I have watched the creation of a knife-carrying thug from babyhood to manhood and I am here to tell you, frankly, the new Home Office measures to combat knife crime are risible.We bought a ruin of a cottage on Anglesey and arrived there one day to find it occupied by a group of infants carrying a Welsh flag. There was a great deal of anti-English feeling at the time and my wife said in horror, “It’s a sit-in!”
In those early days “sits-in” were conducted according to a strict protocol. The sitters usually asked permission of the owner after promising there would be no damage. I had just done a story about a sit-in on the Lleyn. Returning the key, the sitter congratulated the owner on his Peter Scott painting. “I haven’t got a Peter Scott painting,” said the owner. “Duw, “cried the anguished sitter, “we been sitting in the wrong house.”
The idea of a sit-in where the average age was six had the tills ringing in my freelance reporter’s head. Certain page leads all round, I told myself. Alas, the gang explained that it wasn’t a sit-in. Our cottage was their gang hut.
My wife, who is in strict training for sainthood, explained that we weren’t second homers and told them that they could still use it and when we moved in they must come to tea every Sunday. They were still coming to tea every Sunday fifteen years later, by which time they were bringing their “wives” and the next generation of thugs. Their behaviour, and that of the children, was impeccable. At Christmas they showered us with presents. They had their own spick and span homes because as soon as a girl got pregnant she was given a council house, which is probably why Britain has the highest number of teenage mothers in Europe. Parenthetically, one asked me to be his best man at his wedding. I said: “You have left it a bit late; you’ve got three kids.” “That’s the trouble,“ he said, “the place we’ve got is too small and to get a three-bedroom council house you have to be married.”
By that time they had committed most crimes short of murder and were experts on prison life. They particularly enjoyed Willie Whitelaw’s “short sharp shock” in extra-tough prison camps. “We got meat three times a day,” they told me in wonder. At home they only ever had pheasant, rabbit, hare and salmon, which they poached, and as a diet they found it boring.
Very keen on his food, Raymond came to us every year for his Christmas dinner. We discovered subsequently he had gone just as religiously to three more houses. With presents for all. Trevor, his elder brother, usually spent Christmas in prison. One year there had been a wardens’ strike and prisoners were being held in police stations. Trevor was being held in Wrexham where I had many friends. So I rang the custody sergeant to get him to put Trevor on the phone so that Raymond could wish him a Merry Christmas.
The Custody Sergeant was outraged. He said, “You should know better…” I said, “Come on, it’s Christmas and he’s about five yards away. Put him on the phone.” He said, “It’s not that. He’s not had his Christmas pudding yet. Can you ring back in half an hour?”
Although Trevor was a kindly soul, he was the most violent of the gang. In many ways Neanderthal. Though his younger brothers were not to be messed about with, they were also intelligent, kind and extremely generous. Qualities they hid under a quite frightening exterior.What turned them from happy infants into brawling thieves?
Principally, I think, because to the village they were known as the “Cacau”, which is Welsh for ”shit”. Their aim in life seemed to be to live down eagerly to the low expectation the world had of them. “You think I am bad? I will show you bad.”
It was tragic. Trevor, the eldest boy, was the knife wielder and the man who threw a policeman through a shop window. Once he asked me if I had got anything he could do in my garden. Alas, it was December. When I turned him down, he walked into the village pub, picked up the till and ran out with it. He got about five yards before he was dropped in a rugby tackle. I have been in a military prison so we had a rapport. When he came out of prison I told him he had been a prat. He said: “It’s your fault. If you had given me something to do I would never have pinched it.”
I have an uneasy feeling he was telling the truth. It wasn’t so much criminal intent as relief from boredom. Raymond, the next boy but one, came out of the womb fighting. He appeared to have no emotions. Yet when his Long Dog drank battery acid and I took him to have it destroyed I have never witnessed a human being so racked with sobs.
The family went to the same school as another young friend, the singer Aled Jones. Aled, a bright boy and naturally studious (while waiting to go on stage at the Hollywood Bowl he passed the time doing maths homework) benefited greatly from his schooling. The “Cacau” were just ignored. If they played truant there were sighs of relief. Yet one Christmas Raymond gave me a drawing he had done of a motorbike. It was perfect in every detail and I realised that with encouragement he would have made a passable draughtsman or a motor mechanic. Sadly bikes were his downfall. A good looking boy, he was taken as her lover by a middle class English housewife who had a second home outside the village. She bought him a powerful motorbike and when she dropped him he drove it at speed into the wall of her house. He is now badly disabled, unable to speak.
The biggest problem I had with ‘the gang’ was refusing their gifts of property they had stolen. The richest man in the village, a pillar of the community, had no such reservations. I bought them a set of sea rods. They were stolen by the police during a routine search of their house.
My wife and I loved them. Shown respect, they bloomed. Based on that experience, I am convinced that (a) prison is the thug’s equivalent of a good “A” Level; (b) short sharp shocks do wonders for their street cred; and (c) they form gangs as surrogate families There a very few born crooks but plenty of vulnerable kids who will prove you right if you do not show them kindness and respect.
…………………………………………………………………………………………………………Age brings with it a list of Things You Can No Longer Enjoy. At the top comes sex and debauchery, which is rather a relief. But it is not long before it extends to going for walks, eating the foods you enjoy, reading for any length of time before falling asleep, gardening and killing things for sport. The list is longer for the overweight because you are usually on a diet. As a noble friend of mine says, “Growing old is not for Cissies.”
Some of us deal more successfully with retirement than I have. My chum Revel Barker had a distinguished career in our trade as managing editor and Consigliere to the infamous Bob Maxwell. In retirement he bought Hitler’s pinnace, moved to Malta and set up as a publisher. His fourth book in a year is coming out soon. He specialises in reprinting classic books by newspapermen which he markets as “Hacklit”and this one is by Tony Delano, a legendary reporter. It is called “Slip Up” and it tells the hilarious tale of how Fleet Street found the train robber Ronnie Biggs - and Scotland Yard lost him.
This week saw the funeral of the gang mastermind Bruce Reynolds. I expect it was a thoughtful reunion. Those concerned must have reflected that they got heavy sentences and all they stole was a million. More recently the banks from which they stole have held their hands up for fraud, theft and money laundering for drugs cartels. They got bonuses.
Now they have found a way of stealing money from the accounts of Cyprus savers. Trouble? Bless you, no. The Eurobanks were so delighted they have promised to do the same all over Europe. Jail? Not a bit of it. Bound to be good for a dozen peerages at the very least.
Columnist in N.Y.TIMES