The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, 4 October 2010

Chapter One: On the Edge (Part III)

People are always going on about juvenile delinquency, but they are just full of shit. Like in the UK, according to this survey most grown-ups believe that teens are dangerous and feral and to blame for half of all crime. In fact less than 12 per cent of all crimes involve minors as perps. Given that the 0-14 year olds make up almost 20% of the total population, that's rather good. And while between 10 and 30 kids are sentenced for killing before they turn 18 every year in the UK, 4 kids die every week due to neglect and abuse at the hands of their grown-up rents and carers. That’s over 200 per year. No, while we aren't innocent on account of age by a long stretch, on the whole, it isn’t the kids that are evil. But then facts have never stopped fear- or hate-mongering, have they?
People are scared of kids just like they are scared of the future. I mean, when was the last time the world wasn’t about to end? Swine flu, economic collapse, global warming, avian flue, hurricanes, rising sea levels, Islamic terrorism, Y2K, AIDS, nuclear war, Communism, boys with long hair, rock and roll, the yellow peril, Jewish well poisoners, the list goes on and on. As far back as the year ad 999 people were expecting the full stop any day now. Hell, all of Christianity is based on the anticipation of the Second Coming. So is Judaism, come to think of it, though I suppose in their case it would be the first coming. Wikipedia tells me that this sort of thinking is called eschatological.
I am not saying that none of these doomsday predictions will ever come true. I mean, everything ends eventually, right? One day it will be the world or at least life as we know it. Predict it often enough and you’re bound to be right once. An infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters and all that. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day, unless it’s digital. Then it’ll just be blank.
Peeps, while indubitably stupid, are often pretty smartly stupid. They’ll pick whatever theory sounds most likely at the time to focus their fears on. So from time to time they might even accidentally pick one that is actually right. But that isn’t why they picked it. And neither is today’s youth anywhere as bad as our elders are claiming.
I have a pretty good idea why peeps are always bitching about this, though. It has something to do with the fact that the young will on the whole survive the old. I mean, it is pretty unfair when you look at it this way, innit? One gen gives life to the next and how are they repaid? By their kids taking over everything.
There is a school in Jewish theological thought that says that each life taken is the end of the entire world, just as each life saved is the entire world saved. So in a way these thousands of doomsday predictions all do come true. For everyone. Eventually. While the next gen parties on. Small wonder the old are always pissed off at the young.
So yes, the young are scary. They have all that potential, all those chances to do what the older folks see drifting away. They show no respect. Outliving the old, imagine the cheek. And anyway, clearly back then, when Hitler still made the trains run on time, everything really was better. For back then those who say so were still young and strong and had their lives stretch out before them.
But those bothersome facts tell us that the trains were as later in 1938 as they are today, and juvenile delinquency is actually receding, just as crime is in general. And I don’t just mean that a lot less peeps have been murdered by 16 to 22 year olds in the entire second half of the twentieth century than from 1938 to 1945 or between 1914 and 1918. (Ah, those pesky world wars, eh? How those of the “good old days” persuasion hate to be reminded of those.) No, while there are occasional hiccups, crime is receding on the whole. According to the US Bureau of Justice, for example, violent crime in the United States has almost halved between 1973 and 2000, with aggravated assault decreasing by 30% and murder by 75%. As much as we are galled to admit it, most things are actually getting better. Just not for us.
But be that as it may for society on the whole, personally I am exactly one of those bad apples the old are always going on about. Rotted to the core. Well, I wasn’t your mean, average street thug. I leave opportunity theft, mugging, bag-snatching, and shoplifting to the rabble. I take pride in my work. Picking pockets is a dying art, and for over a year I had been doing by best to preserve it. (Of course I did spend half of that doing time in a young offenders institution. Ought to put a dampener on that pride, huh?)
ATMs are to the thief and his mark what the water hole is to the lion and the gazelle. And not only do they allow you to find peeps who are definitely loaded, but if you keep your eyes peeled you get to see right where they keep it, too. One danger are of course the cams. But since all ATMs have those, in a way even that is useful. You don’t have to wonder if there are any, just figure out where they are and how to keep out of their sight.
Unfortunately in Painswick, the church-girls informed me, the local branch of Lloyds had closed up shop two years before. The last means of accessing cash was the local post office, a few hundred feet up the road from the church. Well, I don’t like to steal in close quarters, for the same reason that I don’t like to shoplift. Bad escape routes. So I loitered at the entrance, smoking my bummed fag, taking my time checking out the picture postcards on the spinning rack, and kept an eye on the customers at the counter inside.
When picking a mark the most important thing to be on the look out for is of course the ease of access to the money: Open handbags are my perennial favourites. Second easiest are back pockets. If you are thinking ‘but I would notice my wallet getting pulled out past my bum cheek’, well, trust me, I’m a professional. Nine times out of ten you wouldn’t, at least not in a crowded place where peeps are bumping into you all the time, and especially not if the thief replaces the wallet with, say, a piece of folded cardboard. Give us some credit, most of us know what we’re doing.
