Mark Mason

How not to steal a million

How not to steal a million
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The Great Train Robbery: Crime of the Century: The Definitive Account

Nick Russell-Pavier and Stewart Richards

Weidenfeld, pp. 441, £

‘You’re not going to believe this,’ crackled the voice over the Buckinghamshire police radio in the pre-dawn light of Thursday 8 August 1963. ‘They’ve stolen a train.’ Fifty years on, we can’t believe it either. And to the extent that we do, our fascination with the Great Train Robbery shows no sign of fading. It’s Britain’s real-life Wizard of Oz — no matter how familiar the tale, we can never resist savouring it just one more time.

By this new book’s own admission, the ‘definitive’ of its subtitle cannot mean ‘statement of fact’, a single, unarguable version of the the truth. Too many years have passed, too few of the participants’ memories have stayed immune to natural frailty and media pay-cheques. Even the gang’s self-styled leader Bruce Reynolds admits he finds it hard to distinguish his own recollection from received myth — what he calls ‘the product’. Some of which he created himself, as with Piers Paul Read’s excellent 1976 book The Train Robbers (to be republished later this year), a collaboration with the gang members, flogged to the publishers on the ker-ching ‘revelation’ that ex-Nazi Otto Skorzeny had bankrolled the heist. Canny bird that he is, Read turned the robbers’ deception into an asset, adding a wonderful last chapter in which he confronts them with the fact they’ve been rumbled. His book is worth buying for that alone: the story of the story.

Nick Russell-Pavier and Stewart Richards, on the other hand, have researched every account of the robbery from the last half century. As with Wikipedia at its best, contested details are dealt with by presenting the evidence for each version and leaving you to make up your mind. So we get possible names for the members of the gang who were never caught, as well as for ‘the Ulsterman’, the contact with Post Office information who provided the initial tip-off.

There’s also an assessment of who might have coshed the train driver Jack Mills, and how seriously. But the best bit of the story remains its central, undisputed core. The gang stop the train with nothing more complicated than a glove over the red signal light and a battery wired to the green one. Pop, the elderly driver charged with moving it the short distance to Bridego Bridge, is defeated by unfamiliar controls; later, when he sees Bruce Reynolds burying evidence at the hideout, Leatherslade Farm, Pop thinks his grave is being dug. A grocer in nearby Brill displays the notice ‘old banknotes accepted’, though the stolen cash is actually being used by the robbers to play Monopoly. They regret it when their fingerprints are found on the board. One of the jurors at their trial is called Mr Greedy.

No one comes out of the story completely untarnished. Unable to prove that Gordon Goody was present, the police fit him up by dabbing yellow paint on a pair of his shoes. (Surely the headline ‘Goody Two Shoes’ must have appeared, though I can find no trace of it.) The cops reckon a woman was at the farm because they find a tea-strainer: ‘Few men would think of such a thing’.

The Midland Bank try to put a brave face on the fact that their stolen money was uninsured. (Careless, arrogant bankers? How times have changed.) The robbers who evade capture are fleeced by fellow criminals, one being asked for £3,000 a week — this is 1963, remember — to sleep in someone’s garage. Ex-builder Ronnie Biggs is able to work out the height of Wandsworth prison’s wall by counting the number of brick courses.

This well-written book also tackles the question of why the crime still holds our attention. Sympathy for the robbers was there from the start: Roger Cordrey, the first to be arrested, received cheers from a crowd waiting at Aylesbury police station. This may have represented post-Profumo distrust of the establishment, though it doesn’t explain our love of the yarn five decades on.

Could it be that the Great Train Robbery is a modern morality tale, our vicarious way of living dangerously without having to face the consequences? But even before they were caught, disappointment lurked. As the banknotes tumbled onto the floor of Leatherslade Farm, Bruce Reynolds felt a huge sense of anti-climax. Nothing but ‘deep emptiness’.