TOM UTLEY: It's a sad sign that you can't wear a fancy watch

TOM UTLEY: It’s a sad sign of the times that you can’t wear a fancy watch like Mrs U’s without fearing for your life

When our eldest was in his mid-teens, he and his schoolmates made it a rule always to carry exactly £5 around with them — no more, no less. This was for the profoundly depressing reason that pupils at their South London public school were routinely robbed by local louts when they ventured on to the street in their uniforms.

The theory was that a fiver was the minimum likely to appease the muggers, who tended to be roughly their own age. Any less, and they risked a severe beating. Any more, and the loss would be too great to bear until the next pocket-money day.

But this was some 20 years ago, and I dare say the going rate for satisfying a mugger has shot up since. It is certainly true that our streets have become even less safe for teenagers.

Two decades ago, a victim could expect to escape with, at worst, a black eye and a torn blazer. These days, it’s a very rare week that passes without news of another young life cut short by a knifing.

The older I get, the more I’ve come to believe that expensive possessions — particularly the portable kind such as top-of-the-range watches, which can so easily be stolen or lost — are much more a source of anxiety than pleasure (file image) 


Whatever the going rate may be for avoiding a thrashing today, it is clear the two thugs who attacked Sead Kolasinac and Arsenal team-mate Mesut Ozil would have found it hard to believe their luck if they’d succeeded in robbing them.

For although the two footballers were not carrying much cash, as far as I know, they were sporting wrist-watches said to be worth a mind-boggling £200,000 each. That’s the price of a decent house in some areas of the country.

What the crash-helmeted attackers hadn’t reckoned on was the quick-thinking, cool-headed courage of their intended victims. The burly Bosnian defender Kolasinac — known as ‘the Tank’ — didn’t flinch when Jordan Northover, 26, leapt off the pillion seat of a moped and threatened him with a vicious-looking blade.

Ashley Smith and Jordan Northover trying to rob Premier League stars Sead Kolasinac and Mesut Ozil of their watches in in Platts Lane in Hampstead, north west London

As CCTV pictures released by the police clearly show, he refused to hand over his watch, instead lunging at his attacker before jumping into Mr Ozil’s £165,000 gold-trimmed Mercedes G-Wagon.

There followed a mile-long high-speed chase through North London, with the moped muggers in hot pursuit, before Mr Ozil abandoned his car in the middle of the road and ran into a Turkish restaurant to call the police.

Arsenal’s Sead Kolasinac (left) and Mesut Ozi (right) 

The good news is that Northover and his 30-year-old moped-driving accomplice, Ashley Smith, are now awaiting sentence after admitting the attempted robbery. If there’s any justice in this world, they’ll go down for a long time.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m certain the outcome would have been very different if I’d been the one with the £200,000 watch, threatened by a knife-wielding thug. At the first glimpse of the blade, I’d have handed it over, begging for my life. But then the tragedy is that you’d have to be pretty brave even to think of wearing such bling on the streets of our crime-ridden capital in 2019.

All right, £200,000 may be small change to a Premier League footballer (Mr Ozil, we’re told, is paid £350,000 a week). But the older I get, the more I’ve come to believe that expensive possessions — particularly the portable kind such as top-of-the-range watches, which can so easily be stolen or lost — are much more a source of anxiety than pleasure.

After all, why would anyone want a wrist-watch the price of a house, in these days when a £10 battery-powered job can tell the time quite as accurately, and often more so?

That’s not to mention the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime (ref 6300A-010), which comes up for auction by Christie’s this weekend at the Hotel des Bergues in Geneva.

According to pre-sale predictions, it could fetch even more than the previous record of $24 million (call that about £19 million), set at auction in 2014 by the aptly named Patek Philippe Graves Supercomplication.

If I owned such a thing, I’d be permanently terrified out of my wits — and I’d certainly never be brave enough to wear it.


As it happens, I write with some authority, since Mrs U is the proud owner of two fine watches handed down by her rich grandfather, who was an obsessive collector. Indeed, he had so many of them that when he died, there were enough to go round his 40 living descendants.

Alas, his hard cash didn’t stretch that far, but my wife — the fifth daughter of his seventh child — inherited a ladies’ Rolex and a gents’ Waltham, both made in the 1930s.

It seems that her grandfather’s watches caused even him some anxiety, since he had steel bars installed in the windows and doorway of his bedroom, where he kept his collection. As family legend would have it, it took the fire brigade an unconscionable time to gain access to his body when he died in his bed, with the keys in the room.

Ashley Smith (left) and Jordan Northover (right) who has admitted his role in trying to rob Premier League stars Sead Kolasinac and Mesut Ozil of their watches in a moped ambush

No such fears troubled Mrs U in her childhood, when she proudly wore the watches to school. But these were the innocent 1960s, when a schoolgirl’s chances of being mugged were negligible.

By the time I married her, both watches had stopped working, their movements clogged with grime, and she no longer wore them. Yet I felt uneasy about having such valuable objects on the premises.

Never was I more worried, however, than when my wife sent them off to be repaired, after seeing a classified advertisement purporting to have been placed by a Swiss horologist who specialised in restoration.

Old cynic that I am, I thought there was something distinctly fishy when the advertiser told her over the phone that he had just discovered he had terminal cancer, and was uncertain whether he could complete any new work. But he sounded excited when she told him the watches were a Rolex and a Waltham, and begged her to send them to him anyway.

As the weeks went by, and we heard nothing, I became increasingly convinced that Mrs U had fallen victim to a scam, and we’d never see the watches again. What followed moves me to this day.


After well over a month without a word, and fearing the worst, I persuaded my wife to ring the number in the advertisement again. Her call was answered by a woman who said that yes, the watches were safe and she was terribly sorry she hadn’t been in touch.

The thing was that her husband, the horologist, had died shortly after they’d arrived, and she hadn’t got round to settling his affairs.

My wife apologised profusely for having troubled the poor man with her wretched watches, when he was so ill. But the widow told her this was nonsense. Her husband had adored watches, she said. They were his life and they kept him going.

The next day, the precious heirlooms arrived at our door by recorded delivery, still not ticking but sparkling clean and with the hands set neatly to 12 o’clock. The horologist must have been working on them when he died.

I felt a shudder of shame for having harboured those nasty suspicions. Thank God there are still honest people in this world.

But I must end with a message to the local underworld: don’t bother to come ransacking my house in search of pricey watches. They’re securely locked away in the bank, perhaps never to be worn again.

I dream of a Britain where it’s once again safe for everyone — not just brave and burly Arsenal footballers, built like tanks — to venture on to the streets with something of value. Or will our children be doomed forever to go on calculating the correct sum they must carry to appease the local muggers?

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