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Nasra Ismail: continued

 
Page: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Murder Ballads
Secret London
Miscellany

Pete and I swapped e-mails until the end of March, and then I arranged to meet him before his April 6 gig at the Sun Hotel in Hitchin. We sat in an empty function room there late that afternoon while Pete sang the ballad's full 21 verses for me with his own guitar accompaniment in one expert take. In this unexpurgated version, the ballad ran just over 12 minutes, placing it in the same ballpark as other epic murder songs like Nick Cave's O'Malley's Bar (14mins 28secs) or Bob Dylan's Joey (11mins 5secs).
I recorded Pete's performance on the mini-disc machine I sometimes used for radio interviews, hardly daring to breath in case I broke the spell. I marvelled at the way he inhabited every line of the song, drawing out its drama and smoothing over any rough patches I'd failed to spot in the lyrics. He brought the whole thing to life quite wonderfully, and I was chuffed to bits with the result. You can hear it here.
In July 2008, I started working on PlanetSlade in earnest, writing the first handful of essays the site would carry and starting to get its page design and web hosting organised. Part of my efforts to publicise the site put me in contact with Lisa Grace, who helped run a support group for London sex workers. This was my chance to see what Nasra's peers might think of the two songs, so I sent Lisa a copy of all the lyrics and asked her to raise them at the group's next meeting.

Pete brought my lyrics to life quite wonderfully, and I was delighted with his performance

"Some of my friends think I've stepped over a line by writing these lyrics so soon after Nasra's 2004 death, and that I'm exploiting her just as much as the men who picked her up around King's Cross," I said in my covering note. "That's a perfectly reasonable point of view, but I can only hope that the positive effect of commemorating a victim's name in this way outweighs the negative one of describing her death in such brutal terms. We can't ask Nasra now, and I've no idea how to contact her family, but I would be very interested to hear what the women you work with think."
Lisa replied a few weeks later. "I wasn't able to get much feedback from the group," she said. "But you can trust that, if they were offended, there would have been comments." The handful of remarks that followed took issue with a few individual words, but that was all. One woman objected to the term "forced sex" feeling I'd conflated that with prostitution, when these were in fact two very different things. Another chided me for saying Nasra "sold herself" on the streets, saying "hired herself" would have been more accurate. "We don't sell ourselves," she said. "Housewives do that. What we do is rent our bodies for sexual services."
On the first point, I felt that Archer's intention to rape Nasra, as detailed by the prosecution in court, established this was always enough of a risk in her life to justify the phrase. "Sell herself" may have been technically wrong, but "hire herself" sounded too artificial to make a useful substitute. It also risked leaving listeners utterly confused about just what job Nasra was doing out there, so I left that reference unchanged too. At least Nasra's peers hadn't condemned the whole project as cheap, tawdry or cynical, and I drew some comfort from that.
By May 2009, I'd posted both sets of lyrics on the songwriters' message board at Harmony Central, and this bore fruit when a young Iowan musician called Scott Riley contacted me to say he'd got a tune for my second song.
“I woke up this morning with some music of my own going round and round in my head," Scott wrote. "I've had this particular piece of music for a while now, but I just haven't had any lyrics of my own that would fit it. Then, in my half-awake state, I could see your lyrics and my music meshing together perfectly." (11)
We swapped e-mails back and forth for the next couple of weeks, discussing various small changes in the lyrics which Scott felt would make them easier to sing. The best of these was his suggestion that we change the first line to "The Daily Mail won't tell my tale", creating a nice little internal rhyme which I wish I'd thought of myself.
Once we'd arrived at a final version we were both happy with, Scott filmed himself singing it with his guitar, and posted the resulting video on YouTube here. I'd still like to hear a woman sing these particular lyrics one day, if only because it's a woman who narrates them, but until then Scott's performance will do very nicely. I think he did a great job.


