Friday, June 11, 2004

London's Underworld

London's Underworld, by Fergus Linnane, is a book which could only have been written by an enthusiast.

The author had a long career in journalism and his final post was that of executive editor of the European. London's Underworld was written post retirement and reflects a lifelong interest in the darker side of our beloved capital.

Subtitled 'Three centuries of vice and crime', the book gives us a chapter by chapter survey of the wickedness of the big city, of which there is more than a little. Each chapter deals with a particular aspect of crime, such as highwaymen or hit men, drugs, prisons, and so forth.

Particularly interesting, to me, was the chapter on bent coppers. It is all too easy to forget, but well within living memory the Metropolitan police force was thoroughly corrupt. And it still may be.

In the 1960s and '70s it was the Soho porn business which was the chief source of trouble, because men will insist on being interested in sex. It's really most remiss of them. This meant that there was (and is) lots of money sloshing around in Soho.

By the 1970s, the Obscene Publications Squad was thoroughly corrupt. A Judge who jailed twelve members of Scotland Yard’s ‘dirty squad’ in the 1970s said that they were involved in an ‘evil conspiracy which turned the Obscene Publications Act into a vast protection racket.’ In other words, if a porn broker paid up, he could sell whatever pleased. ‘We bought our own justice,’ said one operator. ‘And the more we paid, the better justice we got.’

In 1972 Sir Robert Mark, a former Chief Constable of Leicester, was appointed as Commissioner to clear up the mess. He was given a less than enthusiastic reception by the men under his command. Mark responded by telling a meeting of the CID, to their faces, that they were members of the most routinely corrupt organisation in London, and that if necessary he would put the whole lot of them back in uniform and make a fresh start.

It is hard to know how much effect Mark actually had. Evidence, of a sort, was assembled against scores of officers, but there were few prosecutions and fewer convictions. Out of 74 officers investigated, 12 resigned, 28 retired, 8 were dismissed, and 13 were jailed.

If you want to read about this problem at length, you can consult The Fall of Scotland Yard, by Barry Cox and others (Penguin, 1977), a book which is listed in Linnane's extensive bibliography.

The problem, it seems, continues. Sir Paul Condon, another Met chief, said in the late 1990s that there were 250 corrupt officers in the CID.

Linnane's book is long (372 pages), well researched, and detailed. It will be invaluable to anyone who wants to write about crime in London, whether fiction or non-fiction. But not many people, I suspect, will have bought the hardback at £16.95. Neither will all that many libraries have selected it. Wiltshire County Council, for instance, bought two copies for the entire county.

Let's be generous and estimate that the hardback sold 1,000 copies, though 500 is more likely. There is a paperback version to come in August this year: let's be generous again and say 5,000 copies sold. The book is available in the US, through a distribution arrangement with Parkwest Publications, but I can't see it doing much over there. So, if we do the arithmetic on the royalties, the author's earnings are likely to be in the region of £5,000 or £6,000. At best. This probably doesn't even cover his expenses.

As I said at the beginning, a book which could only have been written by an enthusiast.

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