ACCORDING TO a song in light opera written by Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan, a policeman’s lot is not a happy one. This is still probably true in the 21st century. Despite modern attitudes and technology, the police force remains one of the less popular career choices facing a school-leaver, anxious to make his or her mark in the world.
To my generation, there was something comforting about spotting a ‘bobby’ (as they were affectionately known) out patrolling the streets on foot. It’s a rare sight these days and it’s not uncommon to hear one complain that they are so bogged down with paper work, they seem to have less and less time to be ‘out there’ catching criminals. This came home to me the other day when I came across an obituary for one of Scotland Yard’s most famous detectives.
Chief Superintendent, Jack Slipper, as he was when he retired, became internationally known for his pursuit of the Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, whom he attempted to arrest in Brazil in 1974. He cut an imposing figure, well over six feet tall with his trademark pencil moustache. Known simply to all as “Slipper of the Yard”, he led the successful hunt for those involved in the theft of £2.5 million (£30 million in today’s values) from a Glasgow to London Euston mail train in 1963.
One of them, Biggs, escaped from prison in 1965 and fled first to Australia and then Brazil. He had changed his appearance with the help of plastic surgery and fathered a child by a Brazilian woman, which, under the law of the country, allowed him to stay there.
Following a tip-off from the Daily Express newspaper, Jack Slipper and a colleague went to Rio de Janeiro, where he confronted Biggs with the now famous words, “Long time no see, Ronnie”. He had hoped that Biggs, after nine years on the run, might volunteer to return to Britain. Slipper recalls in his memoirs that all Biggs wanted to talk about was what life was like in those days in that part of London in which he grew up. Due to a hardening in the attitude of the Brazilian authorities, Slipper was unsuccessful in his attempt and returned empty-handed.
Biggs eventually returned voluntarily in 2001 and is currently continuing to serve his sentence in jail. Jack Slipper retired from the force and worked in security consultancy. At his funeral, he was described as one of the finest detectives of the last century and a natural leader of men. I wonder what he would have made of the present head of the London Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair.
Appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair – no relation – some time before the recent terrorist bombings in London, Sir Ian is rarely off the television screens these days, but not always talking about hunting down criminals. He is a fervent supporter of new, fashionable, governmental good causes. In one of his latest appearances, he announced that his officers would be investigating the much-publicised cocaine habit of British supermodel, Kate Moss. He justified this by saying: “We have to look at the impact of this kind of behaviour on impressionable young people,” thus taking over from parents, teachers and the church, the moral guardianship of the young.
This is the same Sir Ian Blair who has yet to show any contrition for the shooting dead, by Metropolitan Police officers, of an innocent Brazilian man, mistakenly identified as a terrorist suspect following the London bombings. He has, so far, only referred to the incident as the result of misinformation. How comforting to the public – or to the victim’s family – is that?