Ian Brady: what we have learned about the Moors murderer

Fifty years after his crimes, the killer is still boastful, still dismissive of 'ordinary people' and still chillingly unrepentant

After sentencing Ian Brady to life in May 1966, the trial judge, Mr Justice Fenton Atkinson, described the then 28-year-old as "wicked beyond belief".

For the next 47 years, Brady's voice was not heard in public, though he wrote a steady stream of letters to the outside world moaning about life inside Ashworth, the secure psychiatric hospital where he has been sectioned since 1985.

Nor did we know what he looked like. Save for a grainy long-lens shot of Brady in 1987 – snapped when he was taken back on to the Moors to search for the body of Keith Bennett, a 12-year-old he and Myra Hindley murdered in 1964 – there was no reliable indication of how Britain's most notorious living serial killer had aged. He remained forever the imperious young man of his monochrome mugshot: teddy boy quiff, blank eyes, narrow nose and down-turned lips.

Now we know. He has almost exactly the same hairstyle, now grey and out of time. His face is less lined than most other 75-year-olds', his cataract-plagued eyes now almost always shielded by a pair of tinted aviator-style glasses. His Scottish accent is intact, though his voice is gruff, perhaps as a result of decades of smoking the strong tobacco he has often complained has not killed him.

He remains slim, save for a slight double chin and paunch which were a mystery to those watching the video relay of the tribunal – until his nurse revealed that the "hunger strike" he claims to have been observing for the past 14 years involved him snacking daily on toast and soup, supplemented by the feeding tube hanging out of his right nostril.

Still present is his superior attitude to everyone around him. Giving evidence on Tuesday, he was keen to demonstrate an advanced grasp of language and learning. Explaining why he sometimes listened to "white noise" while taking his daily feeds through a nasal tube, he said it was simply to block out the racket his fellow patients were making. It was better than listening to "nattering disc jockeys". To do so was, he said, pragmatic – something which would be "axiomatic to anybody with sense".

When faced with a question about the future, particularly when asked why he wanted to be transferred to prison and whether he planned to kill himself there, he frequently said: "I'm not omnipotent." He was keen to boast of the battles he had won with the authorities. He talked of setting up a prison braille unit to make children's books, against the Home Office's wishes – he even claimed he made a deal so that "whatever the prison I went to, I would take the braille machine with me". He bragged of using "simple syllogistic argument" to win legal cases "with no solicitors, no lawyers". One of his earlier hunger strikes, in 1975, prompted questions in "both houses of parliament", he said. Ashworth, he argued at one point, traded on his reputation, as their "most high-profile prisoner". It was best known, he said, as "Brady's hospital".

Claiming to have feigned psychosis for 18 months in order to be transferred from prison to Ashworth, he said he practised Stanislavski system of acting, expressing contempt when asked by Dr Cameron Boyd, a forensic psychiatrist sitting on the tribunal panel, to explain what he meant. "I would have thought any informed person would grasp the meaning immediately," Brady scoffed. He used to memorise pages of Plato and Shakespeare, he crowed, and said he once discussed Russian literature in his cell with James Callaghan when the Labour MP was home secretary. Dostoyevsky was a particular favourite, it seemed, and he once compared his situation to a scenario in The Brothers Karamazov. When challenged about his claim that he killed five children for the "existential experience", instead of answering he said: "The definition of existentialism takes up two whole pages in the Oxford Companion to Literature."

Brady's testimony was peppered with name-dropping, repeatedly listing the famous people he had met during almost half a century in captivity. He boasted he had been seen by Dr Peter Scott, "the most eminent and talented psychiatrist" and erstwhile chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Forensic Psychiatry Committee. He played chess in Wormwood Scrubs with another home secretary, John Stonehouse.

Over and over again he listed the criminals he had mingled with in jail, reminiscing like a faded starlet harking back to their glory days mixing with the cream of Hollywood. His cell in Durham was next door to the train robber Buster Edwards, he said, and Ronnie Kray would cook steak "for his whole landing". John Vassall, the British civil servant who was blackmailed by the KGB to spy for Moscow, was another contemporary.

He hated life in Ashworth, he said, despite all the evidence in the eight-day tribunal showing just what a permissive regime he was enjoying inside the Merseyside hospital. The tribunal heard Brady was given special treatment, with Dr Caroline Logan, a psychologist at the hospital, admitting he was treated as a "special case" because of his notoriety. Patients being considered for entry were vetted so as not to antagonise him, no agency nurses were involved in his care and he was allowed to walk around at night, she said.

There is a phone in his corridor he can apparently use freely to call his long-suffering solicitor whenever he wants to make a complaint, the tribunal heard. At one point he had a computer, he said, though not any more. He seems to have access to newspapers, though he claimed to have given up reading them 12 years ago. He can make himself toast and mix packet soups – both daily occurrences, according to his nurse, Mark Sheppard, who told the tribunal on Monday: "If I observe he's eating, I knock on the door to give him the opportunity to put it aside and save him the embarrassment."

Time and again Brady dismissed "ordinary people". They would fail to recognise the "psychological advantage" of being locked up in an inner city jail like Wormwood Scrubs in west London, he said – one of Brady's favourite prisons, where he worked as a cleaner on the psychiatric ward and as a barber cutting the hair of both wardens and prisoners.

But he saved his real invective for psychiatrists, who he said he would "throw a net over" and not let out on the street. He insisted he was not, and never had been, mentally ill. Talk of him having paranoid schizophrenia was, he said, science fiction. Personality disorders do not exist, he said – and even if they did, he does not have one.

It is often said that a psychopath is unable to feel empathy or see their behaviour from a "normal" perspective. But Brady occasionally showed that he was aware of the true horror of his crimes, even if he did refer to them blithely as "recreational killing" carried out for the "existential experience".

He is capable of looking objectively at his crimes, he said: "If I stand back and look at the past and think: what would I do if someone came up to me – a criminal – and said … 'Oh, by the way, I recreationally killed,' well you would immediately say: 'Jesus Christ! He's mad … I can't believe what he has just said.'"

He admitted that "if someone said it to me, I would immediately say: 'Mad!' I would immediately say: 'Extreme danger!' And three: 'No way! Eradicate!' Just as you would in any situation, military or otherwise."

And yet he insisted he was but "a petty criminal in comparison to global serial killers, thieves like [Tony] Blair, [George W] Bush".

We never really learned whether Brady actually wants to die. Back in the 1980s, when presented with details that Hindley had provided of the pair's abduction of Pauline Reade, a 16-year-old who became their first victim in 1963, Brady decided that he too was prepared to confess, but on one condition: that immediately afterwards he be given the means to kill himself. His request was turned down.

When the tribunal began it was assumed that his bid to go to jail was in order to continue his hunger strike to the death, believing he would not be force fed in jail.

But it is far from clear that is what he wants. In a roundabout way he admitted that he had thought about ending his life, saying: "Who doesn't at one time or another feel like that?"

One word in his evidence perhaps gave the biggest hint as to his true desire. He was nothing more than a "monkey in a cage being poked by a stick", he said, and "you can't make plans when you have no freedom of control, movement or anything".

Control. That's what this is all about.


Helen Pidd, northern editor

The GuardianTramp

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