"In 1968 she killed two small boys," I began.
"But that was 30 years ago. And she was a child herself at the time, wasn't she?"
"Yes, she was 11."
"And she served a sentence for manslaughter."
"Yes, 12 years."
"And she's lived peacefully since being released, without being a danger to anyone."
"Yes, for 18 years."
"So what's the fuss now?"
"She's the subject of a book by Gitta Sereny."
"But Sereny is a serious writer. It will be a serious book."
"You're right. But Mary Bell received money for helping with it."
"Well, of course. Anyone who's been in prison has to struggle financially afterwards. They find it difficult to get jobs and make a living. What's wrong with her receiving money if she helped with the book? She's paid her debt to society, hasn't she? Why should she have to spend her life in poverty because of something she did at 11? She probably has a family of her own to look after now, doesn't she?"
"She has a daughter of 14, yes."
"Who needs protecting, right, who probably doesn't even know what her mother once did."
"Well, she didn't know, until this week. But now because of the press camping outside her house she does know, and she and her mother have had to go into hiding."
"That's terrible. You British, and your press, and the way you think about crime, and the way you treat children. There's no country in the world that's as bad."
Sometimes, as I say, it's shaming to be British. Last year I published a book called As If, about the Bulger case, which argued, among other things, that children who kill cannot and should not be judged as adults would be. Reading from the book, and discussing the issues it raises with many different kinds of audience, I'd begun to persuade myself that the mood of five years ago was gradually changing, that the hysteria, demonisation and vengefulness which swirled round Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in 1993 were giving way to something calmer, braver and more intelligent. I was wrong.
It could be that the public is ready to accept that a person who kills as a child deserves the chance, if and when rehabilitated, not to be hounded for the rest of their days. But the tabloids are a different matter. Remorse, reform and rehabilitation mean nothing to them. They prefer the baby-talk of "monsters" and "demons". And they impose their own form of life sentences and public floggings for children who kill.
The issue at the heart of the Mary Bell controversy isn't that she was paid money for helping with the book and "brought this on herself" (a phrase I seem to recall being used in the days after Princess Diana's death). That was merely an excuse for the media to get on to her in the name of "legitimate public concern". For years they'd been trying to track her down.
At the Bulger trial in Preston, in 1993, I saw for myself the desperation with which both print and broadcasting journalists tried to woo and pump and trick Gitta Sereny into revealing Mary Bell's whereabouts and circumstances. It irked them no end that she had been quietly released, successfully rehabilitated and had assumed a new identity, unknown to them. In their eyes, it was tantamount to getting off scot-free.
It may be that Macmillan, the publishers of Ms Sereny's book, Cries Unheard, underestimated the controversy the book would cause and failed to do enough to protect Mary Bell and her daughter. It may be that the very secrecy of "Project X" was inflammatory: in retrospect, wouldn't it perhaps have been better for everyone's sake - in particular, the families of Mary Bell's victims - if the book had been announced ahead of publication in the usual way?
It may be that Gitta Sereny herself was naive not to see that by giving money to Bell - out of the best of motives: not to "enrich" her, let alone "reward her for her crime", but to compensate her for the time given up to interviews and to raise in a small way her standard of living and self-esteem - she was playing into the hands of the tabloids. But these are side issues - strategic mistakes, but not moral errors. The real issue is simpler: can a person ever be forgiven their sins?
We're not good at forgiveness, these days. The peace process in Northern Ireland may yet falter over the release of political prisoners, whose terrorist acts live on in the memories of their victims' families. The visit of Emperor Akihito of Japan to London this month, and his investiture as an Extra Knight of the Garter, have brought protests from British prisoners of war tortured in Japanese camps who feel insulted that the Queen and the Government should extend the hand of reconciliation when battles for compensation are still being fought in Japanese courts. Meanwhile, paedophiles such as Sidney Cooke are driven from place to place by ugly mobs as if, because of past crimes for which they've served a sentence, they have for ever forfeited their human rights.
Why have we become like this? If it's the mark of a civilisation to believe that humans (and human societies) are capable of change and improvement, then we're less civilised than we used to be, harder on each other, more cynical about the possibilities of reform. Perhaps it's a mark of late- millennial exhaustion, but the dominant image of human behaviour in the 1990s is incurable addiction. Habits can't be broken. The leopard doesn't change its spots. The ......s (insert whichever nation or sub-group you happen to hate) will always be murdering bastards. Once a killer, always a killer. Original sin. Bad seeds that grow into malevolent plants. No forgiveness.
Luddites would say that this philosophy of despair is the fault of the technology that was supposed to improve and liberate us. If the controlling metaphor of the machine age was linear (relentless forward progress), in the electronic age it's cyclical (the same old stuff coming round again). We've also lost the power to think things out for ourselves: glued to screens at work and home, bombarded by flip opinions and info-bites, we settle for an easy Murdochian morality of eternal goodies and perpetual baddies. "We can neither love nor pity nor forgive," say the machines in Kipling's poem The Secret of the Machines, warning us of their limits and of the dangers of trying to be like them. Too late. We already are.
In a more church-going age, the virtues of forgiveness were drilled into Sunday congregations. Catch the right sermon, and you might be told Luke's story of the woman "sinner" who washes Christ's feet with tears and earns his blessing: "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little." The last apercu seems relevant to the current treatment of Mary Bell, who, forgiven once, is now being unforgiven, with potentially disastrous consequences for herself and her family. But in a secular age, Christian notions of atonement, redemption and "turning the other cheek" seem archaic and even craven. There used to be an idea that we forgive in this life and leave judgement to the next. Now it's the other way about: we judge in this and leave mercy to God. To forgive is to be "soft". It's to let yourself be walked over. You only do it if you're lacking in self- assertion and self-respect.
In therapy, too, the notion of forgiveness has become problematic. In her classic book The Drama of Being a Child, the psychoanalyst and child abuse expert Alice Miller writes: "My own experience has taught me that the enactment of forgiveness - which 16 years ago I still believed to be right - brings the therapeutic process to a halt." Victims of abuse, she explains, need to get out all their anger: to forgive their abusers too quickly or easily will leave them damaged. For all that, Ms Miller would be the first to understand how Mary Bell's own abused childhood led her to kill, and why her co-operation with Gitta Sereny was also potentially part of a healing process, a process that has now been violated.
Unfortunately, in the current furore, the psychiatric profession is represented not by voices like Ms Miller's but by the dismal Raj Persaud, who evidently resents Bell's "decision to unburden herself to Sereny rather than to a professional clinician" and who thinks she is "using and manipulating" the author. Dr Persaud has clearly not read Sereny's biography of Albert Speer. A more vigilant, less gullible author would be hard to imagine.
Forgiveness of Mary Bell for what she did 30 years ago is not something we can expect from her victims' families. But the rest of us have different obligations. The existence of a book about Mary Bell's past is no excuse for invading her present and blighting her daughter's future. The hack pack should be called off and returned to their London kennels. Their prey has suffered and been punished enough.