Today is the anniversary — about the fortieth I think — of what became known in England as the Great Train Robbery: a carefully planned hold-up on a remote country railway bridge of a train carrying vast (for the time) amounts of money. They got away with the loot, and at least one of the small gang remained ‘at large’ (his name was Biggs) for years, having his idea of a good time in South America.
What really got up Authority’s nose was the public reaction of ‘Good for them! Hope they never catch them!’ Approval would have been complete were it not for the fact that the gang severely injured one of the train crew.
Something similar on a smaller scale had happened a few years earlier in Oxford. At that time two of the four corners of Carfax, the big cross-roads at the centre of the city, were occupied by banks. Carfax, a mere hundred yards or so from Oxford’s main police station, was also where the uniformed beat policemen stood and chatted all night, usually in the doorway of one or other of the banks.
Nevertheless, one morning when the boss came to open up one of the two banks, he found a dirty great hole in the ceiling and all the money gone. The robbers had installed themselves comfortably in the offices on the floor above and worked in a leisurely sort of way through the night, stopping for tea breaks, witness their shocking failure to wash up the mugs afterwards. I don’t think they were ever caught.
Again, the public reaction was ‘Good for them!’ I was living in Oxford at the time, (no, it wasn’t me, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?), and when the news got round there was a distinct brightening of everyone’s mood: people smiled at each other, and smirked and giggled as they walked past the embarrassed policemen at Carfax.
Those two occasions were cheering confirmations that the spirit of Robin Hood lived on under the surface respectability of the British people. But that was forty odd years ago — has it survived, does it live yet?