Nothing exciting ever happens here in East Horsley, where I live. Nor, for that matter, down the road in West Horsley.
Horsley (either one) is an anonymous, out-of-the-way sort of place, the kind that prompts people to ask, when you tell them you live there, “Where exactly is it” and are none the wiser after you tell them.
For the record, Horsley is in Surrey, the county of stockbrokers, riding stables and gated communities. The village itself is twenty-odd miles south-west of London, and five miles west of Guildford, the county seat. Residents tend to describe it as “‘leafy’ and ‘quiet, just the way we like it”. Most of the population of 4,300 live, according to the latest electoral roll, in quiet cul de sacs of detached half-timbered houses or in meandering field-bound lanes that charmingly, and sometimes perplexingly, return to exactly where they started.
Horsley boasts two famous former residents. Ada Lovelace, wife of the first Earl of Lovelace, and a woman of considerable means who sponsored the first calculating machine designed by William Babbage, lived there and has an estate named after the family. So
did Tommy Sopwith, the aircraft designer, most famous for a renowned bi-plane called the Sopwith Camel, a single-seat fighter aircraft that saw considerable action in the First World War.
One might be tempted to add William of Occam, named for an adjoining village (now spelt Ockham) who in the fourteenth century came up with a famous methodological principle, Occam’s Razor, of the kind of that everyone has heard of but which few can explain without looking it up. (Including, I might add, this writer.)
Tucked anonymously in the Surrey countryside it may be, but last Friday Horsley provided the lead story on every television news programme and every newspaper’s front page the next day. A man had been murdered. I’m unable to report how many murders there have been in Horsley since records were kept, but my guess would be not many.
It must have been an hour after it happened when I became aware of the foul deed. The trains that run past the end of my garden suddenly seemed to have stopped running. Soon a helicopter – a police helicopter, as it turned out – was hovering loudly and disconcertingly over the village, and stayed there for the best part of an hour. Then the telephones started vibrating with news flashes.
The trains were not running because a man had been knifed to death during an altercation on a Guildford-to-London train, which came to a halt at Horsley station moments after the incident had been reported. The victim was a middle-aged computer manager taking his fourteen-year-old son up to London for the evening. It seems that two men had bumped into each other as they boarded the train and exchanged words, the incident escalating from there. The boy watched his father being murdered.
Meanwhile, the alleged perpetrator had got off at the previous station, Clandon, and fled into the nearby lanes and fields. A manhunt was soon under way.
Now, ‘Horsley’ and ‘manhunt’ can rarely, if ever, have converged in the same sentence, so needless to say the village was all a-twitter, in both the ornithological as well as the electronic sense. “It’s getting so you’re not safe anywhere any more,” was the instant verdict of most observers. “Not even in Horsley!” some exclaimed.
Even my daughter, normally blasé about such matters, on hearing the news called to remind us to lock our doors. A dangerous, and possibly demented, killer was on the loose, she said. I did as she said.
Quiet semi-rural communities like Horsley take pride in their status as places where crimes, other than for an occasional spate of burglaries, are usually of such a minor nature that the police can barely bestir themselves to investigate, least of all when the suspects are said to be from the local traveller community. Serious assaults, such as knife attacks, are supposed to occur only in the deprived, drug-infested parts of London, not in quaint semi-rural backwaters like Horsley and Clandon.
And it soon became apparent that the murder had a racial element, as the police described the alleged perpetrator as a tall young black man.
In urban areas, the perpetrators and victims of knife crimes are overwhelmingly black, the incidents usually associated with gang rivalries. Down here in Horsley a black face is still something of a novelty. And gangs, if you exclude the bands of travellers who are said to roam the countryside looking for criminal opportunities, are presumed not to exist.
What has the suspect’s colour got to do with it, anyway, one might ask?
Well, sociologically quite a lot. If the attacker had been white, the assault might have been regarded as a random one, even, the kind of offence that might take place anywhere in the world once in a blue moon. But because the alleged assailant was black, genuinely rattled locals wondered out loud whether those scourges of the inner suburbs – the drugs, the robberies and the knife violence – might be creeping ever closer to home for the price of a train ticket, the railway providing the one direct physical link between tranquil rural Surrey and that dark and teeming metropolis to the north. (Incidentally, a woman who approached the fugitive near her house to ask him what he was doing there, in an otherwise immaculate description of him, omitted to mention what colour he was, presumably to avoid any suggestion of prejudice.)
Passengers on off-peak trains, I’ve been told, are already congregating for safety in already crowded carriages. All the talk about urban criminality leaching out of London by train can be put down to temporary “things-will-never-be-the-same” hysteria.
But that is what a killing can do to a community: shatter imbedded perceptions and put people on edge.
And Horsley will remain in the news for the next few weeks.