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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

*

Exclusive: One man and his wife, grandson, a bottle of pop and a sausage roll,
fail to nab a naughty boy*

*Allegedly


Chiswick, West London, Saturday


Great excitement at our house, which Lord Drone likes to call Dizzy Heights. The fugitive from Wandsworth nick has been spotted in our neighbourhood and get this, there’s a £20,000 reward for his capture.


We guessed something was up. All night the helicopters have been circling over Chiswick, or as it’s more properly known, “leafy Chiswick”. Thwop, thwop, thwop, thwop! Sleep is impossible. It’s like living in a Seventies Vietnam war movie (bags I’m Christopher Walken).


Apparently, the jailbreaker spent two nights kipping down by the Thames and was also spotted in the cemetery beside our church, resting in the little shelter at the gate. Fred Hitch, whose heroics at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift earned him the VC, is buried nearby. So is that wonderful American painter Whistler.


Anyway, action this day, as Churchill would have said. The police have put up the reward, which would get us all to the south of France and keep us there in style and comfort for a week or two.


So I gather my ragtag band of bounty hunters – wife, son, grandson, who is almost four and very handy if it comes to a punch-up – and set off to track down the Iranian “spy”.


(Note to subs: feel free to insert “alleged”. I don’t want to be the one who finishes off Cocklecarrot. The Editor caught him asleep at his desk the other day and woke him with some contraption that simulates a duck call. I’m told he had a dicky fit but I deny any involvement.) Alleged — Ed


We scour the area, peering into the bushes where Polish builders down on their luck go to drink vodka and lately, where dealers hide their stash. Nothing.


Then in an underpass we see a young man coming towards us. Tall, lean, dark curly hair and with a rucksack on his back. He has a hand raised, masking part of his face, as though shading it from the sun.


In an underpass? Hah! Book that flight to Nice, the twenty grand is as good as ours.


As he draws level, I stare at him hard. He gives me a knowing smile. I’m guessing it’s not the first time today he had been mistaken for the 21-year-old fugitive Daniel Khalife.


We try the path by the river, the churchyard. Nothing. We could spread out but the young shaver hasn’t got his orienteering badge yet and I’m worried about him crossing the A4 by himself. So dejectedly, we head for home.


When we get there, we discover that le tout Chiswick is atwitter (if you can still say that now Musk has changed it to X). Khalife has been nabbed.


On the High Road, says one excited resident, using a picture of a police van outside a bakery as irrefutable proof. No, no, around Church Street, says another. Church Street? We’ve just been there. We must have missed him – and 20,000 sovs – by minutes. Yards. Damn!


But then the truth begins to emerge. Khalife was arrested eight miles away in Northolt. It seems he had followed the Thames west to Brentford lock, then along the Grand Union Canal until an undercover policeman yanked him from his bicycle on the towpath.


Chiswick has had to endure some online ridicule over the escapee. One wag suggested on X: “Daniel Khalife walking back into HMP Wandsworth kitchens with an unprecedented knowledge of artisanal baking after spending 3 days in Chiswick.”


There will be an inquiry, of course, and already two prison officers have been suspended. Khalife escaped hanging on to bedsheets tied beneath a food delivery lorry and is believed to have had help, either on the inside or outside Wandsworth prison.


I can tell you what the inquiry will find. That our prisons, like all our public services, are scarcely able to function. They are threadbare.


There’s a General Election coming up soon and Rishi Sunak could well be consigned to history. It reminds me of a previous changing of the guard when Gordon Brown was dumped from office and his Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, left a note on his desk for his successor.


This is a convention and usually involves a few words of friendly advice on how to settle in to the job.


But Byrne’s note read: "Dear chief secretary, I'm afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck! Liam."

*****

A tragic footnote to my piece on shoplifting and drug addicts in Chiswick a few weeks ago. A dog lover called at our local pet shop yesterday and noticed a couple of women slumped in a nearby shop doorway surrounded by drugs paraphernalia. She thought they were asleep. In fact, one of them was dead.


A bus passenger witnessed one of the women smoking drugs and a dealer selling his wares the day before, just a few hundred yards away. He reported it to police. But hours later, he says, they were still there. He also claims he has seen the dealer regularly riding his bike in the area.


What is it, exactly, that keeps police so busy that they have no time to deal with crimes like this?

*****

It took a while, but a dose of reality has at last caught up with the City of Psychotic Cyclists, otherwise known as Amsterdam.


