John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Armed robbery was obviously an offence. But so, too, was Little Bastard with the Peashooter outside Waitrose'
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The Independent Online

Blimey, that was quick. Only 10 days after Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the Gilbert-&-Sullivanly titled HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, issued his report on modern policing methods, the Home Office has sat up and acted on its findings. At least, it's acted on the thorny subject of Police Targets, which has lately been attracting the sort of wild rumours and tabloid fantasies that used to be the territory of Political Correctness, and Health and Safety legislation.

The police, according to reports, will drop the target system that required each force to count up "offences brought to justice" in its manor, without specifying what they were. Some crime-fighting units, Sir Ronnie discovered, stretched the concept of "offences" so far that, along with murder, rape and arson, they included Depositing Chewing Gum on the Roadway. As long as it contributed to the total, it didn't matter how you defined a wrongdoing. Armed robbery was obviously an offence, but because of the vagueness of the target system, the force would get just as many Brownie points for closing the case of the Little Bastard with the Peashooter Outside Waitrose.

Sir Ronnie provided vivid examples of how policemen are being encouraged to criminalise people, including children, for such heinous crimes as chalking a hopscotch court, or building a snowman, which, it was claimed, "caused harassment, alarm or distress to passers-by". (Can you be harassed by a snowman? If you see him outside your house every day, do you conclude he's stalking you? What can you sue him for? Excessive frigidity?)

One splendid example of how targets are counted up involved a little girl who persuaded 542 people each to give her money for a sponsored event. She raised £700 and was cautioned by an officer for not handing it over to the charity – and the force chalked up 542 fraud offences successfully "brought to justice".

I'm rather impressed by this display of creative incrimination. Have the police also been confronting people for Eating Kebabs in the Street? Or for Looking At Me in a Funny Way? No, of course not. That's just what the enlightened Ministry of Justice is trying to eradicate: police inventing crimes; the random, capricious bullying of people by authority figures. Because that is, of course, the Government's job. It's brilliant at it. A government that can contrive to make smoking cigarettes in the open air an offence can hold its head high in any company of despots.


This is really scary. Heather Mills, apparently just about to make £55m from her divorce settlement – £20m down, and £2.5m a year until her daughter is 18 – has been "telling friends" (well, her stylist, lawyer and fitness trainer, one or all of whom have blabbed to the press) about her requirements for a new husband. No, I'm serious. He will be aged between 45 and 60, someone "distinguished and experienced in life who will take her seriously". Stop sniggering at the back. He must have a tremendous sense of humour (he'll need one,) be vegetarian and ready to stand beside her during her campaigns against landmines. (Any would-be husbands who are landmine fans can sod off right now, OK?)

The lucky winner of what Ms Mills clearly anticipates to be a million-strong, spermatozoa-like frenzy of suitors wanting her hand in marriage "must be able to handle a strong and dynamic woman like me" – presumably not by closing his hands firmly around her throat. Lastly, the chap must have more than mercenary intentions. "Heather doesn't want some gold-digger, after his piece of her settlement," said the friend, apparently with a straight face.

I notice that part of her marriage settlement requires Sir Paul McCartney to "pay for her new property ... to be fitted with a high-tech security system". Single vegetarian gentlemen between 45 and 60 must be considering the efficacy of just such a device, when the former Lady McCartney comes a-calling.


What is this strange noise in my ears? Wherever I turn, I'm assailed by meaningful near-silences. At the National Theatre, Peter Handke's play The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other sees 27 actors lurching across the stage for 100 minutes without anyone uttering a word (though there are plenty of crashes and bangs.) Millions of YouTube watchers have tuned into "A Very Silent Night" by a singer called Dei Hamo: four minutes of inaudible sound, recorded at a frequency that can, allegedly, be heard only by dogs. On the sadly defunct Oneword Radio, where there used to be literary chat, there's now birdsong – a beautiful version of silence.

Now shopkeepers are installing "Mosquito" devices, which emit a high-pitched buzz that's inaudible to deaf old gits over 25, but discourages teenagers from loitering in gangs. Rather pleasingly, many teenagers have responded by adopting the off-putting whine as a ringtone.

Whatever it says about the spirit of the Noughties, the silence-that-isn't-quite-a-silence has become amazingly trendy. Soon – decades after John Cage shocked music-lovers with his silent work 4.33 – there will be mime double-acts on the stand-up circuit; free downloads of minimal humming from Radiohead; sell-out retrospectives of Buster Keaton shorts; tongue-tied rappers expressing frustration by gesture alone.

It'll be fantastic. "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste," wrote Max Ehrman in "Desiderata", "and remember what peace there may be in silence." And what commercial advantage, too.