John Walsh on Monday: The sheriff of Dulwich Village County

"IN A police interview," said the prosecuting counsel at a recent murder trial in Warwick, "(the defendant) said he felt as if he were in a movie like the Terminator, some sort of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the streets of Leamington Spa. The video shows scenes in which the character of the Terminator drives a truck at other vehicles which get in his way. (The man) told police he felt he had been `locked into the Terminator mode'."

I wonder if this could explain the behaviour of Jack Straw, the Home Secretary. The man responsible for implementing his party's manifesto commitment about "being tough" on crime, the man nominally in charge of all law- enforcement personnel in the country, Mr Straw sometimes sounds like a chap stuck in a dream of tough-guy adventure who cannot awake from it.

Every few months he is reported as having had a pop at some villain. Either he is mugged, upon which he informs the mugger "You're making a big mistake", like Harrison Ford in Witness, and runs after him until the miscreant trips over a convenient tree-root and is apprehended; or Straw is burgled, whereupon he murmurs "A man's gotta know his limitations", like Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force, and pursues the fleeing intruder until he is trapped in some impassable handball alley, gives himself up and Mr Straw carves another citizen's arrest on his truncheon.

It seems to have happened all through Mr Straw's career; the other day he was at it again, "intervening" when he saw a teenager spitting at people. ("He gave me quite a lot of lip, but after a while he calmed down" said Straw modestly, unaccountably failing to add, "It's all in a day's work for Home Office Man ...").

I'm not saying the Home Secretary invents these exciting excursions; but they seem to happen to him so much he must have started believing he's living in some tough-guy movie. We can all, I think, imagine Mr Straw standing before the mirror in his bathroom, levelling a can of Gillette eezy-foam at his reflection and saying "You talkin' to me? Who are you calling Four Eyes?"

And now this doughty crusader, this silver-haired vigilante, is suggesting we should all have a go at crime in the streets. We should, he thinks, create more "capable guardians" in society, by which he means capable of standing up to criminals and getting away with it.

By spooky coincidence, the same day the Home Secretary's initiative made the papers, I got a letter from a friendly neighbourhood WPC called Zoe, asking if I'd like to join a neighbourhood watch scheme. Why yes, Zoe, that seems a lovely idea. And, fired by Mr Straw's example, I set off around the neighbourhood.

Outside the dry cleaners a young thug hawked vigorously and spat on the pavement. I remonstrated, demanded he clean it off the ground and put it back in his mouth, which he did, apologising for his uncouth behaviour. Past the Crown and Greyhound a man was playing the three-card trick to gullible passers-by. I intervened, explained the error of his ways, confiscated his cards, took his money and his upturned cardboard box and sent him packing. He apologies humbly for any inconvenience. By the Pizza Express I subdued a violent rapist by shouting "Hold the pepperoni!" and other distracting cries before sending him off with a resounding kick in the pants. Outside the post office I bumped into three robbers with balaclavas and Uzi automatic weapons. "Look," I told them, "This simply will not do. It's just not on, d'you hear?" They removed their headgear. "He's right, you know," they told each other, and handed in their guns to the lollipop man at the pedestrian crossing.

Outside the local school I chased away the swarthy youths with terrible skin who were offering syringes to the scholars. As they ran off they shouted "I am frankly ashamed of my anti-social modus vivendi". I foiled a ram-raid on Dog Kennel Hill by saying "I am the Home Secretary and this is an intervention" quite loudly, before commandeering a truck and giving chase as far as Nunhead.

It felt great. Thanks, Home Sec. Life becomes so much more interesting when you're locked into Jack Straw mode.

uBlimey, kids say the damnedest things dept: The son of a friend found his father watching a programme about the Beirut hostages. Seeing footage of Terry Waite, newly released from captivity, he said "Who's that man, Daddy?" A very brave man, his father explained, he worked for the Archbishop of Canterbury as a sort of missionary. And when some British folk were kidnapped in the Middle East by these awful people called the, er, Druze militia, Terry Waite went out to Beirut, this big city in the Lebanon, to get them out of jail. But instead, he was himself captured and imprisoned - and for four years, can you imagine this, he was chained to a radiator. "Golly," said the six-year-old. "Was it on?"

