proud of their criminals as they were of their troops”. In Richard Turpin’s case this is easily understandable as his legend has a “Robin Hood” kind of tinge to it. It’s a slightly different matter that in the nineties someone named a restaurant Sawney Bean, after the cannibal patriarch. Clearly the pop icon status of someone like Charles Manson evolved from a phenomenon that we can trace way back…
The detective novel and the dark-esque thriller would appear as a result of crime being viewed from the world of the arts. That is to say, criminals started to be valued for their skill. If you look closely you’ll see that in thrillers there are two people in the story facing each other, they represent good and evil. The English have a tradition by which certain criminals are considered “masters of crime”, so it’s hardly surprising that someone like William Burroughs, for example, should define Jack the Ripper as the “Literal swordsman of the 1890’s”. Charles Manson, on the other hand, has not passed into history as a master of crime, but as a personification of evil and a symbol of the end of the hippie era. It’s true that historiography is way too easy and that it tends to land on common ground, but in Manson’s case it’s true. He wanted to be a rock star. He wasn’t worth much as a musician, so he chose the path of murder. He didn’t kill anyone, well, not in person, but he has passed into history as “the assassin” of the last possible romanticism, that of the sixties.
Traditional song honouring the bandit Richard Turpin, executed in 1739. Aside from Shirley Collins, other folk artists such as Ewan Mac Coll or Jake Bugg recorded several versions.
In the playlist that we’re about to listen you haven’t strictly adhered to the literality of traditional British folk based on the misadventures of the famed criminals who appear in the book, instead you’ve opted for a much more contemporary repertoire; why?
Because we like those bands. When we create the playlists for our books, we choose whatever tracks we feel like. At La Felguera this is pretty common; we do that which pleases us with no further ado. We’re people who grew up listening to rock n’ roll, punk and underground music, so the result is gonna reflect that. Resorting to folk was an option, but even so it would have seemed out of context.
Sex Pistols – No feelings
One of the greatest tracks on one of the best records in rock history, without a doubt. It’s a perfect song, in a way John Lydon’s voice and lyrics remind us of someone like Sawney Bean and his cannibal family. I imagine that they themselves, in that cave where they murdered dozens of people, felt no kind of empathy for their victims.
Atari Teenage Riot – Blood in my eyes
For a while they were the only «electronic» band we liked. They were always punks, and some of their songs and records are unbelievably loud. We like them. The perfect music for a revolt.
English Dogs – Free To Kill
We felt like including a dirty English punk track; it’s very eighties, a genuine punk license to shoot indiscriminately.
Sleaford Mods – You’re Brave
One of the best bands of recent times. We were at their gig in Madrid. It was unforgettable.
Alternative TV – The Ancient Rebels
Possibly one of the most interesting bands in England’s first punk scene. Time has stood still for tracks like this, somehow they sound really contemporary… almost untouchable.
Mick Farren & The Deviants – Shock Horror
Everything Farren has ever composed is great. We liked him with Social Deviants and later in Pink Fairies; we were very saddened by his death. The Angry Brigade blew up his hippie clothes shop, Biba, and that enraged him. It was his only regrettable moment. As for the rest of the time, he was a genius.
Hawkwind – Hassan I Sahba
The name of the chief of the legendary sect The Assassins is misspelt, but we don’t care. We always loved the cosmic rock of Lemmy’s old band. Stellar.
Dircharge – Decontrol
Huge band. When they composed and recorded this hit the band sounded perfect. Everything would change later on, but we stay true to their first records.
Servando Rocha is the author of essays such as “Agotados de esperar el fin”- (Tired of waiting till the end) - (Virus, 2008), “La Facción Caníbal. Historia del Vandalismo Ilustrado” – (The Cannibal Faction. An Illustrated History of Vandalism.) - (La Felguera, 2012) and “Nada es verdad, todo está permitido. El día que Kurt Cobain conoció a William Burroughs” – (Nothing is true, everything is allowed. The day Kurt Cobain met William Burroughs) - (Alpha Decay, 2014). Recently he received the prize for the best essay of 2015 from the “Gremio de Libreros de Madrid” (Madrid’s Book Shop Guild) for his last book “El Ejército Negro. Un bestiario oculto de América” – (The Black Army. An occult American bestiary). (La Felguera, 2015). We recommend them all.