Ah, the Blitz spirit. In Britain's darkest hour we all pulled together, stuck two fingers up to Jerry and just got on with it. Up to a point. When war was declared, as the crime reporter Duncan Campbell discovered in the rollicking Bandits of the Blitz, part of Radio 4's terrific Blitz Season, prisoners with less than three months to serve were let out. And when the bombing kicked in, what with the black-outs and buildings conveniently opening up, a crime wave was inevitable. One gang took £20,000 in three months using getaway ambulances.
Presiding over the larcenous free-for-all was London's Mr Big, Billy Hill, who organised the wartime crime network with a facility that suggests he could have been a huge asset to the war effort. Billy enforced his reign with enthusiasm. "My closest friend? A well-sharpened knife with a five-inch blade," he wrote in his autobiography. "It never left me. It remained there resting in my breast pocket ready to chiv the first man to take a liberty." But though his work at home prevented him from doing his bit on the battlefield, he was nothing if not patriotic: his calling card was carving "V" for victory on the faces of recalcitrant rivals. But, he stressed, he went about his work with sensitivity. "I was careful to draw my knife down on the face, never upwards, always down, so that if the knife slips you don't cut an artery." Bless.
His son, Justin, also had fond memories of his stepmother Gypsy Hill, Billy's partner both in life and crime, as did the legendary cat burglar Peter Scott: "She was beautiful, she was well dressed and she was dangerous. She was bright – she didn't miss a move." Indeed. When Gypsy was driving one of the getaway vans after the famous 1952 Eastcastle Street Post Office raid – the Great Train Robbery of the Fifties – the van stalled. She enlisted a couple of passing constables to give her a push then went on her way. Makes you proud to be British.
Among the other programmes was a daily slot devoted to some of the cities that suffered most. Monday's was from Liverpool, where John Sissons inspected a diary written by Arthur Johnson, a reporter who would write up the latest news for much-censored public consumption, and in the evening would set down what really happened. Apart from sensitive stuff such as locations and casualty numbers, the papers were pretty accurate. Frank O'Neill remembered walking through the shattered city, the smell of burnt timber in his nostrils. Because Liverpool was rarely named in reports there was a sense that its role was underplayed: "Liverpool suffered one right bashing."
There was no bashing in evidence during Jamie Cullum's meeting with Clint Eastwood. It was a laidback chat about jazz between friends interspersed with some classic tracks. Eastwood had some great memories. Miles Davis was, he said, a fan of Rawhide, the TV series that launched Eastwood, and visited him on set. "I signed some stuff for his kid," Eastwood said. Then Davis had an idea. "Why don't you hang around, and we get some bitches tonight?" Those were the days.Reuse content