Christina Patterson: Why some crimes seem to be very, very hard to solve

The Saturday Column
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The Independent Online

It's sometimes hard to solve a crime. When, for example, I got my handbag grabbed from under my feet in a restaurant, it was very hard.

The thief, who was a junkie well known to the owners of the restaurant, was easy to see on their CCTV footage, which apparently showed her being really quite athletic, though not looking at all well. But when I say that she was easy to see, I mean that she was easy to see if you watched it.

The policeman allocated to my case was very nice. He sent me several letters, giving me things like crime numbers and numbers to call. He even phoned me up a couple of times to tell me about the progress of my "case". I told him that I thought the main number to call was probably the restaurant, which had the CCTV footage, and I think in the end he did call it, but I think he must have been in some terrible accident that meant he couldn't walk, or even use a wheelchair, because he never managed to get there. In our last phone call, which, like a lot of last calls, wasn't quite so nice, he told me that the CCTV footage had now been taped over, so he wouldn't be able to watch it. But I could, if I wanted, get "victim support".

You can see, then, how, if you had computer records and paperwork which had 4,332 names on it, and 2,978 mobile phone numbers and 20 audio tapes with recordings of voicemail messages and 91 Pin codes of the kind you need to access mobile phone messages if someone has changed the factory settings on their phone, you wouldn't really know where to start. You can see why you might want to have a cup of tea and a lie-down. You can see why you might feel too tired to even count the names, so that when, for example, the chairman of a parliamentary committee writes to ask why your man didn't mention all these names when he talked to this committee – when he was, in fact, meant to be giving "oral evidence" to this committee – he might say something quite vague like "the specific figure" was "not available at the time".

And if he had, less than 18 months ago, said that he thought there were "only 10 or 12" high-profile victims of the phone-hacking scandal he was meant to be investigating, you can see why he might not want to mention a number like 4,332, which isn't really a number you'd say straight after 10 or 12, even if some of the 4,332 were only medium-profile (though they couldn't be low-profile, because you tend not to appear on the contacts lists of private investigators employed by newspapers who pretend that celebrity gossip is news if you have no profile at all).

It's a little bit harder to see why, if you had stated in the case that led to the successful prosecution of the private investigator that there were only eight victims of phone-hacking, you'd say in an internal briefing paper a few months later that "a vast number" of public figures had had their voicemail accessed without authority, which is another way of saying illegally. If it was your job to find out when people had broken the law, and you thought that a law had been broken, it's hard to see why you wouldn't want to find out who had broken it, and why you wouldn't want to tell the people who were affected by it, the people, in fact, whose phones you thought had been hacked.

It's hard to see why you wouldn't do anything you could to make sure that the newspaper you thought had hacked them gave you its internal records so that you could find out more. It's hard to see why when you could, for example, seek something called a "production order", which would mean they would have to give them to you, you would instead choose to write a polite letter to the paper asking to see them, and why when the paper said you couldn't, you'd shrug your shoulders and give up. And it's hard to see why you would choose not to interview a single reporter, editor or manager at the newspaper other than the one you said was a "rogue reporter", though it's hard to see how you knew he was a "rogue reporter" if you didn't speak to any of the others.

And it's hard to know why, when "high-profile" people thought that strange things had happened to their phone, which made them think it might have been hacked – people whose names were also on the list you had – you "advised" them that there was "little or no information held by the Met relating to them", which only makes sense if the word "advise" means something different to you than to everyone else. Or why, if you had two invoices, raided from the home of the private investigator who was sent to jail for phone hacking, relating to the Deputy Prime Minister, with headings like "Story: Other Prescott Assist-TXT", you wouldn't decide to tell the Deputy Prime Minister that he should only say things on the phone that he'd be happy for two and a half million people to see transcribed.

You might almost think that the man who has, for the past 18 months (until last month, in fact) been in charge of the investigation, who earns more than the Prime Minister, and who has earned himself the nickname Yates of the Yard, which makes you think of a smiling bobby like Dixon of Dock Green, and maybe of John Major's speech about spinsters and warm beer, was very stupid, or very lazy. Or you might think that there was some reason why people didn't want to investigate a newspaper owned by one of the most powerful men in the world, even though the law in this country is meant to be more powerful than powerful men. You might wonder, for example, if there was something that some people were getting out of the relationship with the powerful man, or the men who worked for the powerful man, which they might not get if the men couldn't work for him any more.

And you might also think that when you watched footage of dictators being ousted because their governments were corrupt, and their police forces were corrupt, and their media were corrupt, it probably wasn't a good idea for politicians who crawl to the powerful man, and policemen who crawl to the powerful man, and journalists who crawl to the powerful man, to lecture other people on "transparency" and the rule of law.

Misery memoir with a (Chinese) twist

There comes a time when fashions peak. There was, therefore, always going to be a time when the flood of books about children being called "It", or being beaten, or starved, or smashed into 1,000 little (probably metaphorical) pieces by their parents, was going to seem like just more misery porn. It was lucky, then, that a woman popped up who could refresh the form with a nice little twist. The twist, of course, is that the memoir is written not by the child, but by the parent, and that instead of moaning about parental cruelty, the author boasts of carrying it out.

I haven't actually read Amy Chua's The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but I don't really feel I need to. Chua has, over the past few weeks, been almost as ubiquitous as Mubarak. While snoozing in the bath, I have, thanks to Radio 4, which has been told to reach out to a wider audience, and clearly thought that the way to do this was to appeal to all those Suzuki-method-embracing mothers in Scunthorpe, been enthralled by tales of monstrous maternal bullying with violins. Chua seems as thrilled by her own brutality as we are. What's not clear, and won't be for some time yet, is the long-term effects on her children.

What's also not clear is quite how China's 600 million-odd mothers feel about the new definition of the "Chinese mother". On both my trips to China, I was struck by laments that its one-child system had produced a generation of spoilt "little emperors" who can barely waddle to the fridge. Perhaps China needs more Chinese mothers, or perhaps it just needs more Chuas.

The power of poetry on a wet winter's day

One of the very few pleasures of travelling on the Tube is looking up from someone's armpit and seeing a poem. Yesterday, for me, it was Keats. His reminder that "in spite of all,/ Some shape of beauty moves away the pall/ From our dark spirits" seemed, on a wet winter's day, like a message from on high.

The poems are there because a woman called Judith Chernaik had the idea of putting poems in unsold advertising slots, and 25 years later the scheme's still going. Six poems are unleashed on commuters three times a year. In the latest crop (which is also available in a free leaflet at central London Tube stations) there's a poem, translated by Tony Harrison, by the fourth-century Alexandrian poet Palladas. In the week when an Egyptian dictator was toppled partly by Twitter, and the week before that symbol of global oppression, Valentine's Day, it seems to hit the spot: "Loving the rituals that keep men close,/ Nature created means for friends apart:/ pen, paper, ink, the alphabet,/ signs for the distant and disconsolate heart."