Simon Heffer

Robin Hood v. the toffs

Simon & Schuster should be ashamed to have published Bob and Brian Tovey’s The Last English Poachers. There is nothing romantic about stealing from the rich — it’s a crime like any other

Robin Hood v. the toffs
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The Last English Poachers

Bob and Brian Tovey, with John F. McDonald

Simon & Schuster, pp. 288, £

The publicity blurb about the two unpleasant criminals whom this dismal book romanticises says that they are ‘continuing their ancestors’ traditions, reluctant to surrender the old ways of sourcing food from nature’. Imagine a book about two men who were being celebrated for ‘continuing their ancestors’ tradition of beating their wives, raping them when necessary, treating them as their private property and forcing them into a life of drudgery and subjection’. Morally, this one is just as bad, and as a work of literature it is a joke.

Bob Tovey and his son Brian have shared their way of life with a writer called John F. McDonald, who in a lachrymose afterword noting the death of Tovey senior describes him as ‘a legend’. McDonald also patronises his subjects by inserting the occasional grammatical error, when he remembers to do so, to remind us that we are listening to the voices of genuine peasants. There are ethically stunted people who revere the likes of Reggie and Ronnie Kray and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser and write books about them, and this book about two professional thieves is of the same sort.

Tovey senior was brought up to regard landowners as the enemy, and the book drips with his and his son’s demented class hatred; substitute Jews, or blacks, or Muslims for ‘toffs’ and I doubt this book would ever have seen the light of day. One wonders how much of their story is fiction; I suspect quite a lot. If the phrase ‘agrarian feudalism’ ever tripped off a Tovey tongue, rather than that of his ghostwriter, I should be amazed.

One supposedly ‘hilarious’ anecdote — that blurb again — describes a gamekeeper calling his employer (an earl) ‘your grace’ in a ludicrous moment; but no keeper would ever address his employer, nor one of his employer’s guests, so wrongly, precisely because every keeper I have ever met has a perfect understanding of the gradations of the class system of the sort that inspires hatred in the minds of the Toveys. Lords, earls, toffs, stuck-ups and those who don’t hate them — let us say synonyms for people who don’t in general resort to crime for a living — are all berated by the Toveys.

Tovey senior seems to have seen himself — with the help of his gullible ghostwriter — as a cross between Robin Hood and a branch of English Heritage. His almost pompously self-righteous descriptions of the ‘arts’ of poaching seem to be crying out for a lottery grant. He steals food to distribute, he alleges, to the deserving and in need: but no one is as deserving and in need as the Toveys. The rhetoric with which they defend their criminal way of life suggests an England before the 1832 Reform Act, not a democracy with a welfare state. Describing having successfully killed and stolen the meat of a deer belonging to the Berkeley estate in Gloucestershire, the Toveys say it was ‘sold and distributed amongst the people who owns [sic] that deer just as much as the earls of bloody Berkeley Castle’.

There hasn’t been an earl at Berkeley Castle since 1942, but that is not the worst illustration of the authors’ ignorance. They would have us believe that the birds and animals on landed estates choose to turn up there, to be killed and feasted upon by rich people from the highest social classes. In fact, there are birds and animals for eating on most estates in England because the landowners have spent a great deal of money rearing them or managing them. And the business of game shooting gives jobs to thousands of men and women all over the country, who choose to work honestly rather than to steal: these are the people these degenerates call ‘bum-lickers’. So stealing game is no different from someone walking into the Tovey household and stealing food they have just bought from Tesco — or stealing anything else, for that matter. Of course, the Toveys are too thick to see it that way, and McDonald either shares their problem or is stitching them up.

Tovey senior was a bore who bragged about how good he was at fighting, how good he was at drinking (20 pints a night, until he became an alcoholic and gave up) and how he loved putting one over on authority, which was, whatever form it took, by definition evil. Tovey junior, described at school as ‘feral’, had a lucrative sideline in stealing tiles off roofs until he went to prison for it. Remarkably, he was allowed to keep a shotgun licence, though I trust the publication of this book will change that. The grilling the rest of us now get when renewing a firearms licence leads us to believe that even forgetting to clean a gun adequately would lead to a ban, let alone using it in the furtherance of crime.

If you like books that celebrate people who have, through choice, pursued lives of crime and who invent justifications for doing so that only just held water in the 18th century, this pile of rubbish is for you: or give it to someone you really dislike for Christmas. I can see no other use for it, and Simon & Schuster should ask themselves whatever possessed them to publish it.

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