There are times, are there not, when someone looks incredibly innocent, and their appearance could not be further from the truth.
Some of the most dangerous of our criminals did not stand out in any way: many of them wore a cloak of anonymity, behind which they could carry out atrocities.
Like John Christie. The sixth of seven, the boy was dominated by his sisters and an over protective mother; his adult life was a sad petty string of failures.
He could not talk loudly, something he blamed on a mustard gas attack in the First Wold War. He worked for the Post Office Savings Bank, a nondescript figure living in Notting Hill, back when it was a down-at-heel place to be. As a postman, he was convicted of stealing postal orders and sent down for three months. His crimes gathered violence and momentum, but no-one joined the dots.
There was one thing that marked the murderer of eight out: his huge domed head. When he wore a hat, he faded into the background, a nobody with a chequered past.
Why? Why was he appointed to the National Savings Bank when he had convictions for stealing postal orders? Why was he a member of the War Reserve Police in the Second World War, despite a criminal record?
I have a theory. This was Mr Cellophane. He was just too nondescript: apart from that dome head.
Here’s a story. You won’t hear it elsewhere: it comes from the granddaughter of the policeman who arrested Christie, an acquaintance of an acquaintance of an acquaintance. He had gone on the run but not with any passion or colour: he remained in London, the story goes.
So a police officer stumbled upon a gentleman living rough in one of the parks. The vagrant wore plenty: including a large hat. The police officer saw a distinct resemblance between the man’s features and the mug shots being circulated of Christie at the station.
But one couldn’t be sure. This man’s features were almost generic.
There was only one way to find out whether this was the man who had left a trail of tragedy behind him, with ill-concealed evidence. “Excuse me, Sir,” the policeman asked: “Would you mind removing your hat?”
He did: the dome was revealed; and the rest is history.
Insignificance carries its own cloak of invisibility.
Yesterday, the nesting box which has been ignored for two years; which was knocked down in some sundry basketball practice and replaced; of which I had given up all hope of its ever being occupied; that nesting box has visitors.
A bird was dashing in and out, bringing wisps of fern and straw with the industry of a homemaker. This was her equivalent of hauling in the IKEA sofa and setting up the widescreen on the wall.
The occupant was the smallest, brownest, least imposing bird you ever did see.
It was, we all concluded, a wren.
The wren is unassuming. One look at it and you know, instinctively that it has no criminal record: for how could something that small and unthreatening ever harbour malice?
The wren is an emblem: it is the name of the Womens’ Royal Naval Service; it was the picture on the back of an old farthing.
Yet the wren family stretches across the globe, and its relatives exhibit some singular behaviour.
In the insect world the wren is a fearsome monster. And it works hand in hand with some merciless partners.
The wren is one of a group of birds called ant-followers. They are said, in the tropical forests of the new world, to follow army ants, kamikhaze creatures who attack an area en masse, forcing insects into the open. The wren waits until they emerge and then pounces.
The macabre arrangement is propitious for both parties, ants and wren. The ants chase the insects out, and the birds scare them right back into the hungry ants’ path.
Shady characters, these wrens.
Even, it has to be said, fairy wrens. With pretty purple crowns.
For years these small creatures have been confounding the Darwinians, because they look after young: not just their young, but anyone’s. Such altruism flies in the face of natural selection, surely?
About this time last year they published evidence in The American Naturalist that shows the wrens are the tiniest Fagins in existence.
They look after strays, it transpires, so they will have helpers in their territory in later life.
They coral a group of vagabond children around them to do their bidding just like Dickens’ villainous villain-maker.
Maddie is poised at the window, binoculars in hand, silently adoring the little brown creatures flitting in and out of the nesting box.
But I know better.
Picture source here