art, family, screen, words

Lost in History

Untitled, John Stezaker

On Saturday evening September 17, 1977, Leslie Munn went drinking with friends in Manor Park, east London, and never came back.

Just before midnight, Leslie was seen leaving The Star pub on Snowshill Road. A little while after, he was found sprawled in the middle of Warwick Road (E12), less than half a mile from his home. He had sustained serious head injuries and was unconscious.

Lying next to Leslie on the ground was his friend, ex-paratrooper Paul Lee (22). They were lined up adjacent to Paul’s wrecked car, which had crashed into the front wall of a nearby house. What happened between the two young men leaving the pub, and being found like this, remains largely a mystery.

Leslie was taken to East Ham Memorial Hospital and then onwards to St Bart’s teaching hospital, central London, where he was kept alive by an artificial respirator. He died the following Tuesday without regaining consciousness. By which point the police had launched a murder investigation.

Leslie Munn was 16 years old. His death certificate has the cause of death as ‘cerebral contusions and lacerations due to compound fractured skull.’

I knew Leslie from youth club.

Might sound silly now, but back then youth club was actually a big deal. Every Friday night, all year round, between 50 to a 100 youths, aged from 14 to 16, would gather at a youth club in an annexe next to the local Catholic church.

Leslie was two years older than me and had outgrown the club by the time of his death. Probably the last occasion him and his mates attended was the previous summer – on the night after their leaving day at school. I can hear the big boys that night lobbing boasts back and forth about their first proper jobs and how much they were getting paid. Leslie had landed a job as a messenger. One guy spoke of starting on £30 a week selling clothes at Mr Byrite.

Despite being connected to the church, and with God in such close proximity, the youth club wasn’t religious. Each Friday night started with the boys playing football in the playground of the primary school next door; while indoors, the girls danced to records. And then after football, the boys joined the girls upstairs, mainly to talk, dance and flirt.

At the end of the evening the lights would be dimmed for the slow dances – So You Win Again, I’m Not in Love, When Will I See You Again – and snogging in the dark corners of the room; if you were lucky.

In Boyhood Island, Book Three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s hypnotic series of autobiographical novels, the author remembers the glittery attraction of his village youth club growing up as a teenager in 1970s rural Norway. In the years when he was too young to attend, youth club figured as a ‘mythological place’ of promise. When finally his time came, Karl Ove’s debut night ‘felt as though I was being initiated into a rite of passage’. The first few Friday evenings he’d return home after youth club ‘with my head totally in a spin, normality cast under some mysterious spell… endlessly rich and alluring, full of hope and possibilities…’

I am angry, I am ill and I’m ugly as sin

Of course such sensations don’t endure – youth gobbles up promise as it rushes headlong towards the next big thing. But Knausgaard’s wistful romantic record of past times resonates. I always remember youth club in the glow of a summer’s evening; it’s never winter. And the people are always smiling; when in truth some of them were complete gits.

Leslie Munn was always friendly – surprisingly, for someone two years older; and not mean, like some in his gang. But he was also a bit gormless and a borderline twerp. He gurned a lot, but wasn’t funny. Neither was he cool, cute, or good at football; and didn’t appear to have much success with girls. Whatever social capital Leslie had to spend, he’d accrued by being best friend and sidekick to the leader of the gang of older boys – who would always descend upon and then later quit the club as a loud and boisterous unit.

I looked up to the older boys, they seemed like adults – but they were barely older than my son. This isn’t just a trick of perspective. Most working class kids were undoubtedly a lot closer to adulthood back then: firmly, ineluctably tethered to a recognisable story map, a preset lifespan.

Though we may sometimes speak of how kids grow up fast these days, we also know the way in which extended education supports a longer, broader, later adolescence, that segues into early adulthood – thereafter merging, if you’re lucky, into a seemingly endless middle youth.

But back in the 70s, many young people were teenagers one day, and grown ups the next. You left school at 16 and you went to work. Not one of my group of school friends continued onto sixth form, they all got jobs – in shops, as sheetmetal workers at Ford Dagenham, or down Tate & Lyle in Silvertown. A-levels and university were just some exotic faraway beach, never once contemplated as a possible destination worth pitching for.

