Country: Keep it in the family

In the countryside, a policeman's job is often much easier. By Harry Pearson

ONE NIGHT, a couple of weeks ago, there was a loud bang in our back garden. When I went out to investigate, I found four youths standing around a crumpled Fiesta XR3 they had apparently just attempted to park on my next-door neighbour's lawn. Unfortunately for them, a 4ft-high dry stone wall had intervened.

Seconds after I arrived on the scene, my neighbour Ossie hove into view. Ossie is a big man and though what must once have been an impressive barrel chest has now relocated southwards, he is still a fearsome sight in a singlet.

As he strode towards them, a spotty lad, sporting a vivid necklace of lovebites, attempted diplomacy: "I suppose the main thing," he said nervously, eyeing the veins which were by this point bulging like strands of blue spaghetti amidst the rich passata of my neighbour's face, "is that nobody was hurt."

Ossie is a retired police sergeant. Twenty-five years patrolling rough pit villages in the foothills of the north Pennines have left him with a firm belief in the educative properties of pain.

"I dunno," he snarled at the lad, "if you'd have broke your bloody legs it might've taught you something."

The next day, out walking the dog, I met an old woman from the village. "Someone's been doing some landscaping on Ossie's garden, I see," she said. "Driver about 18, black hair, walks like he's got a coconut under each arm?" I said that would be about right. "We reckoned it would be that Dawson lad."

This was not exactly Miss Marple-style deduction. In every village there is always one criminal family. And everyone, including the coppers, knows who they are. It should be pointed out that these people are not exactly the Krays. Their activities have no patina of spurious glamour. They do not sport sharp designer suits. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The criminal family in the village where I grew up were the Robsons. The eldest son, Carl, was in my class. He was a bumbling lad with a face like an old and badly used turnip. One Sunday night, when he was 16, Carl committed an act that exemplifies rural crime in all its desperate dumbness. He broke into the village barber's shop.

The barber was an old-fashioned sort with a belief in the beauty of the unadorned masculine skull. In keeping with his ascetic approach, there was nothing on his premises but ample quantities of those twin mainstays of the traditional male grooming salon; tubs of white grease and prophylactics.

Naturally enough Carl was swiftly apprehended, the police having adopted the simple expedient of calling at the Robsons' house the minute they heard a burglary had occurred.

Years later, the break-in came up in conversation in the local pub. "Never understood why he did it," someone said. "There was nowt in there but Brylcreem and Durex."

"Aye," came the reply. "But who knows, mebbe Carl was planning on setting himself up as a gigolo."

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