Inside pockets are a bit trickier, but still easy enough. It’s just a question of distraction. Even zipped up or tightly buttoned inside pockets or pouches worn under your clothing can be gotten to, but I’ll admit, they are hardly worth the time, planning, effort and skill required to get to.
The mark I settled on that day was a batty old lady. I know, I know, but sometimes you have to be a traditionalist. Live the cliché. I could have shaken down the mum with the two bratty kids instead, or the emo twink with the wallet on one of those ridiculous long chains. It would have been a pleasure to fleece the tall, well-dressed businessman, but he walked past too quickly and ducked back into his Rover before I had a chance to draw him out. What? I’m not Robin bloody Hood, okay?
She not only had one of those oversized handbags that just beg to be picked, she kept it constantly conveniently open because she was forever reaching inside to feed broken bits of dog biscuit to a fat and sneezing decrepit yappy type dog that looked a bit like a flecked, furry sausage. I cannot stand peeps with fat, pampered dogs.
I intercepted her on her way out of the door and asked for directions to the Painswick Beacon, a local lookout hill I had discovered on the postcards, and that apparently had a famous view of the Severn Valley. I also indicated an interest in the town history and the age and health of her oh-so-cute doggy. That kept her talking for ages.
I learned that the church precedes the Norman conquest and that on its walls you can still see the scars left by the bullets and canon balls of the Civil War. The yew crowded churchyard has been called “the grandest in England” by someone I had never heard of. New Street (along which both the church and the post office lay) was about thirty years older than Shakespeare – even though she believed that the plays of Shakespeare had in reality been written by the Earl of Oxford – and the post office was housed in the oldest building any post office in England was currently housed in. Her dog was called Prince, a pure-breed tri-colour Pembroke Welsh Corgi, exactly like those the Queen prefers and owns 16 of. Prince was 11 years old, suffered from arthritis and cataracts, but is such a dear. And while I patted the dog and pretended to be interested in all that bollocks, I helped myself to her purse. Turned out she had just withdrawn 500 pound sterling.
God, sometimes I can be a real cunt.
Eventually she let me go, not without telling me what a fine and likeable young man I was, and that she wished more boys of my generation were so polite, respectful, and interested in the past. I gave her my best son-in-law smile and watched her and Prince waddle away.
Then I went back inside, got a postcard and scribbled on it: “All is well. Taking some time off. Tell Gudrun not to worry. All the best, Rikki.” Gudrun is my mum. I addressed the card to my aunt, had it franked and posted, and paid. This was going to be the last my family would hear from me for half a year. After that I got the hell out of Painswick.
On the way out of the village I stopped at the local minimarket for some grub and fags. I carried it to the top of the Beacon where I sat down to tuck in. Even if the old lady had by then noticed what I had done, even if she had added one and one and fingered me for the perp, even if she remembered me asking about the Beacon, I doubted that she would get a lynch mob together in time to catch me. Painswick didn’t look large enough for their own constable, and I didn’t see a patrol car rushing out here at top speed from Stroud or Gloucester or Cheltenham, just on her word that the thief, while taking her money, had told her he would late enjoy the local scenery from up here.
So I did just that – I enjoyed the scenery. I leaned my back against the triangulation stele that stands proudly and lonely on the treeless, grassy hilltop. Tired from a long day’s walking, sated from the bread, cheese, apples, and water, I was happy to just sit there and smoke a couple of fags, and look out across the land, the surrounding hills and valleys, the golf course to the south and the woods to the north and Gloucester spread out beyond. Across all of it the shadows joined hands and the sinking sun lightly kissed the crowns of the trees good-night. A pale orange haze of cirrus smeared across the sky signalled the end of the sunny weather, but for now it held.
When a group of chatty elders came up the path I cleared out. On my way down the hill I really felt my aching legs, and back, and feet. Even taking the one or other shortcut from the scenic route I must have walked a good 40 km that day. It was easily the farthest I had ever walked in one day up to then.
Around 7 pm I reached Birdlip, some 10 km outside Cheltenham. I simply couldn’t go on any more and still had avoided all thoughts about how I would spend the night. I was standing at the side of the B4070, too tired to look for some bush to curl up beneath, when a tiny yellow Alpha Romeo sports car that must have been at least as old as I, stopped and a long haired, bearded blond giant with hardly enough room to manoeuvre inside leaned out the window and asked me if I wanted a lift to Cheltenham. He took me to the local YMCA, where I got a bed in the dorm. I barely managed to kick off my trainers and must have been asleep before my head hit the pillow.


  1. The numbers again. Curious.

    The first paragraph here, and the whole passage, actually, settled me in nicely. It's a wonderful blend, philosophizing on the juvenile delinquency thing and generation-jealousy only to then size up the potential marks and work the old lady with such professionalism. Really good description of the transaction between them and fun balance of "theory and action".

  2. @ Andrew: And the philosophizing isn't waaay too long?