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Moral responsibility

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Myra Hindley
Diana Athill Writer
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Myra Hindley came into my life because… now how was it? The firm was approached by David Astor. David Astor rang up André and said… you know, he was very interested in her and he used to go and see her quite a lot. And said that he and a man called Timms, I think, who was a prison chaplain, had been working with her. And they both felt that it was very important for her to get to the very bottom of what she'd done, for her soul's sake, as it were. And would we consider me working with her on her autobiography. And if so, could we come and meet him and Simms at his house and talk about it? But my first and instant feeling was 'no', and I think André's really was, too, but still we both thought it was too interesting not to go and talk. And so we went and talked. Timms was quite… I mean he was a chaplain and he was, like a good Christian man, believing that she could perhaps save her soul by total penitence. You know, proper penitence. She had admitted guilt, but she had always had, sort of, saving clauses, you know. That she'd been young and that she'd been frightened and that he had hypnotised her, more or less.

[Q] Ian Brady?

Brady, yes. David, I think, thought that probably, as a psychiatric… more psychiatric approach, that it would be very good for her, that there she was in prison for the rest of her life, that it would be sort of be a help to her, and it would help all of us to understand evil.

Well, really what I thought was, A: that I didn't see why that it would really save her soul, probably. And B: that one doesn't understand evil beyond a certain point. You… and, you know, knowing more about it doesn't really help. It just gets on being more and more mystifying.

But, on the other hand, my curiosity was so much aroused at the idea of perhaps going and seeing her and talking to her, that I… what really… they then gave me the first chapter or two that she'd worked on, which was impressive. It was her childhood, and up to the point where she first met Ian Brady. And she wrote well, she wrote simply, she was obviously an intelligent woman. She could clearly… absolutely could clearly explain, make one understand how this working-class girl who was very conscious of being more intelligent than any of her relations, and had rather a chip on her shoulder about not being much educated, gets a job.

And there's one very peculiar man at the job, who everyone's a little bit scared of, and he's clearly brilliantly intelligent and he's read millions of books, and he takes her up. She's 19. And makes her his friend and starts lending her books. You can understand why she was deeply flattered by this and excited by it. And you can understand, up to a point, that his whole idea that his scorn for the rest of the world, how one ought to be above the sort of moral considerations of boring, ordinary people. At the age of 19, you know, it was quite seductive. And all that she described very well. But when she began to come to the point where it actually began to happen, she ground to a halt, not unnaturally, and wanted help.

Well, I went there. I saw her. We were alone in the room together, the wardress was sitting outside an open door, snoozing, I think, most of the time. I saw her for an hour, we talked. She was an extremely interesting woman to talk to, because it was extraordinary that you could have been in prison, as she had, I think it was 22 years at that stage, and be so little apparently institutionalised. She was on tranquilisers. You could tell that at first, because her voice was a little bit slow and careful, and Timms told me afterwards. I said, 'Was she on tranquilisers?' He said, 'Yes, she has been on tranquilisers for quite a bit, since she volunteered to help'. I do remember that. She volunteered and was taken out of the prison up to the moors to try and find one of the children's bodies, which never has been found. And that was a very, very disturbing thing for her, and she became quite unable to sleep, and they put her back on tranquilisers after that. But towards the end, of course, the tranquilisers were wearing off and she was talking more fluently. We talked about writing. We talked about the boredom of being in prison. We talked about what she called 'my old men', which was Longford and David Astor, who she laughed at in a scornful way.

And she was… we could have gone on talking much longer. She was interesting to talk to. And in a funny way, I liked her. But at the end of it, I was absolutely sure that I wasn't going to do anything of the sort, because I thought, now look, she had worked… if it's talking in terms of her and her soul, she had worked out a way of surviving in prison. You know, she could fool herself up to a point that she had become a Catholic, that she had confessed. You know, she'd made a modus vivendi for her, and there she was going to be in prison for the rest of her life, and she might as well be allowed to live it as best she could. And if she was made to truly relive what she had done, I didn't think it would save her soul at all. I thought she would go mad. I thought she would simply flip. Because she was quite intelligent enough to know that she ought to be dead, and she'd faced that fact and it would do no one any good. And I thought, and I went on thinking, as I had about David's argument, that one wouldn't know any more how or why anyone could do such a dreadful thing. So I simply said 'No', and that was that. And, you know, everyone agreed in the firm that if we'd done anything anyway, it would have just been News of the World at a higher level, so what was the point of doing it?

[Q] It could have been a quite successful and financially profitable book, I suppose.

Well, yes, but I mean, you know, still at a News of the World level, I mean. Because it was obscene.

[Q] Similar to Gitta Sereny and Frank Stangl, except that she did do it and you didn't with Myra Hindley.

Yes, in a way, because in fact… No, in fact, you learnt more, you learnt more about how he had been slowly corrupted from him than one could learn from Hindley, really. Because she hadn't been slowly corrupted, she'd sort of plunged into it. I think she had been very scared by him, you know. I don't think she was making that up. I think he had become scary. But on the other hand, with nothing to prevent her scooting away to the police station and saying, 'Help, help'.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Myra Hindley, David Astor, André Deutsch, Ian Brady, Lord Longford

Duration: 8 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008