What has become of the English murder? George Orwell was lamenting its decline as long ago as 1946. "You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World," he wrote. But readers invariably grumbled: "You never seem to get a good murder nowadays." One of the dislocating effects of wartime, which had gone unminuted until Orwell's essay, was that the traditional ways of the homicidal Englishman, like those of the blacksmith and the cooper, had fallen into desuetude.
Beating against the tide, the writer spelled out one last time the ideal conditions for unlawful killing. "The murderer should be a little man of the professional class living an intensely respectable life in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall."
Turning from this appetising tableau to the then notorious affair of the "cleft chin murder", Orwell regretted that there was "no depth of feeling in it. It was almost by chance that the two people concerned committed that particular murder."
More than fifty years after the case, which centred on a pair of drifters and an unfortunate taxi-driver, it strikes you that today's papers probably wouldn't even have mentioned the cause celebre that chagrined Orwell. His successor as a gimlet-eyed student of jurisprudence is Dave St George, the splendidly handled doyen of the Old Bailey press benches. On our rounds there recently, Dave gave me an inventory of the cases up before the beak on that day alone. And what a catalogue it was of stabbings and shootings, of gag-making discoveries in left-luggage lockers, of gang whackings and crimes of passion. "And I doubt you'll read a word of it tomorrow," said Dave ruefully. In the past year or so, he said, the only proceedings to attract newspaper headlines had had a celebrity connection: the Duchess of York's former aide who murdered her boyfriend; the killer of Jill Dando. The prosecution of Jeffrey Archer for perjury left many a juicy murder indictment in the shade.
The obvious departure from this trend was the Sarah Payne case. Although the principals became either well known or infamous, this was a murder involving those we might tentatively describe as ordinary people. The matter was too grave for twitching net curtains, but it was not without a certain Orwellian hypocrisy, at least not to those who detected humbug in the News of the World's affronted defence of family values.
Orwell's readers, the kind who complain that "you never seem to get a good murder nowadays", were in Lewes for the hearing - or, at least, their successors were. Sharp-elbowed ladies of a certain age who didn't stint on their toilet, they won the nickname "guillotine grannies" from reporters. I was all for them: justice being seen to be done and all that. Moreover, to find this group of seniors assuming the role of the mob underscored a very English continuity. The Lord Lieutenant at the judge's right hand; the gas mantles that had never been removed from the courtroom; the prison pallor of the accused's flesh: the scene might have sprung from the pages of Dickens's notebook, never mind Orwell's. Reports of the death of the English murder have been much exaggerated.