The motor racing season is winding down now. The traditional end-of-season race at Macau is this weekend, along with the Race of Champions and the last round of the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Formula 1 ends a weekend later in Abu Dhabi. But, this post is going to have nothing to do with motor racing, so if you have no interest in life beyond the walls of F1, you might as well give up now. Having said that, there is some useful advice at the end of it all, regarding the danger of loaning things to your friends.
In the last hours, the French authorities have confirmed that the Brigades de Recherche et d’Intervention (BRI) and Recherche Assistance Intervention Dissuasion (RAID) have sent Abdelhamid Abaaoud to what he no doubt believed was a better place than Saint-Denis (a lot of places are). The French nation (and those who live in their great country) can rest a little easier in their beds, knowing that the architect of last Friday’s murders is gone. In a few days we won’t remember his name, just as very few people today could tell you who Marwan al-Shehhi was or what Shehzad Tanweer did on his way to meet Allah.
They are just faceless bad guys.
Abaaoud was caught because one of his gang threw a mobile phone into a dustbin outside the Bataclan Theatre last Friday night, just before entering the building with his Kalashnikov blazing. The mobile was found by investigators and the details were analysed. The GPS data led them to two addresses, one of which was Abaaoud’s hideout, which was raided yesterday morning.
It was the latest in a long history of crime-fighting using radio devices. The very first such event was 105 years ago, in the summer of 1910, when a man called Hawley Harvey Crippen, usually known as Dr. Crippen, was captured as a result of wireless messages sent to Scotland Yard by Captain Henry Kendall of the SS Montrose, the ship on which Crippen was travelling to Canada. The result of these cables was that a detective called Inspector Walter Dew rushed to Liverpool by express train, boarded a faster liner and was able to arrive in Canada before the Montrose got there.
It was a terrific newspaper story at the time, because the whole world knew of the chase and followed it each day, but the people aboard the Montrose knew nothing of what was going on.
Dr Crippen remains a name that is known in the UK because of this dramatic capture and because of the nasty nature of his crime. He had poisoned his wife and filleted her. Police found some of her flesh buried under a brick floor in the basement of their house, but her head, limbs, and skeleton were never recovered. It was altogether a very unpleasant story, not quite as demented as Jack the Ripper, but clearly the act of a warped human being. Crippen confessed and was later hanged.
So why am I writing about this? Well, because last Friday, before the shooting began in Paris, I spent much of the day exchanging messages with an auction house in Wiltshire, which was selling the famous Crippen Cables. Why? Because I believe that they should belong to me. The captain of the Montrose was my great-grandfather Henry Kendall, who identified the fugitives and sent the radio messages. After the event, he kept all the original cables of which he was the author. He lived to be a very old man and in his late eighties, back in the early 1960s, he loaned a bundle of cables to his friend Sir Norman Vernon.
The Vernon Family were a wealthy bunch, the family fortune having been built on flour-milling, which led to William Vernon becoming a baronet in 1914, apparently for providing sustenance to the British Army in the early part of the war. In the 1920s the Vernons joined forces with other millers to create the Spillers empire and the business diversified into dog food, with the celebrated Winalot brand. Sir Norman Verson was managing director of Spillers between 1929 and 1949. His son Sir Nigel later joined the business and stayed until he inherited his father’s title in 1967.
Kendall had died two years earlier and the family, so I am told, were mystified not to be able to find the Crippen cables.
They reappeared in 1974 when Sir Nigel Vernon put them up for sale. My grandmother then remembered that they had been loaned to the Vernons, and my father wrote a polite letter to Vernon and to the auction house Bonham’s, explaining that the cables were part of the family history and should be returned to their rightful owners. Sir Nigel replied with an unpleasantly dismissive “the contents of your letter are noted”. Vernon had no proof of ownership nor any reason to have another family’s heritage, but as my father, a clergyman, could not afford a legal challenge, the sale went ahead. Sir Nigel made £1,600 but my family was left with the impression that he was a dishonourable, arrogant and greedy man. Perhaps he needed the money, who knows? In any case, he knowingly deprived my family of its heritage. The buyer requested anonymity and we never did find out who it was. For 41 years we have waited for the cables to reappear, in order to make our case again. My grandmother and father both left statements claiming ownership before they died. We agreed a few years ago that if the cables ever did come to light we would try to reclaim them, but only in order to put them into a suitable museum, so that they would be properly looked after. We agreed that the family would give up all claims of ownership after my death.
As I was setting off to Brazil, one of the commenters on this blog alerted me to the fact that the cables had come up for sale. I immediately contacted the auction house. We exchanged documentation and it emerged that the law does not protect you, unless you have things specifically written down. If something has been in someone’s hands for more than six years, it becomes their property, even if it was stolen and they bought it in good faith. I find that scandalous, but I think it is something people should know.
Don’t ever lend anyone anything valuable because while they might be your friend, their children may be greedy and dishonest.
Anyway, when I was in Brazil, the sale went ahead and the cables raised £12,000. The auctioneer, a sympathetic fellow, said that he would send me high-quality scans of the cables, so that we at least had a record of them. These arrived today and I was saddened to see that the previous anonymous owner had used self-adhesive photo albums to store them. They were all permanently damaged and appear to be not only stained indelibly, but also stuck to the album, making it impossible to remove without further damage, particularly given that the original telegraph paper was very delicate.
This was absolutely the sort of thing that I feared would happen if the cables were in the wrong hands, which clearly they have been.
I live in hope that one day, someone will stop trading these pieces or paper and give them to the nation, in recognition of their importance…
If you are interested in Kendall, you can buy the biography I wrote about him a few year’s ago. Click here. It’s an amazing story, a great Christmas present, and a few more sales will cheer me up after what has been a pretty rotten week, in a lot of different ways…
And if you have read the book already, why not leave a comment and tell everyone what you think of it.