Seven years on from Nasra's death, and that's where we stand. My hope now that this full essay's online is that the lyrics will act as a resource for any musician who feels like using them.
I ask only that I be given a credit as the lyrics' writer whenever that's appropriate, and that people stay mindful of the case's true facts when making cuts or small changes to the phrasing. If you use Pete's, Scott's or Bernie's tune, then you need to credit them too, of course.
Personally, I'd love to see a dozen different versions of both songs, using as many different tunes and musical genres as people feel are suitable. How about an out-and-out country treatment, for example, or a nice, slow, mournful blues? Something using the music of Nasra's native Somalia, perhaps?
If you can find a way of letting me hear your efforts, then that would be much appreciated. Given the artists' permission, I'll try and find a way to post as many of them here as possible. In the very, very unlikely event that there's ever any publishing money involved, just give my share to your favourite charity.
Whatever you do with the lyrics, though, please do something. Because, just as Harlan Ellison said six pages ago, no-one should be sent down into darkness with too few words. And a little music wouldn't hurt either.

Since I wrote this piece, I've been lucky enough to have a couple of musicians set my Nasra Ismail lyrics to their own music and let me place the resulting recordings on Soundcloud. You can hear Pete Morton's version of The Ballad of Nasra Ismail on Tindeck here, and Scott Riley's rendition of The Headlines on this Soundcloud page.

In September 2015, I received letters from two people who'd known Nasra and just discovered this article. Their letters flesh her out as a living, breathing human being far more than I was able to as someone who'd never met her. You can read them here.

Sources and footnotes
(1) Evening Standard, April 13, 2004.
(2) Islington Gazette, December 1, 2005.
(3) BBC News, November 23, 2005 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/4463978.stm)
(4) BBC News, November 24, 2005 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4456628.stm)
(5) Guardian Unlimited, November 23, 2005 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/nov/23/ukcrime1)
(6) Public Service Review: Home Affairs, October 12, 2007
(http://www.publicservice.co.uk/article.asp?publication=Home%20Affairs&id=276&content_name=Forensic%20Science%20incorporating%20Information%20Security&article=8250)
(7) Somalia Online (http://www.somaliaonline.com/ubb/ultimatebb.php?/topic/9/1668)
(8) A September 2007 story in the Sunday Mirror reported that Archer had struck up a relationship with a woman called Christine Travis, who began writing to him while he was still on remand in 2004. She'd been visiting him once a fortnight in Full Sutton maximum security prison near York, it said, and the couple planned to marry in early 2008. I've seen no reports that the wedding ever took place, but that may simply be because the couple managed to keep their ceremony under the press's radar.
(http://www.mirror.co.uk/src/webroot/m4/sunday-mirror/2007/09/23/beast-man-98487-19833334/)
(9) Daily Telegraph, January 28, 2006.
(10) BBC Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic forum
(http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbradio2/NF2142825?thread=5143028)
(11) Harmony Central Songwriting forum
(http://acapella.harmony-central.com/showthread.php?2326265-Song-for-a-killer-s-victim&p=36364078)
(12) fRoots Musicians & Activists forum, February 26, 2008 (thread now deleted).
(13) For more of Tom Bliss's excellent advice on songwriting, visit his website here: http://www.turnstone.tv/songwritinga.html


Writing a modern murder ballad: the case in favour

I've collected quite a bit of feedback on my Nasra Ismail lyrics since I started posting them on various message boards in February 2008.
   We've covered the brickbats already, so these are just the bouquets.

On The Ballad of Nasra Ismail
"It's a pretty horrendous tale. Pretty well-written, though." - Songwriter Steve Tilston, via e-mail.

"I think the lyrics are thoughtful and moving." - Joe Grint, BBC Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

"You should be proud of yourself. You've made more people aware of Nasra's death with your one song than many of your fellow journalists have with their salaried newspaper reports." - Fee Lock, BBC Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

"I think it's great that someone is wishing to put a sort of memorial to the murdered woman in a form that adds to the tradition." - Matt Keen, fRoots.

"Nice work." - mpeddle, Harmony-central.com

On The Headlines (Nasra's Song) "I think that makes for a much better song, and more likely to be sung by others." - Fee Lock, Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

"Definitely a better approach all round." - Songwriter Tom Bliss, via e-mail.

"The song is much improved." - Arnie S, Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

"It's all excellent work. It deserves to be recorded and heard by millions." - Etienne Rambert, Harmony-central.com

"I think you're making a noble attempt at this. Keep it up." - Boydog, Harmony-central.com

All correspondence drawn from the message boards named. See sources for links to the relevant threads in full.