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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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Brazen crimewave has got so bad that shopkeepers now lock their doors

IT IS not the crime that depresses me; that has always been with us. It is the nature of the crime.


Brazen, shameless, carried out in plain sight by young men, and now often women, who imagine that they are untouchable.


We are beset by a mini crime wave in my corner of West London. We’ve had the odd mugging – singer Aled Jones was robbed of his £17,000 Rolex by a teenager with a machete – but shoplifting is rife.


They walk in, rifle the shelves and leave calmly with their plunder. They are seldom challenged. Staff might be frightened or intimidated but, in any case, they are under instructions not to confront the robbers.


My wife recently saw a security guard preventing a woman leaving our local Marks and Spencer with stolen food. She resisted, tried to flee. He detained her, vigorously but not dangerously.


The guard was berated by a manager of the store, who said: “Stop! What are you doing? What will our customers think?”


Well, if they had asked me, he might have got a well-deserved round of applause.


A trader who owns an upmarket delicatessen saw a woman take a loaf of bread and a jar of preserve and when he told her to pay or put them back, she said: “Who’s going to stop me? No one’s going to stop me.” Then she walked out with the stolen goods.


It is a waste of time calling the police. They shut our police station two years ago and since then you seldom see beat patrols.


One shopkeeper told a local news website: “Basically, we are the police now.” Another said: “Theft is effectively legal now.”


Our branch of Whistles, a women’s clothing store, now operates a closed-door policy. You must ring a bell to seek admission and if you don’t look likely to loot the place, they let you in to buy something.


That has been the system at our local jeweller’s for years, ever since they were victims of a £33,000 raid by a masked smash-and-grab gang armed with hammers. Fair enough, too. You don’t want staff to be tackling violent blaggers.


But a women’s boutique, or an optician’s, which also locks its doors?


A beauty shop selling face cream and fragrances, which is regularly visited by a Romanian crime gang, has now moved all its makeup into locked cupboards after a loss prevention expert reviewed CCTV footage and uncovered the alarming scale of the thefts.


We wait to see what effect the arrest of a “prolific shoplifter” near our branch of Boots will have on the crime figures. The pharmacy chain store has been a victim many times.


The thieves, often addicts, have reportedly been walking off with baby formula, which they are said to use to cut drugs before they sell them on as dealers.


They buy and deal heroin from a flat round the corner from where I live. I am told a vulnerable couple live there. Neighbours suspect they are being exploited. Certainly, the flat is visited often by druggies and the nearby park, where my grandson plays, was until a recent clean-up, heroin central.


I saw one of the addicts the other day, going from café to bar to burger joint – wherever people were eating or drinking outside – begging for “change”. I imagine one or two of the patrons were left patting their pockets and trying to remember where they had put their phones.


As a society, we are a soft touch for criminals. Chilean gangs are now sending teams of pickpockets to help themselves to wallets and purses in London’s West End. They know they are unlikely to be caught and if they are the penalties will be slight.


In swanky Bond Street, most of the high-end shops have their own security guard stationed outside. These burly professionals have, I am told, formed a cohort with an all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality.


If one of them comes under attack, the others race to the trouble spot… and God help the perpetrator.


Years ago on the Sunday Express, our crime reporter Andrea Perry arranged an office outing to Scotland Yard’s spookily fascinating Black Museum. Sir Ian Blair, the Met Commissioner at the time, joined us for a cup of tea and a chat before the visit.


Operation Bumblebee, the Met’s initiative to clamp down on burglars, had recently had a tremendous effect. It was targeted and intelligence-led and resulted in a dramatic improvement in the burglary statistics.


“So, who are you going after next?” I asked Blair.


“Anti-social behaviour,” he replied. That gave us a splash for the next edition. And indeed, a crackdown followed on the thugs and brats who were blighting lives in their communities.


Now, though, the police are just playing Whack A Mole. As fast as they bring the hammer down on one lot of crooks, another lot bobs up somewhere else.  


We need another Met Commissioner like Blair, with the vision and drive to identify the issues that need addressing and then commit resources to sort them out.


Dame Cressida Dick wasn’t such a leader and it remains to seen whether Sir Mark Rowley is the man to do it.


One thing is for sure – no one is relying on Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and consequently the capital’s Crime Commissioner, to solve this problem. Chris Philp, the Policing Minister, recently wrote to Khan warning him that by the end of March 2024, the Met was likely to be up to 2,000 officers short of its 36,500 complement.


