After the recent riots, I was discussing the rights and wrongs of helping yourself to things that don’t belong to you with my son, Chester (12).
He’s a lovely kid. He’s got a nice bunch of mates and a good sense of humour. He’s polite and chatty to people who come to the house and to my knowledge, he has never stolen anything in his life. He was clearly horrified to be asked the question.
He asked me if I had and in the spirit of honesty that pervaded the conversation, I came clean about the little bit of ‘dare’ inspired petty larceny I got up to as a boy.
Having spoken to a lot of men and women my age on the subject, it seems to have been a pretty common thing for kids in the 70s and 80s to conduct a bit of five fingered discount in the hope of impressing their mates. It seems that my experience was typical.
I never had to steal anything because I couldn’t afford to buy it. My mum and dad weren’t rich by any material standards, but I had everything I needed.
I don’t remember who amongst my mates suggested stealing something from the newsagents, but it caught on and one by one, we took turns to be the thief of the day. It took a few weeks for it to come round to me, but eventually I found myself, aged 9, nervously holding the door handle of the newsagents on Platt Lane, with a semicircle of my pals giving useful tips.
“Straight in and out, Charlie.” “Go for the Fizz Bombs, they keep ‘em near the till.” “Ask for some kop-kops and when she turns around, grab a handful of Refreshers.”
I was terrified, but determined to keep my nerve. The shop was quite busy and I was in there for a couple of minutes. When I emerged, I had my swag carefully hidden in my jacket and my mates quickly surrounded me.
“Did you get something? Did you get something?”
“Yep. Have a look at this.”
I opened my coat to reveal a copy of ‘Jaws’ by Peter Benchley.
“What the fuck’s that?” cried Clement.
“It’s a book.” I replied. “It’ll be great for us all to read it,” I lied.
I wasn’t really promoting my own literacy programme. Everything else was far too risky. The assistant seemed really hawk-eyed and the bookstand had been the nearest thing to the door. My friends sussed this out in no time flat and I was roundly scorned for showing a clear lack of moral fibre.
After a few more rounds of this, one of the lads got caught. The 70s were a different time and extra judicial sentencing by the man in the street was quite common. He’d gone for a copy of Roy of the Rovers and got as far as the door with it. A bloke who’d been reading a paper rather than buying it, spotted him and just as he left, yanked it out of his hand and delivered an immense toepecker to his backside, accompanied by the warning.
“I know your dad, lad. If I see you or any of your mates helping yourselves in here again, you’ll be for it, coppers and everything!!”
That was enough to curtail our fledgling careers and we went back to playing football and popping tar bubbles for a few years.
I only ever stole like that once more, when I was 14. Once again, I did it to impress my mates and it backfired completely. We’d just left a museum trip to make our own way home and as we walked down the road, I was telling a few of the lads about my artistry in the specialist world of shark novel theft. Filled with bravado, I helped myself to a pear from the display of the fruit and veg shop we were passing. I hadn’t spotted the shopkeeper but he’d spotted me. He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, relieved me of the pear and started marching me down the road, informing me that we were on our way to the police station.
It was only some Olympic standard blubbing and continued pleading, all witnessed by my mates, which persuaded him to let me go, probably in disgust. I was ribbed for weeks afterwards, my attempts to convince them that I was only pretending to cry, falling on the deafest of ears.
Those days are behind me now. I limit myself to occasionally hiding a sausage under the bacon in the work canteen or putting £10.01 worth of petrol in my car and offering the service station man a £20, forcing him to give me £9.99 of change or letting me off a whole penny. I’m keeping my hand in for the leaner times ahead, which I hope will never come.