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Great Train Robbery: Cops, robbers and true heroes
10:13am Thursday 19th December 2013 in Leader
Professor Steve Hall is co-director of the Teesside Centre for Realist Criminology at Teesside University. Here he argues that following the death of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, it is not he but train driver Jack Mills we should remember
IN the predictable brouhaha that will follow the death of train robber Ronnie Biggs, the fate of train driver Jack Mills will be in danger of being entirely forgotten.
Jack was a family man, National Union of Railwaymen member and popular colleague.
The name of James Hussey, the man who recently confessed to hitting Jack over the head with an iron bar, might also be forgotten.
Biggs was remembered because he embodied what some see as a “rebellious spirit” that characterises British and American culture, the everyday individual trying to escape a mundane life of work, learning and family responsibility by beating the system in a single act that very few would dare to go through with.
In criminology we call this “The Robin Hood myth”, the notion that the “outlaw” represents the poor against the evil system that acts on behalf of the rich and powerful.
Criminal acts are committed by the poor to escape from this evil tyranny and find the wealth and freedom that they are being denied.
People like Biggs represent a repressed wish that lives only in the imagination, the beautiful dream of escaping drudgery and living a life of ease for the rest of your days.
Jack Mills represented the life of work and responsibility that some of us would like to escape.
However, here at the Teesside Centre for Realist Criminology, some of our members follow a different line. Research in the early 1980s proved beyond doubt that most volume crime is “intra-class”, which means that the perpetrators and victims tend to belong to the same class, and often live in the same neighbourhood or somewhere similar down the road.
There is nothing romantic about the sort of everyday crime that victims have to suffer – burglary, harassment, violence, vandalism and so on. There’s nothing “Robin Hood” about the poor taking from the poor. The type of crime most people forget about is committed by the wealthy and powerful members of society, and there’s also nothing “Robin Hood” about the rich taking from the poor – usually the customer or the taxpayer.
“Crimes of the powerful” cost the country up to four times the amount that volume crime does.
THE Great Train Robbers harmed Jack Mills in order to get rich and escape the responsibilities that citizens must live with all their lives. They sought a violent and illegal shortcut to the realm of the elite so they could live like little aristocrats for the rest of their lives, contributing nothing to society and keeping their accountants busy in the art of avoiding tax.
What’s romantic or rebellious about wanting to live like the most powerful and privileged group in society? Were most of history’s great rebellions not against these people, and weren’t our romantic heroes the leaders of the oppressed masses, not conniving criminals seeking a shortcut to the top only for themselves and willing to harm anyone who gets in their way?
Maybe this is an anomaly in our culture, a little bit of topsy-turvy mythology that gets things completely the wrong way round.
If indeed Biggs’ life is celebrated by the media and Jack Mills is forgotten, perhaps it should give us pause for thought.
Who are we in this country, and who do we want to be?
Perhaps the ambition of being a responsible family man and a responsible worker is just too low, the prospect too boring. Perhaps we all want to escape, but would we have a coherent society to support the younger generation if we all did?
Perhaps, in times of recession and austerity, the opportunities to escape in a legal way are shrinking, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 1963, right in the middle of the post-war reconstruction era with full employment.
Who I would urge us to remember is not Biggs but Jack Mills, because he represented what we should aspire to, and what we must work to bring back to the country in these hard times – a stable economy and sociable, responsible individuals.
We all loved Robin Hood and reading about gangsters and pirates when we were kids. Perhaps, by remembering Jack Mills rather than Biggs and his gang, we could all show that we are grown-ups.
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