Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

To the relentlessly autobiographical, a pothole in the road, no matter how dangerous to people in general, will quickly bring to mind the time their pram was nearly sent off the pavement into the way of a passing bus. A certain sort of writer, my sort, can’t help being borne ceaselessly back into their own past, so it is with apologies that I see my grandfather’s history of larceny in the story of the Hatton Garden heist. We learn that three of the men who were arrested at gunpoint in Kent the other day are pensioners. Brian Reader is 76 and the owner of a second-hand car dealership called Pentire Cars. He is also the owner of the kind of moustache you used to see on ‘Wanted’ posters.

While the nation hates terrorists and paedophiles, it rather likes thieves, and students of criminal lore are already inspecting Reader’s profile for traces of Ronnie Biggs. We live in a world that prefers, indeed honours, the knowledge of teenagers, so high-level heists are one of the few areas where age and experience are held at a glamorous premium. Biggs took part in the Great Train Robbery in 1963 and was on the run for 36 years, mainly in Brazil, where he used to host barbecues for passing tourists and admirers. He sang on two recordings by the Sex Pistols and was eventually flown back to the UK by the Sun newspaper. After a while in prison, he was freed on ‘compassionate’ grounds and died a national hero. British public opinion, which nowadays means British popular culture, adores nothing so much as an ageing crim, especially in times of austerity, when the theft of diamonds from safe deposit boxes in Hatton Garden is not the first thing on people’s boo-hoo list. Commander Peter Spindler of the Metropolitan Police has been speaking about ‘this callous crime’. Meanwhile, the T-shirt vendors of Leather Lane are already mapping Reader’s well-worn features for bumper summer sales.

My grandfather was in the minor league. An amateur bantamweight boxer and friend of the world champion Benny Lynch, he was every inch the son of Irish immigrants – five foot four inches, to be exact – and he moved in a world of thieves and chancers that blended very naturally with the world of other folk heroes in the Glasgow of the 1920s. Michael O’Hagan was the kind of hard man feared and admired in equal measure, and, to this day, such men are spoken about as decent ordinary sorts who bring the spirit of the people along with them on their criminal activity. It is hard to know how this happens, except that, in the universe of them and us, people who blow up safes in their spare time are always likely to be claimed by us. To the end of his life, my father spoke of his father as someone who was adored in the Calton area of Glasgow. If so, and it’s difficult to know for sure, they must have adored him at a slight distance, as he spent an inordinate amount of time in Barlinnie Prison, along with his three brothers, Willie Andrew, Charles and James. (His sister Nellie was the head of the Sinn Fein collective in Glasgow.)

‘Sheriff Malcolm, at Dundee yesterday,’ the Scotsman of 6 January 1934 reports, ‘imposed sentences of 18 months’ and five months’ imprisonment respectively on Charles Bradley (33), 42 Gemmell Street, and Michael O’Hagan (29), 8 Sydney Street, both in Glasgow, who pleaded guilty to a charge of safe-blowing.’ It turns out that the two men, in the middle of the night on a date just before Christmas the previous year, climbed through the window of A.G. Kidd & Son, a Dundee bakery, and blew up the safe. They made an incredible racket, and, when discovered by some passing officers minutes later, were sitting on their arses covered in flour, but with no dough on the horizon, ‘only some books’, according to the Scotsman. It seems that one of them, I like to think Mr Bradley, had packed bags of flour around and on top of the safe to deaden the sound of the explosion. My depression on discovering this story was not alleviated by the newspaper’s point that the ‘accused were employed at the time on relief schemes by the Glasgow Public Assistance Department’. In a late plea for the defence, I’d like to add that, in court, Bradley took the major share of responsibility for the crime. ‘O’Hagan had no knowledge that a crime was to be committed,’ Bradley’s kind (or scared) brief argued. ‘He found on arrival in Dundee that a parcel which Bradley was carrying contained explosives.’ Given other high points of my grandfather’s career, I feel, with a little sadness mixed with hilarity, that this fabulous dissembling on my grandfather’s part might have been evidence of a family trait. I can almost hear his outrage at the unfairness surrounding him. It has not been unknown for later O’Hagans to feel misunderstood as they make a bid for glory.

Yet a thief’s status only improves with age. Michael’s brother James was a dab hand at stealing from Glasgow warehouses, and people admired him for it well into an old age that seemed fully ornamented with local approval. According to City of Gangs by Andrew Davies (Hodder, £7.99), James O’Hagan, a recidivist burglar and popular mutineer, was one of the heroes of the ‘Scottish Chicago’. A rebellion at Barlinnie Prison in April 1932 was believed to have been fomented by Alf Pellow, a Glasgow hairdresser and housebreaker, asking for the ‘English diet’ – the better food believed to exist in English prisons. Sixteen of the troublemakers were removed to Gateside Prison in Greenock. My great-uncle James was released and immediately sold stories to the Scottish Daily Express – is this what people mean by literary lineage? – proclaiming the prisoners’ riotous discontent. ‘According to the Express’s unnamed informant – O’Hagan, we must presume,’ Davies writes – ‘the Barlinnie prisoners had wasted no time in demonstrating the art of defiance to their Greenock counterparts.’

Out of all this disgrace, such men age gracefully. It’s a matter of social context and what Davies calls ‘the art of defiance’. In this way, the men who are alleged to have carried out the Hatton Garden heist, especially the older ones, are not thought of as criminals but as resourceful men taking a wild stand against the system. It may not be right, but the tendency to admire old men for still having a go is stronger, at least in Britain, than the wish to lock them up and throw away the key. In this age of tabloid Draculas, a band of pensioners who want to steal £60 million are treated like Robin Hood’s merry men. They may be greedy, and careless, but they want what other people want. They are understood. And that’s why people are printing their faces on T-shirts and not calling for their summary execution, as they routinely do when a loner casts his eye at a 15-year-old girl.

An elderly gentleman in his nineties lived in the same Glasgow tenement as my father. Once in the late 1980s, when we were coming down the stairs, we met the old gent struggling down with two walking sticks. Ernie, it was said, had been a legendary safe-blower fifty years before, he had done his time, spent his money, and was now making his way to the Empire Bar for his daily pint of beer. ‘Ernie,’ my dad said, ‘this is my youngest, Andrew. He’s studying to go to the university.’

‘Fuck sake,’ the pensioner said. ‘You’re your granda’s double. The very same face. What a man he was. Mind you, he was trouble. Always trouble. He could peel an orange through a keyhole.’

I could tell my father was laughing with pride. When we got to the street everybody said hello to Ernie as they passed. He repeated the comment about the orange and then stopped to inspect my face. ‘Aye,’ he said, catching my arm, ‘and he would try to sell you the peel into the bargain.’