They say that “A man never forgets his first love” and I certainly believe that to be true. As I write this post I can vividly picture my very first girlfriend….She was everything a man could want in a woman; slim, beautiful and she possessed a smile that could light up a room….Her name was Hazel and she lived three doors up from my family home…..She was my girlfriend and best friend combined and I was completely in love with her. I would spend hours at her house in the 1960’s just chatting, listening to her pop records or helping her groom her little dog…..So you can imagine my heart break when she eventually married another man….Looking back now with the wisdom of a 66 year old man, I can see that our love was just never meant to be…..When she married she was 22 years old…..and I was not yet 12…..But still, it hurt!
Yet, Hazel gave me a gift that would one day aid me in arresting a serious and highly successful career criminal.
I forget exactly how I started my coin collection….I think it was probably with a handful of loose foreign coins that were given to me by a visiting uncle….Very few of our friends or relatives went abroad in those days so when those few precious, exotic coins were handed to me (probably aged about 7 or 8 years old)…..It all seemed very clear and obvious….This would be the start of my new hobby….My very own coin collection!
Plainly something as dramatic and important as this in my life would have to be shown to Hazel and her family, so, next day I took my treasures up to show them off. Hazel and her Mum were very impressed….However, they pointed out, I had nothing to keep my treasures in…..So Hazel went to her room and returned with a small but ornate metal sweet tin…..When she removed the lid I saw that it now contained a selection of foreign bank notes and a small vesta case (small metal match box) that contained some old farthings and silver three penny pieces (the type that once upon a time used to be put into Christmas puddings) “Here you are” she said….”You can keep your coins in this tin, it’s been in the drawer upstairs for years and it’s of no use to me!”
I rushed home to show Mum, my new treasures….My coin collection had really taken off!
In time it would (and still is, for that matter) be kept in a proper album…But Hazel’s tin was always kept apart….A little treasure, all on it’s own.
Many years later, I was on duty at West End Central and received a call to Marks and Spencer’s store in Oxford Street. This was a fairly regular occurrence as they were constantly targeted by shoplifters….This call was a little different. “Go to the Security Office and liaise with the security manager regarding a possible problem.”
Normally these jobs were time consuming but straight forward….The store detective would repeat their allegation of theft in front of the accused person and if the evidence was good enough (and it nearly always was) then the accused would be cautioned, arrested and eventually charged….It was very much a staple of our work at that time…..This however was rather different…..I was met outside the office by the security manager and the store detective. “We’ve got a suspect in there….We know he’s up to something….But we’re just not sure what it is!”
It seemed that their ‘suspect’ was an American tourist who claimed he had just arrived in the UK from West Germany that morning, he wanted to buy quite a lot of things and he wanted to pay in German Deutsche Marks….He said he would normally have changed his currency at the airport but had not been able to do so…..I asked if they would normally allow customers to pay in foreign currency and they said “Yes” Indeed, it seemed that they positively encouraged such transactions as they charged a considerable mark up on the usual exchange rate……”OK, so how much are we talking about?”
“He seems to have a wallet full of 100 DM bank notes.”
“OK, He wants to pay in German currency, you are happy to let him…..So why am I here?”
“Would you come in and speak to him?…..There is just something not right here.”
We all entered the Security Office and there was our middle aged American ‘Suspect’ wearing a large ‘ten gallon’ cowboy hat and a VERY loud shirt….He got to his feet, extended his hand towards me and spoke with the broadest Texan drawl I have ever heard since John Wayne was defending the Alamo….He positively beamed at me ”Well, Good morning officer, Thank You for coming and I’m kinda hoping you can clear up this little misunderstanding because I sure seem to have stirred up a hornet’s nest with my request to pay in German currency.”
“OK Sir, lets try and sort this out….Can I ask your name please and where do you come from?”
“Why sure thing officer. My name is J.R. (I kid you not!) Smithson, I come from Texas in the US of A and I’m a cattle rancher there. At the moment I’m touring Europe and I’ve just flown in from Germany today….I’ve dropped my bags at the hotel and I came out to buy some new clothes….But these good people seem to think there might be something wrong.”
“Can I see your passport please, Mr Smithson?”
“Afraid not officer, it’s at my hotel in Mayfair….But I have the hotel’s details right here….and I’m sure they will vouch for me.”
“And how do you want to pay for the goods, Sir”
“In German currency officer….I know the store will charge me extra for the facility….But that really is not a problem for me.”
“Can I see your money please, Mr. Smithson?”
At that point J.R took out his wallet and peeled off a crisp 100 Mark note and handed it to me. “Here it is officer”……I took the proffered note…..Turned to the security staff and smiled….Then turned back to J.R. “What’s your real name?”
“I’m sorry officer….I don’t understand.”
“Well, understand this….I’m arresting you for attempted fraud and going equipped to steal….These are NOT Deutsche Marks but German, WW II Reichs Mark notes….and are of little or no value at all today.”
To the amazement of the security officers J.R suddenly laughed and immediately reverted to his native London accent and said “Fair enough, mate…You’ve got me!”
JR from Texas turned out to be Bob Hunt from South London and he was a professional ‘Con Man’. He would cheaply buy bundles of these old German Reichsmark notes from a local street market and pass them off as modern German Deutsche Marks at restaurants, shops and hotels…. He was absolutely brazen about it AND incredibly successful…..He would live the high life working this fraud wherever he could, pretty much all over the country….Every few months he would be ‘rumbled’, and would get arrested….He’d then be sentenced to a few months in jail….Then, he’d come out and do it all over again….He told me that he got away with it most of the time because shops, restaurants and hotels are greedy….They are so intent on getting a huge profit from charging an excessive mark up on the exchange rate transaction that they don’t do proper checks.
He did ask me a question too….”How did you ‘rumble’ me so quickly?….I could see in your face that you’d sussed me as soon as you saw that note!”
“I’m afraid you must blame my childhood sweetheart….She once gave me tin full of old bank notes…..and one of them was a 100 Reiches Mark note….I wasn’t sure what you were doing UNTIL I saw that note!