Careless riders who for years have been almost, and sometimes actually, mowing down pedestrians now live in fear of their own nemesis – the electric bike.


I learn that only 59 per cent of cyclists in the Netherlands capital feel safe in traffic, compared with 72 per cent last year. The electric menace is leading to more accidents, say four out of five citizens of Amsterdam.


They share the cycle lanes with pushbikes and are sometimes adapted to go much faster than their 20 miles an hour limit. Now city elders are discussing whether to introduce a maximum speed for cycle paths and banish cargo bikes to the main roads.


It’s wrong to indulge in schadenfreude, I know. But I have limited sympathy, which is to say, none. The last time I was in Amsterdam I felt as if I had accidentally wandered on to the set of a Mad Max movie.


Bicycles come at you from all directions. There are 880,000 of them in the city (I don’t know if that includes the ones in the canals) and only 800,000 residents.


The riders are quick to remind anyone who wanders into their path that it is, well, their path. First there is the prissy ring of the bell and if that doesn’t shift you, an exasperated lecture, often delivered in English, for you must be a tourist.


There is an air of entitlement to it all. They have been accorded special privileges and they intend to hang on to them. Like the company boss who has a lift that goes to his floor and nowhere else, they don’t want to share, or live together, or mingle with life’s foot soldiers.


If I went to Amsterdam again (unlikely), I would understand this better now. That nice Mr Khan has put a two-way cycle lane at the end of our road. It is dangerous for motorists who want to turn across it; narrows the road, making it difficult and dangerous to overtake; and is dangerous for the cyclists themselves.


Because it is their space, they imagine they are safe and cycle along oblivious to what is going on around them, frequently with headphones on to listen to music, sometimes even scrolling on their phones and hardly ever paying full attention to others in the bike lane, be it fellow cyclists or harassed pedestrians.


They ignore red lights, seldom stop at zebra crossings. And now they have been joined by other forms of transport that might pose a threat. I was nearly wiped out a while ago by an inline skater, bare-chested, wearing baggy Ottoman trousers and a clown’s hat, complete with bells.


Naturally, I remonstrated. “F*ck off,” he called cheerfully over his shoulder.


There are also plenty of electric bicycles, e-scooters, e-skateboards and electric unicycles. All of them going fast enough to inflict death or serious injury.


Our once well-ordered roads are now anarchic. Obviously, the police are nowhere to be seen, which only encourages the chaos.


Along with ULEZ and low traffic neighbourhoods, it has sucked any remaining joy out of driving in our capital city and I would vote for anyone who offered a credible pledge to sort it out.

*****

As promised, another raucous tale of old Fleet Street, courtesy of the Daily Express’s former William Hickey Editor, Peter McKay in his book Inside Private Eye.


Among the Eye’s perennial targets for ridicule and contempt was Anthony Haden-Guest, whom McKay describes as “an excitable, noisy author of occasional articles for colour supplement magazines, and by no means a major figure even in the shallows of Fleet Street.”


Eye Editor Richard Ingrams likened him to Captain Foulenough, a character in H B Morton’s Beachcomber column for the Express, and Haden-Guest was nicknamed The Beast and mercilessly lampooned in the Grovel column, written by Nigel Dempster.


He moved to New York and one evening joined Dempster, McKay and the Express’s New York Correspondent Brian Vine for dinner in a smart Manhattan restaurant, “where he symbolically punished ‘Grovel’ for the past indiscretions.”


McKay writes: “Before the aghast eyes of American diners, he threw Dempster over his knee and spanked Nigel to the accompaniment of Brian Vine cracking a spoon on the neck of a champagne bottle.


“Later they danced together. Few Private Eye victims have been able to exact their revenge in so direct a fashion, far less bury their enmity on the dance floor immediately afterwards.”

*****

You must read Bernie Taupin’s hilarious memoir of life as Elton John’s songwriting sidekick, which The Times started serialising yesterday.


My favourite tale so far is of a private gig they did for the late Queen at Windsor Castle. As Elton sang Your Song, celebrity photographer Patrick Anson, 5th Earl of Lichfield, whom Taupin describes as “a notorious libertine”, keels over in the audience in an alcoholic stupor.


The Queen, Taupin writes, simply turned her head slightly and said, “Lichfield’s gorn again.”


Four footmen in powdered wigs picked up the unconscious earl and carried him out.


12 August 2023