The Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs came home to Britain last week to take advantage of state care. Perhaps after 36 years on the run he had just got to the top of the waiting list for a bed.
He was always an unlikely great train robber. An unsuccessful petty criminal, Biggs was able to negotiate a full share of the proceeds of the "crime of the century" because he had once shared a cell with Bruce Reynolds, mastermind of the heist, and because he knew an old locomotive driver who could be recruited to take part in the epic crime.
The robbers were going to stop the Glasgow to London express with a false signal; someone had to drive the train the few hundred yards from there to a road bridge where its cargo of pounds 2.5m in bank notes was to be carried away. (In 1963 pounds 2.5m was worth something.)
But Biggs's old railway friend was not up to the job and couldn't get the train to move, so the real driver, Jack Mills, coshed into submission, had to be pressed into service. Since Biggs's only role in the enterprise was to supply a train driver who was unable to drive the train, he was lucky to claim his whack of pounds 150,000 or so. These days, however, supplying drivers who are unable to drive trains is rewarded with multi-million pound rail franchises.
Biggs got enough to arrange his escape from Wandsworth Prison. His years on the run became the stuff of criminal fantasy involving a new life in Australia then Brazil, fathering a child to defeat extradition, failed attempts to snatch or lure him from his life as a Rio de Janeiro tourist attraction, 101 newspaper interviews - even an appearance on a Sex Pistols record.
But time catches up with all of us, even if Interpol doesn't, and after three strokes Ronnie does not look up to serving much more of his 30-year sentence. He does not look up to downing a pint in the Margate pub of his dreams.
You can be a famous poisoner or a successful poisoner, but not both, and the same seems to apply to great train robbers. There were once supposed to be a couple of important gang members who got away with their share of the loot - anonymous Mr Bigs, rather than the infamous Ronnie Biggs. But the robbers profited little from their audacious crime. Only Ronnie seemed to have got away with it. But now time, not doing time, has done for him. Only he can say if it was all worth it.
The word "great" in the Great Train Robbery reminded me of a book called Great Planning Disasters which was first published by the planning expert Professor Peter Hall in 1980. Examples in his book include Concorde, London's third airport, London's motorways and the British Library. Systematically Peter Hall explains how politicians, bureaucrats and public inquiries in all these cases asked the wrong questions, used the wrong criteria and then, unsurprisingly, came up with the wrong answers in relation to great civil engineering and construction projects. …