John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Our British gumshoes will soon be required to have a Masters degree in snooping and a PhD in phone-tapping'
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The Independent Online

It's a tough time for private dicks. Any minute now their profession is going to be regulated, and a whole generation of mackintoshed, matchstick-jiggling, bourbon-swilling wiseacres will have to smarten up their act. Tomorrow, Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, will decide whether or not to bring in laws that will affect the 10,000 private detectives in the UK; she's responding, apparently, to cases involving corruption, graft and other criminal misbehaviours. Nobody with a criminal record will be able to practise as a PI; aspirant gumshoes may have to apply for a licence and sit a "competency testing" exam, costing £900.

Where private eyes used to be governed by nothing more than a social conscience, a thirst for money and the occasional whack of a gun-butt on the back of the head, these days they're in thrall to an Institute of Professional Investigators, an Association of British Investigators, and, overseeing the whole lot, the Security Industry Authority. Soon, you'll be able to flourish something close to a Masters in Snooping and a PhD in Phone-tapping.

But how do modern PIs compare with the classic American version, the Jake Gitteses and Philip Marlowes? Because it's virtually impossible, isn't it, to imagine how you'd operate in modern London, as a one-man surveillance-and-confrontation unit, any more.

You couldn't carry a gun, a knife, a knuckleduster or even a ferocious dog; all you could hope to do is scare an assailant off with a copy of Ramsbotham's Guide to Personal Assault Law, Sentencing and Compensation (ninth edition). Following someone on the Tube would be a nightmare of Oyster-card deployment. Your suspicious behaviour would see you mown down by police bullets. Chasing a suspect through the mean streets of Chelsea or Wapping would bring a blizzard of speed-camera flashes: all the £60 fines would cripple your business. The details you'd need of your client's financial status or her errant husband's movements would be more easily available to a bank teller. Establishing which suspect phoned which would be a job for Carphone Warehouse. Owners of lost pets could just post a picture on the internet. Jeez. Sam Spade himself would quickly find himself redundant. What is there left for a private eye to do in our total-surveillance world?


Remember the kerfuffle last week about the dangers of nice middle-class people from Haslemere and Runnymede drinking too much at home, and exceeding the limit of 21 units a week? Scary, wasn't it? It carried the implication that bourgeois drinkers, being educated and driving Mondeos and all, should know better, while the working classes were just expected to drink themselves silly.

Looking at the photographs from Saturday night of Toby Flood, the England rugby player, ladling pure vodka down the throat of Prince Harry, one wonders if anyone has tried calibrating the alcohol consumption of the upper classes, at home or abroad. I suspect that Princess Margaret, who spent a lifetime flooring gin-and-Its, wouldn't have had much time for the concept of "units". I expect they'd have struck her as rather beneath her. Like "subjects". I suspect Harry shares his great-aunt's opinion...


Few parents will be wild about the prospect of receiving a warning letter, on Department for Education paper, telling them that their charming infant is clinically obese. At best, it'll be something they already know ("I'm afraid that, at 14 stone, young Daryl is off the top of the scale for a six-year-old..."). At worst, it will seem a monstrous insult. Some parents will retaliate with wrath: "Eric is not obese. He is merely big-boned. He is delightfully Falstaffian. He is unusually convex. He is simply well-fed. He is a fine figure of a man..."

It doesn't surprise me that the strategy of weighing schoolchildren and telling parents of the result has dragged its heels since it was mooted in 2005. Early tests showed that schools disliked the idea, and parents thought it utterly sucked. Now, after the Foresight obesity report cheerfully predicted that a quarter of British children will be obese by 2050, and a prey to diabetes, strokes and heart disease, they're sending out the letters with more confidence.

But what will they recommend? "We suggest you fill your child's lunchbox with arugula leaves (no dressing) and wild berries (no cream) for the remainder of term"? "Wiring your child's jaws shut for three months has had impressive results in our Mixed Infants class"? "According to our height/weight ratio, your child should be 6ft 9in. Can I leave this to you?" And will this usher in some more tactless missives from school, alerting parents that their kids are "dangerously cheeky" or "clinically inattentive" or "unacceptably ghastly"?


You have to admire the sangfroid of St Margaret's Health Centre in Perthshire, which issues appointment cards to its patients. Nothing new there, except that these cards carry advertising from local firms. There are ads for a florist, health spa, osteopath, physiotherapist, residential home, counselling service – and an undertaker, with a phone number in a little blue box. Very tasteful. So now you can visit your doctor, confident in the knowledge that, whatever the prognosis, you'll be able to celebrate with flowers, commiserate by booking a counsellor or, if the news is bad, ring the funeral arrangers pronto. How terribly rational. Do they, for the sake of nervous, old-fashioned types, give the number of the nearest off-licence as well?