Deborah Orr: The dark deeds that fire the imagination

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The Independent Online

In his 1946 essay "The Decline of the English Murder", George Orwell lamented the inferior quality of modern malice aforethought, and suggested that England's "one great period in murder" was between roughly 1850 and 1925. Citing nine murderers "whose reputation has stood the test of time", including Jack the Ripper, Thomas Neil Cream and Dr Crippen, then setting aside the first case as "in a class by itself", he assembled a composite picture of the type of murderer who most perfectly piqued the English newspaper reader's appetite for sensation.

"The murderer should be a little man of the professional class a dentist or a solicitor, say living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall ... He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or for 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. Having decided on murder, he should plan it all with the utmost cunning, and only slip up over some tiny unforeseeable detail. The means chosen should, of course, be poison." The less satisfying and more recent crime to which he compared these gems was the Cleft Chin Murder, much talked of at the time, in which a US army deserter and "an English girl who had become partly Americanised", killed a taxi driver for his vehicle and 8. "It is difficult to believe," he concluded, "that this case will be so long remembered as the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them."

Not much surprised Orwell, but it would be nice to imagine that even he would be a little taken aback to learn that 50 years on, five murders on a single English night can be all but forgotten in as many days, even though one of the victims was a child and another was an elderly lady. Bradley Whitfield, 16; Henry Bolombi, 18, Mohammed Arif Iqbal, 26, Mavis Clift, 73, and an as-yet-unnamed man in his 20s were all killed in the early hours of New Year's Day. Two were stabbed; one was shot; one died from smoke inhalation in her burning home, and one was fatally injured, police believe, in a fight on London's Park Lane.

None, one can safely assume, had much in the way of planning behind it, nor much in the way of emotions stronger than momentary fury, set off by some petty trigger. There are Cleft Chin Murders by the dozen at the moment, and our society is inured to them in a way that post-war society was not. Murder in Britain has now become so banal that only the sheer number of themed homicides (Five people in just one night! Twenty-seven London teenagers in one year!) is highly notable or deeply memorable.

Yet the longing for those intense, claustrophobic, singular old crimes remains, so much so that a frisson of media excitement is set off by anything that comes close. John and Anne Darwin may not have killed either each other or anyone else, but the other elements of Orwell's perfect crime remain. Or, as he pointed out back then, "In more than half of cases the object was to get hold of a certain known sum of money, such as a legacy or an insurance policy, but the amount involved was nearly always small."

Likewise, the terrible fascination with the Madeleine McCann case can be viewed, with some validity, as collective wish-fulfilment. There is no substantive evidence of murder, but there is a strong undertow of longing all the same for the culprit to turn out to be someone of the professional class living a respectable life somewhere in the suburbs.

The Meredith Kercher case also mesmerises not for the brutality or the horror, but because of the background of the young, bright victim and of her implicated roommate, Amanda Knox. Generally, the complaint that only the respectable classes are rewarded with intense interest when something dreadful happens to them has become such a contemporary truism that only the naive even bother to mention it.

In Orwell's analysis, the background to the Cleft Chin Murder was "not domesticity, but the anonymous life of the dance-halls and the false values of the American film". One shies away now from anything quite so lacking in nuance as blaming imported entertainment for what David Cameron calls "our broken society". Yet only a fool would argue that the influence of junk culture on people who feel the anonymity of perceived and real exclusion is either entirely positive or entirely benign.

Michelle's experiment was a drink too far

Morgan Spurlock has a lot to answer for. In his 2004 hit documentary film Super Size Me, he spent a month consuming only McDonald's, in order to gauge the impact on his health. Obviously, if that impact had been anything other than highly negative, the film would not have been terribly interesting, and nobody would have heard of it.

As it was, the world was privileged to watch this healthy, jolly young man becoming a bloated, depressed fat '*' sugar junkie. Result? Subway had become the West's fast-food choice instead. Hurrah! Spurlock had a good idea, and he followed it through, harming no one but himself. The more difficult consequence is that, like all good televisual formats, his has been purloined ad infinitum.

It was particularly grisly to watch Michelle Heaton, pictured, the 27-year-old singer with Liberty X, seeking to discover The Truth About Binge Drinking, by binge-drinking non-stop for 30 days on telly. And, blimey, did she drink. I thought I'd tied one or two on in my time, but this was phenomenal. The girl drank and drank and drank. She drank so much that you could hear her sloshing. She drank so much that by the end of three weeks, she had damaged 86 per cent of the cells in her liver, had numbness in one arm, suffered from panic attacks, had withdrawal symptoms and messed up quite a few professional engagements. Which I felt was a little beyond the call of duty.

For Heaton, though, the call of duty was strong. Even though it is de rigueur for programmes such as these to include much conferring with the medical profession, all the medical profession ever says is: "I beg you to abandon this mad experiment." Heaton's response was to weep copiously and yell that they mustn't ask her to stop because they knew she was doing an Important Thing that would "get the message across". Even so, I felt they could have asked her at the very least not to binge quite as enthusiastically as she did.

Because the trouble was that Heaton just drank far, far, far too much for her "message" to have any meaning. Hardly anyone believes the Government when it says no woman should ever drink any more than 14 units a week, especially since it's a well-reported fact that this is a fairly arbitrary figure. But Heaton was topping 150 units a week, more than Nicolas Cage managed as his character drank himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas. Does anyone maintain that 150 units a week is a fair plan? Does anyone really doubt that, say, 50 units a week, suggests a wish for self-destruction?

Yes, I know the middle classes go bonkers every time it is suggested that a bottle of wine each night about 60 units a week isn't awfully good for them. But Heaton was doing more than two and a half times that. All the show did for this viewer was to reassure me that really I didn't drink very much at all, compared to Heaton. No doubt most of the other 2.6 million people who watched the programme came to similar conclusions. Which leaves Heaton having risked her health for absolutely nothing. Poor, deluded, manipulated, stupid little chump.

* The funny thing about the aspirin vs ecstasy spat is as follows. The Government regulates aspirin, but no one knows how many deaths it causes. Ecstasy, on the other hand, is distributed by criminals, yet appears to be monitored with marvellous precision. It's all very well to say that if drugs were legalised, harm would be minimised. Indeed, ecstasy is probably the recreational drug that lends itself most to licensed distribution. But an evil voice inside my head says that if we take club drugs out of the hands of entrepreneurs and place them under the aegis of Westminster's lawyers, then all hell will break loose. Or have I just spent too much time on the dancefloor?