Sugar… oh, honey, honey

My school sixth form was small and largely filled with people re-sitting CSEs, with only a handful studying for A-levels. Just two from my year went on to university – me and a guy who was good at science. (The school doesn’t exist any longer. They flattened it years ago. Not due to poor exam results, but because West Ham Football Club wanted the extra space.)

Leslie was out of school and into full time work – with marriage and kids likely to follow quite soon. There seemed no other way. There may have been numerous dissenting teen sub-cultures knocking around in the late 1970s – punks, mods, skins, even soul boys – but for the majority, teenage kicks was a brief fling.*

Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown

Five summers ago, temporarily finding myself under-employed in the relationship department with Vela, and feeling a bit idle, I started to think of Leslie Munn. I can’t say why. But overtime I grew preoccupied and decided that I would find out what happened to him that night. And then perhaps write something about his death.

The first thing to do was confirm that Leslie Munn was real and that I didn’t make it all up – perhaps, in truth, this was always the main motivation. The rumours that had been shared around concerning what actually happened to Leslie were so grotesque, and so far back in time, that you almost get so you doubt your own memory, where some past events can look both blurry, but also highly polished and artefactual – more resembling folklore, or fable, than the actual truth.

Did Leslie exist, did he actually die, was it really on the front page of the local paper? I hadn’t just concocted the whole thing, had I – as part of the backstory to my emerging middle class self; bit by bit, over the years, a dark, ghastly tale with a lurid gore providing extra flavour to the fact I’d part grown-up in the mad, bad East End of London.

I went online for some starter research – local forums, Friends Reunited, family history sites, neighbourhood resources, government records. And yes, Leslie was real; and yes, he died violently in mysterious circumstances.

But I didn’t do a tonne of digging – because I’m not studious like that, and anyway, there didn’t seem to be much out there to be found.

It was time to leave the house. I booked a session at the library in Stratford, and sighed. I don’t really like where I lived as a teen, and don’t often find myself going back that way. Now, I’m not saying I’m Jack Nicholson in Chinatown – dreading and detesting a former stomping ground as an amoral sinkhole of dark matter – but when I go out my front door I tend to go west, south, north, and very rarely east. But that’s just me.

At the Stratford Reference Library a much younger J looked at the cool model for the 2012 Olympic site, before setting up his Lego minifigs on a nearby table, while I scrolled through page, after page… after page, on the microfiche. I was looking for Leslie, squinting at small-print black and white scans from more than three decades back. And for a spell, time stopped.

Tilly Losch, by Joseph Cornell, circa 1935

The artist John Stezaker has written about the ‘total absorption’ he experienced on the first occasion he saw the artworks of Joseph Cornell in real life.** At being so ‘transported’ by Cornell’s magic boxes, with their uncanny, artfully recycled found objects, that he was overwhelmed by a kind of ‘loss of orientation in time and space.’ In describing his brief journey to somewhere leftside of normality, Stezaker references the writer Maurice Blanchot’s description of a fascination resulting in an ‘absence of time‘.

Well, here I was losing myself in Stratford Library, discovering how the past, something so intrinsically temporal, can also be an escape hatch out of time.

For a while at least. For going awol in history is one thing, the limited patience of a ten-year-old is something else. The Annoying Son had plainly had his fill of ‘Library Day!’ – as I’d craftily titled our atypical trip out. It was time to deliver on the bribe from earlier. I printed off my pages on Leslie and we went in search of donuts.

The Star pub – before it was knocked down

I have the newspaper print-outs in front of me. The Newham Recorder of September 22 1977 has Leslie’s death as the week’s lead story. The headline is ’Road Crash Killer Riddle’. The reporter is John Healy. ‘A murder inquiry was launched yesterday following the death of one of the two youths found seriously injured by the side of a wrecked car.’

Healy describes how Leslie and Paul had been seen drinking with friends at the Star. That they’d left at around midnight. (The pub was one of several known for ducking 70s licensing laws at weekends – hosting lock-ins past closing time on Friday and Saturday night.)

