Last Wednesday, at 9pm, I had a splendid choice of murder programmes to watch. There was White House Farm, about the 1985 Jeremy Bamber murders (I’m convinced he did it) on ITV. There was a new series of Silent Witness on BBC One. And, on BBC Two, there was The Disappearance of Margaret Fleming, about a 19-year-old murdered in Scotland in 1999.
In 1946, George Orwell, who died 70 years ago on January 21, 1950, wrote Decline of the English Murder.
He describes the fascination of News of the World readers with juicy, classic, old-fashioned murders that involve poison, money or social advancement. Their perfect murder was a slow-burner.
As Orwell wrote, “The murderer should be a little man of the professional class – a dentist or a solicitor, say … He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man, and should only bring himself to the point of murder after long and terrible wrestles with his conscience.”
These perfect murders, Orwell said, were being replaced by sordid, quickfire, salacious killings – like the 1944 Cleft Chin Murder, where a couple on the run ran over a nurse, beat up a hitchhiker and murdered a taxi driver who had a cleft chin. The couple had only known each other for six days – unlike in the old-fashioned perfect murders, which depended on toxic, decades-long marriages or lengthy affairs.
Orwell, as ever, is still spot-on today. The British public – me included – is still captivated by a good murder; any sort of murder. But what they really like is a horrific one like the Jeremy Bamber case – where a rich, middle-class, good-looking man hatches a long-term, considered plan to kill his parents, sister and two nephews in a rural, picture-postcard setting in Essex.
In other words, a real-life Midsomer Murders.
Round the corner from my office in Fitzrovia, central London, there is a pub that’s close to heaven.
The Yorkshire Grey is at the end of a pedestrianised little avenue. It’s near Broadcasting House – so it’s full of BBC workers gossiping away. Perfect for nosy eavesdroppers like me.
And the only reason you can eavesdrop on them is there’s no piped music or fruit machine and – bliss – all mobile phones and internet devices are banned.
The digital ban is a policy in Samuel Smith pubs like this one. It’s been imposed by Humphrey Smith, the owner of the chain, to promote conversation.
The ban caused a row this month when Sally Lait, a visitor to a Samuel Smith pub, complained about staff stopping her and her friends using their phones. Despite the pub being full of signs explaining the ban, Lait and her friends had kept on using their phones for “photographs, conversation enhancement and finding information”, as she put it.
I’m with Humphrey Smith on this one. I’ve always thought the best devices for conversation enhancement were the mouth in conjunction with the voicebox and brain.
The biggest conversation-killer in history is the mobile phone. Think of those families crouched over their phones, in their own little silos, sitting next to each other but inhabiting different universes.
Before piped music, fruit machines and mobiles, all pubs were like the Yorkshire Grey – places for gentle conversation and drinking.
And as background music has grown louder, so have pub visitors. You go inside most pubs and the conversations are shouted. A shouted conversation leaves no room for subtleties; for one-liners, delivered sotto voce; for serious, interesting, sad or honest chat. Dreaded banter flourishes, with dull witticisms bellowed at each other.
I’ve got some advice for Sally Lait. You’re allowed to drink somewhere else.
This week, I lost my earphones and spent two days looking for them. They eventually turned up in the inside ticket pocket of my jacket.
It made me think of perfect hiding places to keep your valuables safe from burglars. If I can’t find something I’m looking for in my own house, what chance does a poor burglar stand?
Over a decade ago, the Catholic sage Paul Johnson, still happily with us at 91, wrote something that has lodged in my mind ever since. You never regret spending too much money on something with real quality; you always regret spending too little on something shoddy.
I thought of Johnson on a recent trip to the Hebridean island of Harris – home to Harris Tweed. I felt a burning desire to buy a Harris Tweed jacket on the morning of the day I flew back. But it was Sunday and all the tweed shops were closed.
That evening, rifling through my jackets for my headphones, I found a tweed jacket made for my father 50 years ago. It fitted perfectly and looked wonderful.
The Johnson rule proved right once again.
Harry Mount is editor of the Oldie
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