Deborah Orr: The myth of the good old days

It is easy to start believing that Britain is a seething mass of cruel villainy, with no person safe
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It is extremely distressing to learn that at the weekend in Reading two girls, of 16 and 18, were assaulted in a hotel room by up to six men for up to five hours, then left for dead in a park.

It is extremely distressing to learn that at the weekend in Reading two girls, of 16 and 18, were assaulted in a hotel room by up to six men for up to five hours, then left for dead in a park.

One of the girls, Mary-Ann Leneghan, was indeed dead, of a single stab wound to the neck.

The other, an as yet unnamed 18-year-old who was shot, is now in a serious but stable condition in hospital.

When truly appalling crimes like this occur - this one is particularly shocking because so many men appear to have been involved with none of them intervening to stop or even de-accelerate the violence - it is easy to start believing that the whole of Britain is a seething mass of cruel villainy with no stranger trustworthy and no person safe.

After all, there has, in recent weeks, been a gory slew of similarly frightening headlines, from the attack to Abigail Witchalls, paralysed after being stabbed in the neck while her toddler watched, to the conviction of Mark Hobson, who killed his young girlfriend and her twin and an elderly couple in a single, indiscriminate spree.

Yet the righteous indignation that follows when such events occur is not, as it always purports to be, some sort of indication that things are getting worse and worse. Instead, it is prima facie evidence that such crimes remain isolated enough to shock and to haunt us, to jolt into our minds and precipitate a brief alteration in our perception of the world.

Sometimes, this change in perception is expressed in the media in quite demented terms. But what it usually amounts to is the idea that the great "us" (middle-class, comfortable, admirable) are under ever greater threat of hideous death or awful injury from the great "them" (drug addled, evil, despicable).

It does not console us to be told that in fact we are safer now than human beings have ever been, from all sorts of horrors and tragedies. During the election campaign, the entire nation pooh-poohed as one the figures released by the police force saying that overall the crime rate had decreased by 5 per cent last year. The only part of the story that was gleefully fallen upon was the bit which said that violent crime had bucked the trend, and risen by 9 per cent.

How the nation laughed when the politicians told us that this was due to new definitions of, and ways of counting, violent crime. This may have been contradicted by the British Crime Survey, which brought the glad tidings that the crime rate, overall, was down 11 per cent, with violent crime down 10 per cent. But clearly the bad news was the news to trust.

Yet here's the funny thing. Researchers at Cardiff University have found that last year in England 25,700 fewer people went to casualty departments after suffering an injury due to violent crime. In Wales, there were 2,800 fewer visits, a drop of 20 per cent.

For those desperate to believe that we're all going to hell in a handcart - and there are plenty of them - the news when an international perspective is brought to bear on Britain's increasing unruliness, is even worse. The most recent United Nations survey of crime trends calculated the United Kingdom's murder rate as being 0.01 per thousand (this would explain why mostly we don't know anyone who has been murdered).

The survey, of figures supplied from 1998-2000, placed Britain at number 46 in a list of the most murderous countries, out of a possible 46.

So, five years ago we were one of the least murderous nations on earth, and there's every indication that since then things have improved. Yet still we are not consoled by any of this. Instead, we scoff at the duplicitous statistics that the politicians toss at us, certain that the lurid headlines in the local newspapers are there only for reasons of recording social history, and not for selling copies through eye-catching, persuasive fear.

Anyway, there is plenty of evidence that even politicians are prey to the sort of thinking that leads them to believe in the sanctity of the good old days. Tony Blair, our superannuated-golden boy, was caught at it during the election campaign, blearily hymning the moral code that led the Krays only to main, torture and kill "their own", unlike the rather less discriminate gangsters of our own savage present.

Yet it is not gang killings that generally haunt our dreams or terrorise our neighbourhoods. There is a certain amount of that activity in my own neighbourhood, and the preponderance of yellow murder boards is somewhat depressing. Yet gang killings tend to remain on the inside papers, if they are reported at all. Unless an innocent bystander is caught up in this sort of violence, no one is even that aware of it. Which is a shame, because a look beyond the statistics suggests that it is curbing this sort of crime that will really help us, and that recent policy has been successful in doing so. For example, gun crime involving real guns is in decline since a crackdown on sentencing for possession of real guns. Now the problem is with replica guns, and new legislation to curb their use is in train.

Likewise, the fall in gun crime has cast new and grim light on knife crime. A teenager is killed by a knife attack every two weeks at the moment, and early tests in London suggest that techniques similar to those which have had success in curbing guns can be repeated.

Yet the headlines continue, don't they? Except that those headlines are rarely, when one thinks about it, concerned with criminal violence anyway. The acts that scare us are the "random acts of senseless violence", awful not just because their victims did not "deserve" such a fate, but also because there was nothing in the world they could possibly have done to take precautions against them.

And this, unhappily, is how it has always been. My own good old days are just like everyone else's - littered with stories of Bible John, the Black Panther, the Moors Murders, the Yorkshire Ripper, and so on. Yet none of these criminals were captured so very dazzlingly efficiently despite the freedom of the police from such encumbrances as forms and "political correctness".

The truth is that each and every one of these terrible, darkly celebrated, repulsive sets of generation-scaring, headline-blaring headlines captured the attention of the nation because it was unique in its awful detail and alone in its singular depravity. We are lucky that such stories continue to stand out, instantly recognisable as the work of the crazed and the sick, rather than merely the wicked or the criminal. The latter is something that this country is fairly good at keeping in line. The former is something that we can be glad is no more commonplace now that it has ever been.