‘My dad worked for the Yorkshire ripper’:

logo1646 Tea CircleAs a schoolgirl in 1970s West Yorkshire, Jennie Godfrey was always aware of the Yorkshire Ripper’s creeping threat. ‘Even at the age of seven, we played Ripper chase – a perverse variation on kiss chase – in the playground,’ says the 53-year-old debut novelist.

Godfrey was born in Batley, a small working-class town just three miles from Dewsbury, where the investigating police officers, known as the Ripper Squad, were based.   

She had what she describes as a ‘traditional Northern childhood’. Her dad was a mechanic, repairing lorries for a local haulage company, and her mother cared for Godfrey’s severely disabled elder sister.

When she was nine, Godfrey ran away, triggering a police search. This is when the reality of the Ripper set in.

‘I was a properly unhappy child,’ she recalls. ‘First of all, I went to the woods with my little tea set and my Famous Five book. When it started to get cold and dark, I went to a babysitter’s house. 

She rang my mum and she rang the police. When they came to talk to me the police said: “Everyone was very frightened for you because of the Ripper.” It was not long after he’d killed Josephine Whitaker. 

She was 19, a building society clerk, and that changed everything. [Almost all the previous victims had been sex workers.] As children we’d had a lot of freedom – we could play out from eight in the morning until it got dark with no one worrying. Suddenly we all had to be afraid of him, whereas we hadn’t before. 

We had to say where we were going, who with and when we’d be back.’

Jennie today and wit her sister Susan (left) in the 70s; Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe; PM Margaret Thatcher

On 2 January 1981, the Yorkshire Ripper – 34-year-old Peter Sutcliffe – was caught. It was five years after his first murder; he had killed 13 women. 

The moment is ‘one of my strongest childhood memories’, says Godfrey: her family were watching TV together and, when Sutcliffe’s picture flashed up, Godfrey’s father David said: ‘Bloody hellfire, I know him!’

It turned out that Sutcliffe had worked as a truck driver and David had serviced his lorry regularly. ‘Dad just kept saying, “But I know him. He’s quiet, unassuming, quite shy. This is not happening, not possible.” 

He went off to his work van to find the records Sutcliffe had signed when Dad serviced his lorry. He had to show us to prove it. He was so shocked, and I absorbed that.’

The next day, Godfrey went to school and told everyone: ‘No one believed me. They just thought I wanted attention.’

Godfrey didn’t dwell much on her childhood until one evening, in December 2019, she sat down to watch a documentary series called The Yorkshire Ripper Files. Everything came flooding back.

The next day, as she walked her staffie Rocco, an idea for a book popped into her head.

Dad saw Sutcliffe’s picture and taller colaborador said, ‘Hellfire, I know him!’ 

‘It sounds a bit woo-woo, but the whole thing just came to me on that dog walk – including the title, The List of Suspicious Things,’ she says. ‘I ran home and started trying to get it all down. I didn’t stop writing until nine that night.’

The story is set in Yorkshire in 1979; Margaret Thatcher is prime minister, drainpipe jeans are the tweenage must-have. The main character, 12-year-old Miv, is obsessed with the murders that are changing her area from a trusting community where nobody locks their doors to one where women are afraid to go out in the dark.

She decides to draw up a list of suspicious things and ropes in her best friend Sharon to investigate.

It sounds dark, but Miv’s inquisitive voice lets Godfrey bring a light touch to her subject. ‘Life when I was growing up was simple like that,’ she says. ‘There were some tough things going on, of course, like domestic violence. 

People talked about it, but then just got on with it. I wanted to get that matter-of-factness across.

‘There’s a lot of me in Miv. I was a very bookish child and top of the class, which is never a good place to be! So

I was a bit of a loner, apart from having my friend Sharon, who I used to walk to school with.’ (The real-life Sharon is OK with having the same name as Miv’s best friend.)

In the months before Godfrey got her book idea, she had what she calls a ‘midlife meltdown’. After decades in the corporate world, where she had risen to become HR director of a FTSE 100 company, she had taken voluntary redundancy and moved to Somerset.

Thanks to the redundancy money, Godfrey had a bit of time to decide what to do next and with Miv now in her head, she signed up to a creative writing course. Then lockdown hit

Living alone and unable to see her friends, she wrote. By September 2020 she had her first draft. Through the writing course, she was approached by an agent, and for a year they worked on the book together while Godfrey supported herself by taking a job in the local branch of Waterstones.

In May 2022, days before her agent planned to submit the manuscript, Godfrey’s mum suffered a bleed on the brain, losing 70 per cent of her sight. ‘I drove straight to Stoke Mandeville hospital. I got an email from my agent saying she’d decided to send it out early to a handful of people but I was so distracted, I didn’t read it properly at the time.’ 

When Godfrey was driving home later, her agent phoned and told her to pull over. Within six hours they had their first offer, and more came. Over the following week, Godfrey took calls with various editors in the hospital car park, ‘wearing my holiest leggings and definitely not looking like an author’.

Godfrey won’t say how much she was paid, only that it’s ‘enough money not to have to worry for a bit’. The book is already being translated into four languages, has been picked for BBC Radio 2’s Book Club, and screen rights are a possibility. 

For most of her life, Godfrey wanted to write, but ‘I put it on the back burner because people like me don’t get to be novelists,’ she tells me – now a novelist, sitting in a meeting room at her publisher’s office, high above the Thames.

The List of Suspicious Things will be published this week. Godfrey’s mum can no longer read, but she will listen to the audiobook, which is narrated by actress Joanne Froggatt. 

Godfrey’s dad has read a proof version. ‘He’s always been one of those 1970s dads – never effusively warm, hardly ever reads books. But he read this and he’s telling the world about it.’

Why does she think a book about the impact of the Yorkshire Ripper on one girl’s childhood resonated so much with people?

‘When I was writing the book, I would test pieces out by doing public readings. And by the end I would always have a queue of women wanting to tell me their experience of him. That’s one of the reasons I had the confidence to go for it.’ ‘I was definitely changed by the Yorkshire Ripper – I think a whole generation of women were. It’s always women. And they’ve all got a story.’

 

Jennie’s novel The List of Suspicious Things will be published on Thursday by Cornerstone, £14.99. To order a copy for £14.24 until 25 February, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £25. 

Collage: Ellie Allen-Eslor

Yorkshire Ripper

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