The veteran Guardian crime reporter looks back on the heyday of his trade in 50s and 60s Britain
For me, it started with a magazine called True Detective, at a time when I should have been reading more wholesome fare such as the Children’s Newspaper or the Eagle. There was murder and mayhem and black-and-white photos of bodies in blood-stained sacks, and it was all true. I had been going through an Agatha Christie phase, so the idea that it was possible to write about real rather than fictional murders, and about detectives called Bob or Jim rather than Hercule or Miss Marple, was enticing. Sometimes in the background of the grainy crime scene photos would be a chap with a notebook. A crime reporter.
What a job!
My first excursion into the world was as a law student at Edinburgh university. I had to interview the retired former chief constable of Midlothian, a legendary character called Wee Willie Merrilees – he was five inches too short for the police but had been given special dispensation – who had been one of the Most Unforgettable Characters in Reader’s Digest and was not shy about explaining why. He recounted his exploits, which included one operation during which he had hidden in a pram disguised as a baby to catch a molester in Edinburgh. Was this my first lesson in that old-school rule of journalism, too good to check? More chillingly, he told me of how the police in the 30s had cleared up the “homo problem” in Edinburgh by rounding up the clientele of the city’s few gay bars and putting them on a non-stop Flying Scotsman to London.
Down in London, in the 60s and early 70s, Life On Mars was a reality.
It was the heyday of the armed robber, but it was sometimes hard to tell the villains from the detectives; it was a period of police history that later caused the Met commissioner, Sir Robert Mark, to remark that he aspired to arrest more criminals than he employed. I soon learned a second important journalistic lesson: never assume. No one quite fitted their stereotypes. The Open University had opened its virtual doors and a generation of north London armed robbers, banged up for a decade or so behind bars, passed the time by becoming better educated than most of my university contemporaries.