Joan Smith: Nothing 'great' about Biggs's train robbery crime

Our writer argues that age and illness are not grounds for parole
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The Independent Online

I don't know whether Bruce Reynolds or Ronnie Biggs ever came across WH Auden's poem "Night Mail". In rattling stanzas, Auden evoked the rhythm and romance of a mail train hurrying across the country at night, carrying "letters for the rich, letters for the poor". Unfortunately for the driver of just such a train in August 1963, his coaches were also loaded with a huge quantity of banknotes, which Reynolds and his gang had their eye on. As the train approached a set of signals in Buckinghamshire which were usually green, the driver – Jack Mills, 58, who had taken over the controls at Crewe – was surprised to see first amber and then a red "stop" light. The signals had been changed by the robbers, who swarmed aboard in ski masks when the train halted.

They had come armed and one of them hit Mills on the head. The weapon has been variously described as a cosh, an iron bar or the handle of an axe, but what is indisputable is that Mills was injured so badly that he never worked again. Pictures taken at the time show him with his head swathed in bandages, and he continued to suffer headaches until his death in 1970. A week ago, in a leaked Parole Board report, it emerged that Biggs is still in denial about this aspect of the robbery, claiming that Mills was given only a "light tap".

His supporters are furious that his request for parole has been turned down by the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, but there are plenty of reasons to believe Straw has made the right decision. Biggs is 79 and has been in prison since he returned to the UK in 2001. A Parole Board panel says he has shown no remorse and there is "little evidence" that his attitude to crime has changed; he is unlikely to return to violent offending only because his health is poor after a series of strokes. Biggs is brilliant at presenting himself as a folkloric character, but the Court of Appeal took a less romantic view, describing the robbery as an act of "organised brutality".

Since then, the "great train robbery" has come to enjoy an almost mythical place in the history of the 1960s. It's written about as a daring escapade in which there were no victims except the banks who lost £2.6m. The robbers belonged to an era when it was suddenly chic to be working-class, and all sorts of thugs found themselves lionised: the Kray twins were photographed by David Bailey; a gangster called Michael X was hailed as a black power leader; and a bunch of armed robbers have been romanticised as 20th-century Robin Hoods.

The men who hijacked that train were equipped with weapons and prepared to use them. Biggs could have acknowledged his part in this violent robbery, expressed remorse from prison and urged his lawyers to press for the early release which most inmates get for good behaviour. No one forced him to go on the run, and he would have been released years ago if he hadn't tried to evade justice. He's served only a third of his original 30-year sentence and there's something quite distasteful about the excuses that have been made for him, as though age and infirmity are more important than principles. But then I suppose there's no limit to the public's taste for nostalgie de la boue.