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Speeding to my own funeral
Those of you who see me poodling along Totteridge Lane in my Toyota at a steady 30 mph — with cars impatiently overtaking and zooming away over the horizon — probably have me marked down as a boring law-abiding senior citizen.
It was not ever thus. The truth is that I have had heavy Underworld connections in my time, have "had my collar felt" as a burglar and have spent more time sitting in police cells than most of you have had hot dinners.
I have had my brushes with the law. Police checks do not reveal this side of the real me but I have decided to come clean after a brief encounter with a traffic policeman in Spur Road, Edgware.
I was en route to a 2pm funeral at Garston from an 11am service at Ealing when I was flagged down.
The officer got off his bike, took off his gloves and strode purposefully towards me with that steely look that indicates "You ain't going to like what comes next, sir".
I pulled down the window and asked. innocence personified, "Anything wrong, officer?"
"Did you know you were doing 53 miles an hour?" he asked.
I pointed out that my mind was on being at Garston in time to pay my respects to an old colleague, having already said farewell to an old friend at Ealing.
Old Steely Eyes looked hard at me and put his pen away. "Do you realise, sir, that if you don't slow down the next funeral you attend will be yours?"
Some reprieve, eh? Which reminds me of the time when I was sitting in the car in Grays Inn Road on a hot day when someone on the top deck of a bus travelling the other way threw an apple core that sailed through the open window and landed at my feet.
I bent down, picked it up and threw it out of the window as the traffic lights changed... and the core sailed through the open passenger door window of a passing police car.
I was flagged down, lectured on the litter laws of the land and watched as I deposited the offending apple core in a rubbish bin. When I launched the Appropriate Adult panel in Barnet I paid 1,000 visits to police stations and ID suites in London and Hertsmere looking after the interests of vulnerable adults or children whose parents were not available for them I got this accolade from one many times cautioned juvenile when we met outside the town hall in The Burroughs. "Best appropriate adult I ever had," he told his mate. "Always good for a cigarette in the yard... also told me to put my hands up and tell the truth..
Three of my "clients" from Colindale and Golders Green police stations are currently serving terms of life imprisonment and one chap I sat in with at Edmonton was so impressed that I covered football for the Sunday Express - he was a Blackburn Rovers supporter - that he wrote to me from prison wanting me to be a pen pal.
When I was chairman of the Lay Visitors' Panel, making sure that prisoners were correctly looked after in the borough police stations, my panel partner, Adrienne King, and I spent countless hours in police cells talking to detainees.
I digress. Long before I became a controversial editor and a sober-sided citizen I had wide connections with police stations and the law.
As a young reporter living at home near Brent Station (now Brent Cross) I travelled to work at the Times office in Church Road each morning via the now departed and lamented Hendon Police Station in Brent Street.
I had breakfast each day in the police canteen and, shortly before 9am, I'd go into the CID office and check what had been happening overnight.
Det Sgt Bob Ottery and DC Jack Edmonds - regulars at Hendon for some time - would come in and I would categorise the housebreakings of the night and any other crime. In those days we would religiously report housebreakings in the paper and spend hours at Hendon Court.
Being part of the scene, I, along with Sports Editor Fred Harris and photographer Rod Brewster (later Editor of the Borehamwood Times) would get called in by the police to make up the numbers at identification parades.
I was called to Golders Green "nick" one day for a line-up with a burglar who had a string of convictions. As you know, the line-up should consist of people of the same height and size as the suspect and similarly dressed.
I didn't think I looked like the suspect at all ... he looked evil and was distinctly ugly.
So there we were in line, me three or four places away from the suspect. Enter the woman who was to try to identify him. She moved slowly along before arriving in front of me. She stared... and stared... and stared.
I tried hard not to smile. I wanted to say: "Hey, I'm not ugly", but eventually she moved on.
The next I knew was that she was coming down the line behind us and I was aware that she had stopped by me.
By now I was not into smiling. Although I knew I was innocent and making up the numbers, the hair on the back of my neck started to stand up.
Suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder. "That's him", proclaimed a female voice.
The suspect and his solicitor were beaming and the line-up started to break up. "Just wait there a moment, sir", said an unsmiling custody officer who I'd never seen before.
I stood there for about five minutes until Det Sgt Reg Harris, who had invited my presence, returned and authorised my return to the outside world.
Fred Harris, similarly, was in a line-up at Hendon. The offence was grievous bodily harm at Mill Hill East Station. The witness made a beeline for Our Fred with forefinger outstretched.
Then there was a time when Rod Brewster, dressed in his best suit because he was on his way to a posh job, turned up at Hendon on the way to find himself in line with a group of huge Irish labourers gathered from a site in Bell Lane, all wearing donkey jackets and wellington boots.
Despite this, the witness stood in front of the more modestly sized and well turned out Rod and stared hard. Then it was round the back to give him the hair raising treatment. But he didn't get a tap on the shoulder.
Poor lad. He never quite had the street cred that Fred and I achieved in the best criminal circles.