The saga of Oxford University Press and its decommissioned poets continues to roll along nicely. The universally vilified publishing house is still in discussions with the Oxford English faculty about how it might make poetry profitable, a discussion that could take decades - but along the way it has thrown up an interesting sidelight.

Writing in the TLS two weeks ago, Sir Keith Thomas, chairman of the finance committee that rubber-stamped the Press's decision to bin the poets, denied standards were falling at the publishing house. Standards were, au contraire, "exceptionally high ... enforced by a legendary copy-editor who can read 40 different languages".

Who is this polyglot? His name came up a week later, when Henry Hardy of Wolfson College replied in the TLS, pouring scorn on Sir Keith and on the OUP. "Leofranc Holford-Strevens," he wrote aloofly, "edits the books in his care with genius ... but his writ does not run more widely".

Leofranc! A quarter-century has gone by since I last heard that unfeasibly peculiar name. He was a legend even then, the archetype of the eccentric Oxford don, without actually being one. Now 52, he has worked for the publishers since 1971. Awestruck undergraduates pointed him out in the street - not difficult, since he walked like a man in the grip of St Vitus's Dance, gesticulated like Joe Cocker at the climax of "A Little Help From my Friends", pulled faces like someone with toothache and wore jumpers with enormous holes, the result of their owner's nervous habit of plucking woollen strands with fidgety fingers. He was, allegedly, denied entry to the academic Valhalla of All Souls College because his table manners were too medieval. As the most junior member of the Senior Common Room at Christ Church, his flood of erudition from the corner of the room so amused W. H. Auden that he shushed his fellow dons' attempts to make conversation, in order that he could eavesdrop in peace.

My favourite Leofranc story concerns the 1967 Classics Mods exam paper, on which a passage of Homeric Greek was accompanied by the word: "Translate." It didn't say, "Translate into English", so Holford-Strevens translated it into something else. It seemed to be some form of German but the German faculty couldn't make head nor tale of it. Refusing to admit defeat, they sent it to the Saxon Philology department, but they were none the wiser. The university then tried, successively, the Bavarian Dialect Society, the Black Forest Patois Association, the Hohenzollern Advanced Linguistics Symposium, but they all shook their heads and said "Sorry". Finally they sent it to every university in Germany - and finally got a reply.

"We think it's a specialised form of peasant argot spoken by Frieslander farmers in the 19th century," said the letter. "There are only two people in the world who speak it now. One's an elderly shepherd who's in a nursing home in Leipzig. And the other is a bloke called Leofranc who lives in Oxford."

"It's a good story," he conceded when we spoke last week, "but it's very exaggerated. What actually happened was an exam question asked for comparisons between Homeric and other forms of epic, so I wrote about The Singer of Tales from the Bosnian epic tradition, and happened to quote a chunk of Serbo-Croat. The rest is just humorous elaboration by people at the Oxford Union."

How did he come to speak 40 languages? "My father started me on French, Spanish and German in my early childhood, and always regretted not having studied Latin and Greek, so I did those too. I began the Slavonic languages when the Sputnik went up and a boy in my class decided to learn Russian. The same thing happened with Arabic. As for Chinese and Sanskrit ..." What a guy. Or should I say, quel homme? Or quello uomo? (Unfortunately, that's all I can say).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Babysitter Katie and Paul have terse words in the park
tvReview: The strength of the writing keeps viewers glued to their seats even when they are confronted with the hard-hitting scenes
Life and Style
Make-up artists prepare contestants for last year’s Miss World, held in Budapest
fashion
Sport
England’s opening goalscorer Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain battles with Scotland’s Charlie Mulgrew
FootballEngland must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Life and Style
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

    Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

    £30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

    Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

    Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

    Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

    Day In a Page

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

    What are Jaden and Willow on about?

    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
    Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

    Cold war

    How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
    Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert