The Independent Archive: Even the best people go on stocking raids

4 August 1990 Patrick Marnham, in Paris, remembers the night he donned nylon stockings for a raid on the offices of Private Eye
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IN ARLES last week a barrister who had been defending a number of people accused of theft was found on leaving the court room to have concealed under his robes a valuable 18th- century painting, which he had removed from the wall of the court. He, too, has now been charged with theft. Nothing odd about that. In Charleville- Mezieres a retired public prosecutor, noted at the Ardennes Assize Court for the severity of the sentences he would demand, has been in prison for the last five months charged with bank robbery.

Before entering the bank Jean Holzer, Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur, colonel of infantry (retired), pulled a nylon stocking over his head like they do in the movies. As anyone who has ever walked around wearing a nylon stocking can tell you, it is difficult to see out.

My friend Henry Porter and I once donned stockings in a late night raid on the premises of Private Eye in London. This was before Porter became a senior executive on a national newspaper. In those days he was a mad fool and game for a nylon-stocking raid.

The plan was simplicity itself. We intended to remove several sheets of the coated board on which the pages of the magazine were laid out. We were then going to type out a page of stories containing sensational information about several members of the staff. We were going to glue these stories on to the board, thus composing a printable page.

We had identified a security flaw in the arrangements made to transport the pages of Private Eye from the production room to the printers. They were placed in a box and left in the pub to await a mini-cab driver. So, once our phoney page was ready we merely had to wait for the box to be placed in the pub, cancel the mini-cab, pick up the box from the pub, remove page 5, substitute the phoney page 5 and take the box to the printer. It was going to be a legal breakthrough. The first case of a satirical magazine libelling itself.

I don't know what went wrong. I can remember arriving at Carlisle Street at about 2am. Into the telephone box on the corner and call the office. No reply. So in we went, wearing our nylon stockings. Did we find the vital sheets of coated board? Were we able to operate the typesetting equipment? How did we get in? How did we get out? I can't remember. Somewhere along the line Porter's concentration broke and it all came to zero.

But Mr Holzer, over in Charleville-Mezieres did better. He found his way through the doors of the Societe Generale at Chatillon-Coligny, his local bank, and groped his way over to the counter, where one of the bank clerks offered him a roll of notes worth 15,000 francs. He then left the bank, removed the nylon stocking (phew!), climbed into his car and drove home.

It must be quite tiring spending a lifetime prosecuting people, whipping oneself up into a cold fury about the misdeeds of others, pinning the wretched criminals down as they make their transparently obvious attempts to disguise their guilt, and at the end of the day, has it been a life well spent? Is the world a juster place?

Perhaps Mr Holzer looked back on his career and remembered Lear. "A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?" That is the question they are asking today in Arles and in Charleville-Mezieres.

Holzer is a veteran of the Algerian War so there is always the possibility of the "delayed reaction defence". Or perhaps he was reliving some mission undertaken on government service. There may be evidence of earlier instability. It is said that while still a public prosecutor he once startled the court reporter from the local paper, L'Ardennais, by yelling "Freeze!" and whipping a revolver out from under his robes.

Mr Holzer will be tried in the autumn at Orleans Assizes where the public prosecutor will face the unusual task of setting about one of his former colleagues. It will not be a push over. The barrister-thief of Arles should be disbarred if only for misusing his robe. If a barrister wants to acquire a valuable art collection he does not go around unhooking pictures from the wall. He becomes an expert in wills and testaments. The man is a disgrace to his profession. But, for some reason, I like the sound of Mr Holzer, and maybe the jury will too.

From the Comment page of `The Independent', Saturday 4 August 1990