It might have been a scene from a shoddy amateur rendition of the popular British television series Midsomer Murders, which has been running since 1997. I watched as the two men grew smaller and smaller down Marlowes Road in the heart of sedate Kensington. Both had their backs to us as they scurried away, the shorter stocky one seemingly frogmarching the older flabbier man whose arms were raised above his head in a theatrical gesture of surrender.
They turned a corner and were lost to view. I am sure the raised arms and frogmarching were promptly abandoned then as both men heaved a tremendous sigh of relief. They hadn’t made any money this time but they had got away. I wouldn’t be surprised if they slapped each other on the back and congratulated themselves delightedly in Serbian or Transylvanian or whatever was their native language. Clearly, they were from the European continent but where I couldn’t tell. The older man’s mumbled “Italia” may have been as much a red herring as the younger’s pretence of being a London Bobby.
It happened when we were walking home from the bus stop at about five-thirty last Sunday evening after a long day on Primrose Hill in North London. I was stomping along on my walking stick behind my wife who was slightly ahead when an elderly man fiddling with a mobile asked her, “Do you live here?”. That’s often how strangers begin when they want information and I didn’t suspect anything at first. The man was standing by a car and looked as if he and the vehicle belonged to each other. “Tourist … From where?” he murmured, touching his own chest, saying “Italia”.
I assumed he needed directions. The man mumbled something about trains and I told him we were half-way between High Street Kensington and Earls Court stations. Which did he want? Instead of replying, he began talking of banks and changing money. I cut him short to say no banks were open on a Sunday evening but there were plenty of ATMs all round.
That must have been the cue for a second man suddenly materialised in front of us holding up what looked like an identity card in a wallet exactly like Detective Chief Inspector John Barnaby in Midsomer Murders. “British Police!” he lisped in a European accent, “Your passports please.” It was so stagey that I snapped back almost without thinking, “You’re nothing of the kind! You’re not even English!” Everything about him was phoney. Short and podgy in a navy blue windcheater open down the front, he looked a ham trying to play a copper. Apart from the accent, there is nothing called “British Police” so far as I know. There’s the Metropolitan Police which is responsible for the Greater London area but not the City of London which has its own force, and the various forces in other towns and counties. Blue Windcheater definitely wasn’t in any of them.
No sooner had I spoken than he wheeled round to the older man. What passed between them I couldn’t see or hear. But I did see the first man make a vague gesture towards us before being roughly bundled round, and off they went, the first man with his hands up in token of surrender, Blue Windcheater prodding him on.
They were possibly the same pair that accosted us three years ago when we were looking for a taxi outside Earls Court station. They looked older and shabbier, but that could be the ravages of time. Then, too, they had seemed interested in banks. But their exit had been less precipitous, possibly because I hadn’t been immediately and openly derisive.
With 52 knife attacks in the first 100 days of this year, the Metropolitan police has no time for petty crime like this. But the renewed stop-and-search campaign that keeps it busy might be counter-productive. Instead of warning off or catching suspected thugs, it encourages con men and muggers to pretend they, too, are patrolling cops.
Globalisation makes this simpler. Two out of five Londoners represent an ethnic minority. Londoners speak 300 languages; 36.7 per cent are foreign-born, 24.5 per cent are not European. Not many –- certainly not unwary tourists –- will distinguish between policemen and police impersonators who both accost passers-by.
If there’s one reason for more careful screening of European Union migrants no one has mentioned as yet, it’s this proliferation of crooks and criminals preying on the unwary in the streets of London.