Paul Edie: Great Train Robbers were not so great

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We should perhaps blame Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock. If reformed cat burglar John Robie had not proved quite so alluring on screen back in 1955 in To Catch a Thief, then perhaps the “smooth criminal” would not be such a stock in trade of our popular culture today.

Whatever the reason, there is now no getting away from glamorous portrayals of hoods and thugs in films, on television and in books.

So it’s no surprise that next week’s 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery and will be marked with yet another book glamorising the event.

This one has been co-written by the son of Bruce Reynolds, generally thought to have been the brains behind the heist, who died a few months back. Reynolds junior, who is seeking a more legal way of cashing in on his father notoriety, claims that his father was proud to have carried of the robbery as is the most infamous member of the gang Ronnie Biggs.

Biggs is now very infirm but he appears to display no contrition. He spent 36 years or so of self imposed exile in Rio thumbing his nose at the British authorities, who had tracked him down but could not extradite him, only to return when he couldn’t afford medical bills.

The British obsession with glamorising criminals, particularly thieves, leaves me cold. The idea that people who steal from others are almost counter-culture heroes strikes me as at best obtuse but more often plain stupid and a threat to the fabric of society.

This misguided romanticism of crime is most pronounced when it comes to the Great Train Robbers. There are some myths about this being an old-style heist and as there were no guns involved it made it somehow more palatable.

I recall film critic Barry Norman reviewing Buster – Phil Collins’ overly sympathetic portrayal of train robber Buster Edwards. Norman seemed distinctly narked at this and reminded his viewers that the engine driver involved in the robbery was coshed and never worked again

The fact that guns were not used does not mean it was violence free and a victimless crime. That is before you get to the fact that rather a lot of cash was stolen.

Within weeks of Reynolds senior passing away Peter Scott, the “Burglar to the Stars” also died.

Scott had already written a pot-boiler telling tales of his life as the king of cat burglars. The British have always had an illogical blind spot for the gentleman thief from Robin Hood and Raffles to the original League of Gentlemen. Scott’s book, Gentleman Thief, tells the story of how he robbed many Hollywood and British stars as well as, he claimed, the Queen Mother, and the life of excess he lived, invariably, at someone else’s expense.

Unlike Biggs, Scott had enough self awareness to describe himself as the Master Idiot though not enough to permanently reform. He served a final stretch for dealing in stolen 
Picassos in the 90s. When he died earlier this year he left £400,000 in debts; living off others to the bitter end. On the subject of cat burglars the daring jewel heist in Cannes last weekend brought back images of To Catch a Thief.

The Hitchcock classic is set on the French Riviera and tells the tale of retired cat burglar John Robie, known as “the Cat”. The film was shot in the very same hotel which was robbed this weekend.

Mercifully there was no shooting in the true-life robbery though the thief was armed with a pistol. He apparently walked in waved his gun, loaded up a suitcase with jewellery.

But it was Hitchcock who probably did more to glamorise cat burglary than any other filmmaker – the Cat or more precisely “Le Chat”, played by Cary Grant, manages to seduce Grace Kelly while trying to catch a copycat thief who is framing him.

Reality as ever is always more gritty. Thieves often tend to be people with a range of vices who wish to indulge these at someone else’s expense, the proceeds of crime usually, being gambled or snorted away. After serving their sentences a third of the Great Train Robbers ended up back inside for pushing drugs.

Fifty years on we should remember the Great Train Robbers for what they were, a nasty bunch who carried out a nasty crime.

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I am not a fan of Twitter. I use it but it is the most vicious medium I have ever encountered. Too often it is all about anonymous individuals being as vile as possible to people they have never met in a pithy 140 max characters.

Why someone would want to threaten to rape of all things someone who has campaigned to get Jane Austen on a banknote I find astonishing. But that is just what happened Caroline Criado-Perez, pictured.

I think it is high time Twitter exercised some responsibility and introduced a “Report Abuse” button.