Leslie’s father David Munn says his son separated from his friends at the bus stop and took a lift in Paul’s car. ‘His injuries could not have been caused by the crash,’ he states. ‘We don’t know what happened.’

Healy writes that police detectives agree with Leslie’s dad, believing that the boys ‘were beaten, possibly with an iron bar.’

The front page item concludes by reporting how the police suspect that both Leslie and Paul were dragged to the side of the road, and placed next to the ‘wrecked’ vehicle. And that officers were looking to interview the occupants of a white car seen near the site of the crash.

A week later, and Leslie has slipped off the front page of the paper, to be found tucked away on page 5. ‘Coma Youth Clue to Death Riddle’ reports that murder squad detectives have an ‘an open mind’ on the case, but that their ‘main hope’ is Paul Lee, who was still in a deep coma in hospital, with officers ‘keeping a 24-hour vigil waiting for Paul to regain consciousness.’

By now the police had traced the driver of the white car seen dragging the ‘dying youth’ across the road ‘before driving off’; and had eliminated him from their inquiries. Michael Burke, an expat visiting from Australia, had spotted the bodies coming down Warwick Road, and stopped and moved them over to the side. He then continued to his parents’ house and called an ambulance. ‘[Burke] had nothing at all to do with the incident,’ say the police.

By the time of Healy’s third report – “ ‘Forgotten’ Clue to Death Riddle” – it is a few weeks later. Paul Lee is now awake, ‘recovering from a serious brain operation’ which has resulted in temporary amnesia. According to Paul’s mum, her son ‘can’t remember a thing about the accident.’

Healy reports how the ‘police believe that in his subconscious lies the clue to a mystery death [which had been] baffling them for a month’.

And yet something has already slipped away from the case, with the hunt for answers now over-layed with a mood of resignation. Notice the mum says ‘accident’. And that the police aren’t talking murder any longer – the iron bars have been forgotten.

Is this because they know for certain that it wasn’t homicide? Have they overturned their initial assertion that Leslie was murdered as a rash and misguided starter guess? Or, has a new version of events taken over that can’t be thwarted, a version better suited to the survivor’s future well-being? Is Paul’s subconscious refusing to cough up the truth – or is it better for the young man not to remember something so terrible, no doubt aware that if Leslie was killed, then the killers also now know who Paul is?

The police are quoted on the stalled state of the investigation. ‘The only person who can tell us what happened that night is Mr Lee.’ Is there a hint of exasperation in this bald statement of fact? Am I seeing too much here, because of too many crime novels and thrillers on DVD?

Paul Lee’s ‘temporary amnesia’ turned out to be long lasting. In late June 1978, an inquest into Leslie Munn’s death returned an open verdict.

The Newham Recorder reports on the case for the last time – ‘Mystery of Boy Found Dying in the Road’. The summary of the inquest relays how the police had initially launched a murder probe because of Leslie’s unusual head injuries, including ’a-four-and-a-half inch laceration’ to the back of the head. The pathologist, Prod James Cameron, said Leslie’s injury was ‘uncommon in a road accident’. And yet the police told the inquest how they could find no evidence of ‘anything sinister having taken place’. The article’s sub head is revealing: ‘Police probe fails to reveal cause of bizarre accident’.

Bizarre accident. The police were asked about Leslie’s body being moved and read out a statement on Michael Burke’s behalf explaining his actions. There then follows a quite ambiguous sentence: ‘PC John Churchman said he made a check on the car and found no sign of the two youths having been in it.’ The assumption that the report is referring to Paul Lee’s car – and not Michael Burke’s vehicle – is confirmed in the next paragraph, which states that ‘the passenger door [of Lee’s car] was open on impact with the garden wall.

Paul Lee’s car

So, if the boys hadn’t been in Paul’s car, then who had? Who drove the vehicle into the garden wall with the passenger door open?

Towards the end of the inquest, Paul Lee was called to the stand to give evidence, but his legal counsel objected as ‘the police had not definitely said whether they would be prosecuting him.’ The City of London coroner Dr David Paul agreed to the objection, ‘adding that from his statement, Paul had not been able to remember about the incident, anyway. 

