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Nasra Ismail: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

The Gazette went to town with the story in its April 22 edition, splashing the headline "Ripper killing horror" on its front page, and accompanying this with a picture of Archer's first-floor flat. The paper's Ollie Lane took up the story again with page 8's lead, explaining that Archer had now been charged and the original voodoo suspicions abandoned. Nasra, he added, had been 27 years old when she died, and weighed just 7 stone.
I'd been looking hard for coverage of Nasra's death both online and elsewhere for 11 days by then, but all I'd managed to collect was a page and a half in the Gazette and two short accounts from the Standard's inside pages.
Even with all the colourful details this case had to offer, it seemed the nationals were not interested. They might return to it when some trial evidence was there to be reported, of course, but by then I knew the story would be primarily about Archer, and that Nasra would be treated only as a member of the supporting cast. I made a small private gesture against this by resolving to remember her name in my own mind, and I was never able to walk down that stretch of the canal again without giving her at least a passing thought.

Archer's trial reached London's Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey in May 2005. Among the witnesses who testified there were Rachel Young and Heidi Arensmann, two of the other North London prostitutes Archer had used before meeting Nasra.

'He kept hitting me,' Rachel testified. 'He had a rope in his hands, and tried to strangle me with it'

He'd picked up Heidi in Camden Town in November 2003, and taken her back to the Arlington Road hostel where he then lived. "Archer undid his trousers, but started strangling her when she asked for money up front," the Gazette reported. "'As soon as I mentioned money,' he attacked me,' she said. Archer threw Miss Arensmann on to the bed and punched her three times on the cheek, but she managed to escape."
Rachel's ordeal came at Conistone Way, where Archer paid her 100 and they smoked drugs together. "She said she then fell asleep, and woke up two hours later to find herself naked on the bed and tied up with rope," the Gazette reported. "She told how Archer then anally raped her and beat her over the head with handcuffs. 'I thought I was going to die,' she said. 'He kept hitting me. He had a rope in his hands, and he tried to strangle me with it."
Rachel eventually managed to break out of the flat. It may have been her who Archer's Conistone Way neighbours later recalled when they spoke of a distressed woman fleeing the flat a few weeks before Nasra's killing. "Daniel Archer bragged of sleeping with hundreds of prostitutes and is thought to have picked up as many as 25 in the seven months before he killed vice girl Nasra Ismail," the Gazette said. "Three other women told police they had suffered bearings and rape ordeals at Archer's hands." Detective Superintendent Maureen Boyle praised both Young and Arensmann for their courage in coming forward to testify at the trial.
Archer himself cut what the Gazette called "a forlorn figure" in the dock. "In court, he looked more like someone's favourite grand-dad," the BBC News site added. "Bespectacled, soberly dressed and quietly spoken, he appeared free of his narcotic demons."
The verdict came on November 23, 2005, when the jury took less than an hour to find him guilty of Nasra's murder. Judge Giles Forrester passed the mandatory life sentence, and set Archer's minimum term at 30 years. "Bearing in mind that you are now 55, I do not know if you will ever be released," he said. 'But you cannot complain. Nasra Ismail was just 26 years old when you took away her life. I am satisfied the motive, or underlying reasons, behind your attack on Nasra Ismail was a deviant sexual one. [...] You wanted to control women for your own sadistic purposes."
Boyle, who'd led the investigation, added: "Archer has shown himself to be a violent and sexual predator who deliberately targeted vulnerable women. He targeted women who, he believed, would be unable to speak out. Miss Ismail suffered a violent death at the hands of Daniel Archer. We are therefore extremely satisfied at the result." (2, 8)

