Illustration by Rachel MacNaghten.
CW: violence against women, child abuse. Sort-of spoiler at the very end.
It’s been a while, and it’s nice to be back. This is the first instalment out of two surrounding the complex, intertwining plot of Kate Atkinson’s ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’. The book takes its title from an Emily Dickinson poem of the same name and follows the increasingly strange and entwined lives of several characters in Leeds. In particular, the character of Tracy Waterhouse – an ex-policewoman who impulsively buys a 4-year-old girl from an abusive woman.
The plot moves between time periods, flicking between Tracy’s early career when Peter Sutcliffe – also known as the Yorkshire Ripper – was on the loose, and modern-day Leeds. Atkinson excellently captures the terror that gripped Yorkshire and parts of Lancashire as Sutcliffe terrorised the areas’ red-light districts in the 1970s and early 1980s. Sutcliffe was questioned nine times, and only fell into the hands of the law once he had been caught driving with fake license plates. Not because of the 22 women who were victims of his crimes, and the innumerable others who slipped past the police’s radar.
My own mum was a child living in Manchester at the time of Sutcliffe’s crimes. She describes this period as being quite frightening as a 13-year-old, as Sutcliffe had killed someone of a similar age to her. Nobody knew who he was or where he would next strike, and that was the worst part. His range of killings, from Sheffield to Manchester city centre, meant that the public did not really know what he was capable of – if it was the same man – and brought to light how unsafe women truly were in their own hometowns.
“Not long after the Ripper was caught, ‘Women are safe again,’ an inspector said to her over congratulatory beers and Tracy was so drunk that she had laughed in his face.”
Tracy, interestingly, is one of very few women within this fictitious representation of the police force, and is presented as undesirable, masculine, and perpetually childless. Despite this, she appears to be the only voice of reason in the police force at the time and a speaker on behalf of women; fully aware of the fact that “taking one mad, bad bloke off the streets” would not make women safe.
Yet, even as this beacon, she still takes a child away from the woman she believes to be her mother and goes on the run after Kelly Cross (the woman mercilessly dragging the little girl) is murdered. She is an unstable character, and her desire to have a child – although a very human one – to such a degree is both unrealistic and, on the surface, rather misogynistic. Without her actions, the plot could not commence, so perhaps it is on purpose that Atkinson creates a character who is so contradictory in her appearance and personality. Certainly, she does an excellent job of portraying the demeaning way in which women on the police force are treated. However, Tracy’s actions are so spontaneous, out of character, and impulsive that it is difficult to view this choice as anything other than satirical.
Strangely, this chain of events also mirrors another true crime case from Yorkshire, which was much more contemporary to the writing of the novel. It was that of Shannon Matthews, a little girl who ‘went missing’ in 2008 but had actually been handed over to an uncle by her mother in a plot to gain the £50,000 reward. A day or so after Tracy bought the girl, Kelly had somehow found her phone number and called her with threats of reporting her if she did not hand over more money. Whilst we do not know who the real mother to the girl is, it is clear that it is only her abductor who cares about her wellbeing. To almost everyone else who had been in her life, she was merely a cash cow to be profited from in some way or another – just like in the heart-breaking case of Shannon.
Atkinson overall subverts and matches our expectations of people and their true intentions throughout this book. Police officers are usually the villains who wear masks made of bureaucracy and nepotism to keep them safe as the daylight breaks, and it is always the children who suffer in the end. Women are seen as objects for sex or not really considered at all by their male counterparts. Whilst some of the background lightly dips its toes into historical truth, the plot itself is fictitious. Yet, its realistic take on the harsh realities of our own world makes it easy to forget, and we are left wondering who the Tracys of the world are, and where the Len Lomaxs lurk.
Resources for those affected:
In any emergency, always dial 999 first to speak to an operator who can alert police, ambulances and the fire service of your location. No matter which college you attend, you are able to go to the Porters’ Lodge of any college for immediate concerns for your physical safety when in public in order to receive escorted transportation/a taxi back to your accommodation or college’s Porters’ Lodge.
University Security Services: if you encounter any problems on University property, contact Security Services on 01865 289999 (24 hours a day, 365 days a year).
Men’s Advice Line UK: The Men’s Advice Line is for male victims of domestic abuse. We offer confidential advice, non-judgmental support, practical information and help. Visit https://mensadviceline.org.uk/ or call 0808 8010327 (freephone)
Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre: women committed to supporting survivors of sexual abuse, rape, domestic abuse, and harassment. Free and confidential service to women and girls who are dealing with the effects of sexual violence. Call 01865 726295 or visit Oxford Rape Crisis.
Refuge’s weblink to information for those with disabilities facing abuse: https://www.refuge.org.uk/get-help-now/support-for-women/help-for-disabled-women/