And that was it. Open verdict on a cold case from a long time ago.

In June 1978, I was coming to the end of my fourth year at secondary school (Year 10). Every Friday afternoon I did double Art and was terrible at it. A bunch of us sat at the back of the class and talked all lesson – I don’t think we painted a single picture all year. Some of our group were part of the in-crowd (the Populars) – including a young woman whose elder brother had been Leslie Munn’s best friend. She said her brother had been in the pub that night. But hadn’t spoken about what happened. Not once.

The story at the time, the folklore in the area, certainly among teens that I knew, was that Leslie and friends had gatecrashed a party and got into a fight. They had then run for it, were chased – but Munn and Paul were eventually caught, and Leslie had an axe put through the back of his head.

At an online forum a poster remembers Leslie’s demise after all these years: ‘Kids being kids always used an macabre illustrative chopping motion when referring to Leslie’s death, that’s why I recall it.’
I’d forgotten the chopping gesture. But I do remember other things being said, like the shocking state Leslie’s head was in when the police first arrived at the crime scene.

And yet nobody on Warwick Road saw or heard anything. The whole street was already fast asleep just after midnight on Saturday. And when Paul’s car crashed into the garden wall – nobody woke up in time to look out the window and see who climbed out the wrecked car. There was not even a witness to Michael Burke hauling the two young men out of the middle of the road.

This is what’s so strange, and suspicious: it’s the silence that helps makes events look shifty. All the grisly rumours don’t help.

Maybe Leslie Munn was killed. Some people murder, they don’t get caught, and carry on with their lives. There are killers amongst us. Like the death of love, I find this an extraordinary idea.

Or, maybe Leslie and Paul were drunk and crashed the car. Staggered out of the wreckage and collapsed in the road. But then, why was the pathologist reluctant to ascribe Leslie’s fatal injuries to a crash? And why did the police say they found no sign that the two young men had been in Paul’s car?

You wonder if it’s not too late for someone to go back and dig around; not me, but someone who knows what they’re doing, and maybe find out for sure. But yeah, we’ll probably never know. Apart from anything else, memory is such an unreliable instrument. At the public library I was startled when I saw the first report in the local paper. I remembered Leslie’s face dominating the front page of the Recorder at the time – looming out. But in truth, Leslie shares the lead space with a story concerning a naughty dog, and the pic of the mutt and its owner is twice the size of the deceased teenager.

I also felt sure the event took place near East Ham tube. Down in the railway underpass at the bottom of our road. But Leslie and Paul weren’t even close to the station. My memory has tampered with the facts, pulling the tragedy closer to my own lifestory, while also folding in a dark, sinister underpass – because in urban horror that’s the kind of place where brutal murders occur.

So, getting to the bottom of it. Well, it’s not easy. I didn’t get very far chasing the story down five years ago. People I spoke with online said it was sensitive. Some hinted it might be risky disinterring old stories best left buried. But also, how was I going to figure it all out, I’m not a detective? I’m not Mr Tenacious Shrewd-Type, with unlimited hours to spend.

But could there be other reasons we don’t always flush out the truth? Writing about the life and cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, the critic Michael Wood characterises the film-maker as ‘a man exploring not so much our pursuit of knowledge as the reasons why it is so hard to come by.’ From Sabotage to Vertigo via The Man Who Knew Too Much, most of Hitchcock’s heroes often know something, but rarely nearly enough.

Despite the inner clamour or craving for facts, answers, closure and conclusion, there is a double bind lurking at the core of historical enquiry. Although history draws us in as a plausible place to find certainty, it is probably the last place we will find it. Not simply because facts can be elusive, but because so much is open to interpretation. Try definitively determining General Haig’s level of culpability at the Battle of the Somme. Then try doing it with your son onboard, the reluctant historian, as part of school homework, and you will understand the meaning of doubt – and also what frustration’s inner chamber feels like.

Better perhaps to think of history as a good place to get lost, to get out of here, for a while, heading off for a scenic, provocative wandering.

