Tales of the City: Is this a copper I see before me?

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It really is grounds for despair when you discover that not only are you the same age as the Prime Minister, but you're the same age as the head of Scotland Yard.

It really is grounds for despair when you discover that not only are you the same age as the Prime Minister, but you're the same age as the head of Scotland Yard. (It'll be the Archbishop of Canterbury next.) Not only was Sir Ian Blair, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, born a few months earlier than I; he also went to Oxford and read English in the same year as I did. Gosh, that makes me feel ancient.

Oxford in the early Seventies was full of hash and acid and long greasy hair and Black Sabbath greatcoats. Students were more likely to be planning a demonstration of the need for a central students' union than planning to join the police force. The police were the natural enemy of the druggy student.

Sir Ian was evidently made of unusual stuff. His appointment means that the capital's police force is, for once, in the hands of a well-educated, middle-class, arty intellectual, a person who'd slot in perfectly well in the Groucho brasserie or the Babington House bar.

His interests are "skiing, tennis and theatre," his pronouncements are strikingly liberal (he is against arming the police and against installing knife-and-gun scanners outside schools), and his public profile suggests he'll soon be sought out as a guest on radio panel-shows and Newsnight Review. Unfortunately, virtually his first target is the coke-snorting, professional-class "weekend drug-user", the kind of chap in whose social company he might normally expect to be spending his time.

More significant, however, may be his literary bent. A profile revealed (in awe-struck tones) that someone had seen Sir Ian at a dinner party where Ian McEwan was a guest. The knight was discussing Richard Dawkins's views of evolutionary psychology with the novelist and was "holding his own".

Blimey. This is serious. The Metro-politan Police is in the control of a guy who once read Beowulf in the original, and stayed up all night trying to finish Tristram Shandy. What would it mean for London if the influence of his English literature degree started manifesting itself? Would you find police interrogators relinquishing their thumbscrews and truncheons and subjecting their victims to half an hour of Spenser's The Faerie Queene until they confess? Will Sir Ian hurl Shakespearean insults - "The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon" - at his more nervous young recruits before sending them into battle in the next globalisation riots?

Will the criminal fraternity learn to dread Sir Ian's stertorous Oxford voice, heralding a dawn raid by kicking down the front door and quoting John Donne ("And now, good morrow to your waking souls!")? Will Sir Ian address the annual Police Federation conference and examine the problem of antisocial behaviour by asking at the start: "Was it not La Rochefoucauld who said, 'Il n'y a guère d'homme assez habile pour connaitre tout le mal qu'il fait...'?" I would love to think so.

If it was good enough for Elgar...

Reading my colleague Julia Stuart's interview with Dick and Dom, the madcaps of Saturday morning TV, I learn that the nadir of their zany behaviour (as objected to by the Tory MP Peter Luff) is to go into a public place and shout "bogeys" at each other until they are ejected. This kind of brainless male behaviour is hardly new; like ringing doorbells and running away, it has a pedigree at least a century old. Amazingly, an early proficient was the composer Sir Edward Elgar. He and fellow music students reputedly enjoyed "japes", one of which was, on seeing a gent with a prodigious beard, to shout "beaver!" and to keep doing so until tearful with laughter. Not edifying, I know, but it reveals an enduring British fondness for embarrassing strangers in the street. Mind you, this doesn't mean that Dick and Dom will grow up to compose the Enigma Variations...

Quote unquote...

It's that time of the year when you get a series of urgent phone calls from people who are keen to save you money on car insurance. I've had three of them, all unsolicited, in the past week alone. One was from - well, I'd better not name them, but they're a high-street franchise where you go to get your tyres fixed.

A Scottish salesman from the company rang me at 9am and, in a smoothly unbroken delivery, promised to undercut whatever I was paying. He then asked about my driving record, my no claims bonus, my age, health, social status, date of birth, education, religion, marital status, nationality, gross take-home pay, net ditto, sporting achievements, political orientation, voting intentions - pretty well everything apart from collar size and first sexual experience.

Twenty minutes later, as we hit the bottom of the barrel ("What colour is your car? Is that metallic or vinyl?"), he proudly announced: "I'm happy to say, Mr Walsh, that we are able to offer you a year's insurance at a special rate of £589."

There was a silence. "That's astronomical," I said. "It's far more than I pay now."

"Would you like to take advantage of this special offer?" the Aberdeen burr continued, unbothered.

"No, I would not," I said crossly. "It's wildly exorbitant. It's farcically too high."

"Now," said the voice, suavely: "Would you like me to quote you a special rate for your electricity bill?"

"Not much," I said, "if it's anything like the last quote."

"How about your gas bill?"

"Have you noticed that this conversation is doomed?" I asked. "Or do you think it's going really well?"

"I'm sorry I am unable to help you today," said the man, long-sufferingly, like a Good Samaritan whose roadside overtures had been rejected.

Where do insurance companies find people sufficiently thick-skinned to make these phone calls? Or are they part of an organisation devoted to psychological destabilisation, called Quote Me Unhappy?

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