The Government has provided cash to fund a recruitment programme but this year the Met fell 1,089 officers short: the only force in the country that failed to meet its target.


Traders are now taking their own resourceful measures. We learnt from the Sunday Times that Waitrose and John Lewis are trying to cut shoplifting and violence against staff by offering free coffee and discounted food to officers who visit their shops while on duty.


The hope is that a police car parked outside the store will deter thieves. The store chain calls its clever strategy “thanks a latte”.


I think “grind the little bastards down” works, too.

*****

Many years ago, when I still played cricket, I would board the coach for away matches with copies of the Sunday Times and The Observer in the bag with my bat and pads and find a quiet corner seat at the back.


These papers were required reading for sports fans for two reasons: Michael Parkinson and Hugh McIlvanney.


Parky, who died last week aged 88, was the chippy northerner who wrote with angry wit about the self-regarding dullards who ran cricket (a favourite target was the Marylebone Clodpoles Club).


McIlvanney wrote poetry. The subject might be Arsenal or Muhammad Ali, but it was all poetry.


When he was on The Observer, he called Parkinson and told him he had been offered a job as a star feature writer at the Daily Express and was thinking of moving over. They met in a London pub to discuss it.


But Parky soon realised that McIlvanney had already made up his mind to go. “We both drank more than necessary and began falling out,” Parkinson wrote later in the Sunday Times.


“When I said that I was against the offer and he would be mad to move, Hugh wanted to know why, and I explained that I had worked for the Daily Express so I knew what I was talking about.”


The argument got heated and the pub landlord kicked them out. They moved on to another pub in Fleet Street, where "a pushing and shoving ritual" took place in the courtyard.


“Hugh had a reputation of being handy in a punch-up and I wasn’t eager to test the rumour, being a runner rather than a fighter,” Parkinson recalled. “By this stage we were both in a state of what Hugh once described as ‘alcoholic dishevelment’.”


The landlord had called a cab to take McIlvanney to The Observer. But Fleet Street life was seldom that simple.


“Whenever we got Hugh into the cab he exited by the opposite door. It was a farcical end to our first significant get-together but neither of us mentioned it again once we became good friends and regular lunch companions.”


Parky was right, of course. The Daily Express didn’t do poetry, or 2,000-word features, and McIlvanney barely lasted a year.

*****

Sir Michael Parkinson was asked to ghostwrite the autobiography of fellow Yorkshireman “Fiery” Fred Trueman. But they didn’t hit it off, not least because Trueman wanted to call the book: The Definitive Volume of the Best Fast Bowler Who Ever Drew Breath.


So Parky tried to get The Guardian’s John Arlott to write the book instead. Arlott told him: “I’ll do it if I don’t have to talk to him.”

*****


Last word on my hero of journalism. Parkinson told an interviewer at The Times: “I may have had a drink problem, but it never stopped me working. It was part of the culture. Fleet Street was a wonderful, virile, drunken, funny place. Today everything is so formal and full of pen-pushers.”


Amen, Sir Michael.

*****

Another snippet from Peter McKay’s splendid book Inside Private Eye. (I shall be mining it for nuggets of mirth for weeks to come – so get used to it.)


John Junor, Fleet Street titan and Editor of the Sunday Express, was becoming alarmed about Private Eye’s regular attacks on Victor Matthews, the boss of Trafalgar House, which owned the Express.


Matthews was upset by them and Junor, ever the canny Scot, must have feared collateral damage. He arranged a lunch between Matthews and the Eye’s Editor Richard Ingrams, with himself as peacemaker.


“As a social event, this must have been something of a nightmare,” McKay writes. “Ingrams is a taciturn man and Matthews is monosyllabic when not discussing business.”


Junor sought to jolly things along between the “tiny Brylcreemed tycoon and the large, corduroy-clad Oxford classical scholar”, suggesting they all had one thing in common, a great love of newspapering.


Junor warmed to his theme. “Don’t you feel the hum of excitement just walking down Fleet Street, Victor, with the presses about to roar and the latest news flooding in from all over the world? Isn’t it the most exciting place on earth?”


There was a long pause, McKay reports. “Then Matthews, in his flat, slightly polished Cockney tones, replied: ‘No.’”