Friday, 27 July 2007

A taste for murder

A brutal murder, a cryptic note concealed in the victim’s coffin, a secret lover, a callous killer obsessed with re-enacting his horrific crime – it resembles a plot straight from the pages of the latest PD James novel. However, these are bizarre elements from a real murder trial that has captured the public imagination.

The murder of Rachel O’Reilly, a 30 year-old mother-of-two from Dublin, stunned the small, trusting community where she lived, and devastated her close-knit family. In the days following the discovery of her battered body in 2004, it was thought that Rachel was the victim of a bungled robbery attempt. It soon emerged, however, that police investigating the case believed Rachel had known her killer and that her murder had been carefully planned months in advance.

The spotlight immediately fell upon Rachel’s husband, Joe O’Reilly, who admitted in a number of extraordinary press interviews that he was a prime suspect in his wife’s slaying. The 32-year-old advertising executive vehemently denied any involvement.

A media frenzy ensued and the investigation took several bizarre turns, culminating in Joe O’Reilly’s conviction on Saturday, 21 July. It was a crime that captured the public imagination. We watched as the illusion of the idyllic suburban life the couple shared together began to shatter and the details of O'Reilly’s heinous crime immerged.

Public fascination with violent crime, particularly murder, has a long history. The so called ‘Red Barn murder’ is one of the best documented crimes in history, and it marks the beginning of a widespread public interest in murder trials.

In 1824, village beauty Maria Martin’s body was discovered in a shallow grave in a barn near Polstead in Suffolk, England. Her lover William Corder was arrested for the murder, brought to trial and executed at Bury St Edmunds in August 1828. That much is historical fact, but even before the trial the elements of the crime were being sensationalized. As the 19th century progressed new elements were grafted onto the story.

While Corder was still in custody plays were being performed before eager audiences. Ballard singers were performing songs connected with the murder. After the widespread press coverage thousands of visitors made a pilgrimage to the barn - over 200,000 during the summer of 1828 alone! Many took pieces of the barn as souvenirs. It was said that the barn's owner was so irritated that she threatened to have it demolished. It stood, however, until 1842, when an arsonist burnt it down during a period of agricultural unrest. The only known remaining relics are a wooden shoe-shaped snuff box and an iron stay from the barn doors (both now in private collections).

Maria's grave also suffered at the hands of souvenir hunters. After the inquest of 1827 her body was laid to rest in Polstead Churchyard, but was exhumed and used as an exhibit at Corder's trial. Even after she had been returned to her grave, Maria was not left in peace. Large numbers of visitors took away chips of the headstone as souvenirs until it completely disappeared. Nowadays the only indication of the grave is a wooden plaque nailed to a shed at the side of Polstead Church.

The legacy of the 'Red Barn Murder' lives on today – Murder in the Red Barn was the tile of a song of Tom Waits’ 1992 album Bone Machine – and the public’s interest in sensational murders remain unabated.

Perhaps, our fascination with murder reflects our own fears? After all, the sudden, unnatural death of others forces us to confront our own mortality. May it be, that through the killer, we get a terrifying glimpse at the darkest corners of our own psyches?

The Suspect: The Killing of Rachel O’Reilly, by Mail on Sunday journalist Jenny Friel will be published by Maverick House in September.

– Gert Ackermann, Publicist

Monday, 23 July 2007

Chasing the Tiger's Tail

Authors Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin comment on the arduous process of researching Kill the Tiger: Operation Rimau and the Battle for Southeast Asia.

DURING OUR collaboration on The Battle of Brisbane we became thoroughly familiar with the war in the Pacific up to the end of 1942. This formed the background to the drama detailed in that book. We also learned of some of the behind-the-lines activities of the Allied Special Forces.

We knew, for example, of the adventures of the Krait when a commando team sailed the old scow from Australia far into hostile territory to attack Singapore Harbour in 1943. But the Rimau Raid of 1944—in which many of the same personnel participated—first came to our attention when Peter received a letter from his friend John Parker, chronicler of the Special Boat Service. It contained some intriguing research material—compiled by an enthusiastic amateur—and John suggested there was a cracking story to be told. Peter brought it to Australia from his London base during the launch of The Battle of Brisbane. And since there was a rare chance for us to work in physical proximity—Robert being based in Canberra—we made a number of forays at the Australian War Memorial. We were soon chasing a range of fascinating leads.

Rimau had a publishing history. Some excellent groundwork had been done, particularly by Tom Hall of Sydney, to retrace the steps of the raiders. But we were utterly unprepared for the new material that we were able to uncover as gradually we found ourselves dealing with the most ambitious and heroic commando operation of the Pacific War.

Moreover, at a crucial point in our investigation we lucked upon a document which laid bare the determination of the highest levels of the British Establishment to develop and deploy Operation Rimau at all cost. Suddenly much of the obfuscation which for half a century had puzzled and frustrated researchers was swept away.

