John Walsh: Tales of the City

This gadget-heavy i-Pod generation is a walking goldmine, a mugger's wet dream
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The Independent Online

Then it did. Six black teenagers descended on them, surrounded them and said, "Right - whatchoo got then?" My son (rather brilliantly, I thought) dug his hands in his pockets and said, "I've got these keys..." The muggers turned away in disgust, grabbed the tallest of the three boys, punched him in the face and stole his mobile phone. The third boy shouted to Max to leg it home and prepare to let them in. He took off, made it home - and listened through the door to a frantic kerfuffle outside, during which milk bottles were kicked over, and the muggers apparently strove to break into the house.

It wasn't, thank God, true - the kerfuffle was the noise of Max's friends trying to get in - but it was a nasty moment. By the time the police arrived, the boys were in a state of shock somewhere between outrage and regret that they didn't defend themselves better (how I remember that feeling after being mugged myself near Clapham Junction at 15 - the incessant advice from school idiots about how I should have knocked my attackers senseless with my advanced karate expertise). They felt better after being taken in a police car round the mean streets of Dulwich, in an attempt to spot the miscreants.

Peace reigned for a few days. Then the boy whose mobile was stolen was mugged again, by two more black "rudies" (as they're known). Once again they said, "Whatchoo got?" The taller plunged his hand into the kid's pocket, extracted a £20 note, whooped exultantly and ran off down the road. The remaining mugger tentatively asked, "Er, what else you got?" and was surprised to find the boy's fist connecting hard with his solar plexus. Resisting the urge to kick the mugger's head in, the 14 year old then summoned his uncle who brought the car round and they drove until they spotted the first mugger, cruised alongside him as he ran, and retrieved the £20.

These are everyday tales of the city now - or rather, tales of the middle-class suburbs. Tell the neighbours a mugging story and you'll hear a flood of others, from Kentish Town to Wimbledon. Did you hear about the school bus full of children that was stopped, boarded and "steamed", with the muggers hurling a brick through its window as they scarpered? Or the school picnic in a Kenwood field, on which muggers descended to steal the children's bicycles? And what do you learn, time and again? That the victims are predominantly young teenagers.

Five years ago, such kids weren't much of a draw for muggers, being unlikely to carry credit cards or large sums of cash. Now, the average teen is a walking goldmine with nowhere to go on a Saturday night (being too young for the pub) except hang out on the street - with cash from his new bank account, with his Storm watch, his camera-mobile, the trailing wires of his iPod. All he need do now, to make him a mugger's wet dream, is to carry a new Portable PlayStation around with him.

How stupid of us to send them out into the night like that. But what enrages me is not just having my son attacked, but the muggers' casual assumption of the role of highwayman - as if they had been watching James Mason in The Wicked Lady, and thought that, if they turned to crime, they might be taken for dashing young bloods instead of ignorant losers. As if a social contract exists in England, which meant they're entitled to steal children's possessions, as long as they utter the words: "Whatchoo got then?"

Jesus, they don't even bother to threaten you, these days. That's perhaps the most telling index of how supine and toothless has become the society through which they glide so easily.

One is unimpressed

So Harrods is planning to move into the 7/11 convenience-shop market, with a new venture called Harrods 102 opening in Knightsbridge in February. If it works, we'll get a diffusion range of Al-Fayed mini-stores opening all over the country.

I'm not sure south London is ready for a convenience-buy Harrods. When you run out of kitchen towel, instead of nipping down to Tesco Express and buy some rolls of it, would you be happy choosing from the shelves of Harrods Damask Linen Flowered Kitchen Towelling Substitute. The same goes with loo-paper. Buying Tesco's own-brand bog-roll used to be fine. Buying Harrods' Bespoke Disposable Crown Vellum Lavabo Tissué seems a bit lah-di-dah. You may have spent years popping into Sainsbury's Metro for some PG Tips. Will you be happy popping in to the 102 store for £8.99-worth of Harrods Super-Refined Assam-Darjeeling Blend Hand-Selected by Jain Virgins On The Foothills of Kilimanjaro? Especially if it's not even in tea-bags?

It's timing, Godber

I've heard the word "timing" used often when praising this or that comic genius, but I've never really understood what it means. Is it just hesitating before you say your line? Or uttering a punch-line with correct emphasis? Or performing a double-take? Then I saw something on TV and understood perfectly. It was a re-run of Porridge The late Ronnie Barker walks into his cell, to discover his young sidekick (Richard Beckinsale) vigorously doing press-ups on the cell floor, oblivious to his presence. Barker observes this performance for a full minute, squinting at it from every angle and wrinkling his brow. Then he enquires: "Anyone I know?" Perfect.