I'd first started thinking about murder ballads about two years before Nasra's death, when Jon Langford's Pine Valley Cosmonauts released a charity album for the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project. The Executioner's Last Songs brings together a host of's most talented writers and performers to give us their own take on the classic murder ballads and add a few songs of their own to the same tradition.
Brett Sparks from The Handsome Family's got a version of Knoxville Girl on there, Steve Earle does Tom Dooley and Neko Case sings Poor Ellen Smith. Johnny Dowd contributes his own Judgement Day, Puerto Muerto give us The Hangman's Song and Langford himself joins with Sally Timms for a great version of Lonesome Bob Chaney's The Plans We Made.
The more I listened to this album, the more I started to notice the common threads linking so many of its songs together. Chekhov once remarked that any gun seen on stage in Act One must always be fired by the end of Act Two, or else the audience would feel cheated. I started to realise that murder ballads operated on a very similar principle. In this case, the rule was any waterway mentioned in an early verse - be it river, stream, or canal - must have a dead body found in it before the song was through.
The more I thought about these ballads, the more fascinating they became, and that interest only deepened when I found a copy of Cecil Brown's study of Stagger Lee during a 2003 trip to San Francisco. I first pitched the idea of a murder ballads series to Radio 4 in 2004, recycled that pitch in various forms for a year or two, and then decided to launch my own website on the subject instead.
By the end of 2005, I was also starting to consider writing my own murder ballad about Nasra's case. My motives for doing this ranged from the purely selfish - it looked like a great opportunity to write a really interesting set of lyrics - to a genuine feeling that some form of commemoration might be a worthwhile gesture. I wouldn't claim for a moment that my motivation was entirely high-minded, but it wasn't completely cynical either.
I made my first attempt at the lyrics around Christmas that year, using Steve Tilston's Slip Jigs and Reels as my template for a long narrative song. I didn't know enough about the ballad's structural rules then to realise that Steve's composition followed them precisely, but using his example meant that my efforts came out in classic ballad form too. Like Steve's song, mine used four beats in every line instead of the three beat/four beat alternation you more commonly find, but that's well within the metre's accepted variations. I finished five more-or-less-adequate verses, but then got stuck and put the project to one side.

Writing a modern murder ballad: the case against

Describing a recent murder in song raises obvious moral questions about exploiting the victim and adding to the family's pain.
      Diane Easby on the fRoots message board, for example, thought my first set of lyrics was "far too close up and identifiable, especially for a recent event". Dromedary Pretzel said on BBC Radio 2's Folk & Acoustic board that these lyrics could make Nasra's family "extremely upset, at worst extremely angry". (10, 12)
      These issues got their fullest airing when I posted both sets of my lyrics and a link to Scott Riley's YouTube performance of the second version to the songwriting forum on Harmony Central's site.
      My severest critic there was a poster called Matximus, who raised several perfectly legitimate objections to the whole project.
      Scott and I both replied - quite independently - to these points, prompting some further thoughts from Matximus and what I thought was an interesting exchange. I'm reproducing it in full below.

September 8, 2009:
Matximus writes:
"I don't know. This whole things seems heavy handed to me, exploiting a tragedy. Both versions. They're manipulative too. A Big. Important. Topic. That demands reverence. But what it boils down to: a sympathetic person died a horrible death. Got it. That's powerful. But do you have to go into the rape and beating with crowbars stuff? Cutting up body parts? It comes off as torture porn. Who wants to hear that?
      "I find it's best to nod at the horror, or make the point with one telling detail and then move on. You just keep going and going. In love with the narrative when we clearly got the point a while ago.
      "You're staying true to the facts. Okay. But I don't see the art in reworking a news story into some forced rhymes. And how would you feel if somebody wrote this kind of song about your sister? Your daughter?
      "In the first one, you try and give it some depth and broader meaning with the dignity stuff. But where's the dignity in having your death recounted in a lurid, blow-by-blow account?
      "The first-person from beyond the grave does not work for me either. It's creepy and fake. 'He hit me with a crowbar and raped me?' Really? Is that what you imagine a tortured soul would say?
      "I don't know. I guess I've never really been a fan of topical songs. They tend to age poorly."

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