And as we followed the brave men of Rimau on their extraordinary mission we became ever more conscious of the dark and terrible forces drawn into the unfolding saga. We were also extraordinarily fortunate to discover two people for whom the events of Rimau in 1944 and 1945 still reverberate— Clive Lyon in England and Roma Page in Australia. They became our guides and our companions as we strove to lay bare the story beneath the story.
We, like all who have been touched by this heroic episode amid the horror of war, are greatly in their debt.

Peter Thompson & Robert Macklin

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Love heals all that it touches

Bound to a wheelchair, missing copious amounts of his teeth, ironically the few that remain look desperately lacking, struggling to place his useless leg upon the foot piece of his all too familiar wheelchair, Dten forces a crooked smile resembling that of a stroke victim.
Dten, a southern Thai Moslem, orphaned as a young boy by a well-off family due to the mother’s hasty departure to be with her lover, still smiles. He was crippled by an accident that took four lives in his mid-twenties, yet he still smiles.
It’s hard work to smile, yet he works conscientiously to achieve this feat. He has no bathroom to relieve himself, but he still smiles as his 80-year-old adoptive grandmother collects his morning waste in a plastic bag to dispose of into the dirty slum in which they inhabit some ignoble lean-to. He smiles as he pushes his wheelchair that has been long missing the rubber to run its wheels smoothly. He smiles and concentrates as he gives it his all to push the cumbersome chair backwards for he has no strength to push it forward all in an attempt to gather some water in a cheap plastic bucket to wash with.
Widowed Granny, cloaked in the inexpensive Islamic dress of those who suffer poverty along with her elderly daughter smile also in great humility thinking nothing of looking after someone they have no obligation to help. Concerned only for his welfare after Granny dies, she prays for a way to solve their dilemma. She prays, smiles, laughs and cries secret tears.
An unassuming figure dressed in a yellow head dress notices something amongst the movement of daily life all familiar within the slum. She is trained to. She is a volunteer working alongside the dedicated staff at the Lagnu hospital in Satun—which is not a planet by the way, it so happens to be the name of the province. Here Buddhists, Muslims, highly educated doctors and uneducated peasants work side by side to make life better for the surrounding communities rife with HIV, disabilities and poverty. She spots him; she deftly secures the needed information that spurs the hospital into action.
The hospital team seek him out, surprised to discover that he has been unable to walk for five years mainly due to fear of failure, not knowing where to start and utter helplessness.
The beautiful nurses, the dedicated peasant volunteer and his ‘family’ all get behind him to work towards mobility. The slum comes out to watch.
His large framed body is a contradiction to his disability. But he must work at rebuilding his useless leg and arm; he does so amidst cheers and through pure determination for weeks on end.
Then appears a walker, he timidly looks at it, holds his breath, is forced to his feet and takes his first steps in half a decade. The community is astonished. He is jubilant.
Faith is born, he studies daily and is about to complete grade six so that he can find some time of work. While still confined to a wheelchair for the most part, he is ambulatory to a degree and he has spirit to keep on fighting.
Today, he came to the hospital where I was invited to view the local projects, inspire and share some ideas with staff and volunteers. He spoke his piece—through contorted facial expressions but ever so poignant. He said how grateful he was that he was not forgotten. He was given public recognition, media coverage, donations and clothing and last of all and
the only thing that I could offer him, a touch of love, a tight hug, a huge kiss and words of admiration for his wondrous bravery and commented on his bright handsome face.
He beamed as he came to life. “ Handsome? Me? Handsome?” His face registered quizzically and as fast as the thought came, he responded with how beautiful I was in English. We all laughed, cried and hugged. It still always amazes me how such a small deed of love can have such an incredible impact!
He is under continuous care, he will do better and not only that I contacted a large TV program here who promised to look into doing a feature on him and hopefully bring assistance to his poverty stricken conditions. After all, if anyone deserves the help, he and his family do.
It was great to be a part of many folk’s efforts to make a difference to just one important soul.
Cultural and religious gulfs were bridged in a very troubled area by love and with this miracle came new beginnings for me.
New beginnings indeed as I have been invited to assist the Hospital Accreditation Institute under the Ministry of Health with their new pilot project as a volunteer and advisor. “JIT ASAR” the name of the project means Humanized Care and that is just what this project embodies.
We will be working with a team of six accredited hospitals from every corner of Thailand combined with doctors, nurses and other health officials from the Institute. Together we will inspect and critique the “Loving Hands” projects of the six hospitals and then convene a workshop to analyze and summarize our findings. These findings will be put together in a workable format for 200 hospitals nationwide to implement.
I am very excited as I see it a great opportunity to Change the World with Love! Also it fits perfectly with another project that I am starting at The Central Chest and Lung Hospital here in Nonthaburi through teaching the staff English and visiting HIV and Cancer Patients.
Additionally, I plan to continue carrying out any other care-giving projects that frequently comes my way, as well as the weekly visits to Bang Kwang Prison and the Women’s Shelter to encourage the women, children and HIV positive patients residing there.
Love is great but don’t wait to catch it, be a carrier and pass it on to as many as possible.