My mum has a seemingly endless suplly of stories to tell from her girlhood years in wartime Germany, and usually gets lost in the past. It’s not that she’s forgotten what happened; it is the act of heading off into the woods, with so many paths to go down, and never a final destination in mind. The track taken often detours down another track, only to then divide and split again, before performing an unexpected twist or turn as her memories meander in thrall to their own desire line. And only afterwards do you realise you didn’t find out the answer to your initial query.

Her mother’s cousin was a German police detective who was pretty good at catching crooks. For this reason he was allowed to continue in his position after the Nazis came to power, and long into the war, despite not being a national socialist. But this lack of political commitment caused resentment and started rumours and whisperings against him.

He shared an office with his boss. One day, the boss was out on a case when his phone rang. The detective reached across and answered it. The man on the other end of the line was calling from Berlin, police HQ; and, assuming he was talking to the boss, issued instructions to arrest the detective – that they were sending a car. The detective listened to his own name reported as a suspect, about to be taken in custody, and calmly continued with the misunderstanding and said he’d get on with the plan.

He then put down the phone, walked straight out the office, went home, picked up his wife and drove out of the city. No time to pack.

The detective and his wife crossed Germany, but were taken prisoner by the American military as they tried to leave the country. They had a large wodge of money on them – their share of her family inheritance. The money was confiscated and never returned. This was how the detective was remembered within the family: not as the man who was calm under pressure, but as the one who lost the inheritance; not the wily detective, but the fool who couldn’t hold on to his wife’s nest egg.

German prisoners of war in Russia,1944

After the war, the detective got his old job back and continued policing through to retirement. In contrast, my grand-father never resumed in his role as meteorologist at Nuremberg airport. Having worked there from the late 1920s into the mid 1940s, he was belatedly drafted into the army aged forty plus.

In the latter stages of the conflict, the age range for conscription was increased, with Hitler throwing men under the tanks, incapable of accepting defeat. Grand-dad was sent to fight on the Russian front; where he was captured and despatched to a prisoner-of-war camp. He was not a worldly man and a bit of an absent-minded professor. He gave a talk at the camp to fellow inmates – the men took turns to say some words about their hobbies as a form of evening entertainment – and he told his audience of prisoners how fortunate and privileged they were to be incarcerated here, as the view of the stars at night was of an exceptional quality.

the sky at night

Grandad was also known for his fascination for trains and railway timetables. At night, the inmates would hear the distant trains rumbling past, and my grand-father would tell them where the service was perhaps heading, or where it had just come from.

The Soviet Union didn’t release all of their German prisoners straight after the war. But in spurts and batches. Many never made it home, being simply listed as missing. The living conditions in the camps were abysmal and many thousands of inmates perished. A returning German soldier met my mum and described an older man who’d been in his bunk room: the man loved trains and stargazing, and had died. My grand-mother listened, nodded and said that sounds like my husband.

That was the only confirmation of his death the family received. Because the past doesn’t always wrap it up neatly.***

The best story of all is how grandad saved Hitler’s life. But this post has gone on long enough…

it’s a long way back

* Stezaker first encountered Cornell at Whitechapel Gallery,1981. In London’s East End. Had to be London’s East End.

** There was a thriving rocker scene in Manor Park. A large hairy one once punched me in the face once. I was walking past The Ruskin Arms pub on High Street North – a popular heavy metal venue where Iron Maiden played when starting out. I think he punched me because he didn’t like the way I was dressed. Maybe he considered me a bit mod, or soulie. But I was definitely neither. I was actually vanguard thrift store American college boy – see American Graffiti. If he’d looked a bit more closely, taken greater care identifying his pop tribes, maybe I wouldn’t have got punched.

*** A lack of official confirmation made for difficulties drawing her war widow’s pension for several years. Approximately three million German soldiers were taken prisoner by the Soviet Union during World War Two. The number who died is contested, estimates starting at almost 400,000, and rising to possibly as many as 1,000,000. So, my German grand-mother lived through two world wars, the great flu pandemic of 1918, uprisings, revolution, hyper-inflation, the Nazis, being bombed, invaded, country divided in two, economic devastation, German post-war reconstruction, Baader-Meinhoff, Gerd Müller, Kraftwerk.