I witnessed a crime today. A couple of kids ahead of me, heads close together and one nabbed a piece of fruit off a stall outside a small convenience store. It was casual, brazen almost. They stood there, didn’t even run away. I was aghast, wondering what I should do. This is South London. I balance my instincts to be a good citizen with the possibility that they might be a knife-wielding manics, even if they looked about ten. Then, as I watched an adult appeared from the shop, handed a bag to the thief, smiled and waved him on his way before going back into the shop. I guess the supposed thief was the owner’s child.
Back when Dad was alive, he, I and my son, aged about five went to the local supermarket to grab some food – we were staying with my folks. As with all supermarkets the fruit and veg were the first stands we encountered and Dad had a list of items. Including grapes. Dad approached the section, broke off a white grape and ate it, testing it for ripeness, sweetness, etc. He’s always done that. My son was utterly gob-smacked. He couldn’t believe his grandpa was a thief and no amount of attempts to explain would wash. And in truth, my son was right. Dad had no intention of paying for said grape and, if you take the definition of theft under the Theft Act of 1968 (lawyerly bit here): A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it he was banged to rights.
It’s all about context, isn’t it? Like the crimes I’ve committed and which I never did fess up to when I was a member of that hallowed profession of Solicitors. It’s time, like Dad, to come clean…
When I was at the College of Law in 1978 taking my professional legal exams – my Part 2’s as they were known – now it is the Legal Practice Course which at least tells you what they were about – we received a letter from the Law Society. This august body was then both the representative of all Solicitors and the regulator, something of a conflict of roles not that anyone saw that back then. After all, it represented lawyers so had to be fine to regulate itself. Didn’t it?
This letter, in the pompous style of the times, told us that we had to ‘fess up to any criminal convictions which it would then assess to see if we were ‘fit and proper’ persons to be admitted to the Roll of Solicitors. Which means added to some book containing the names of qualified solicitors. It did rather sound like your name was to printed on toilet paper, which some people might think more appropriate.
This caused much hilarity, save for one chap, Evan, who admitted he had a criminal record. We were scandalised. What had he done? Sheepishly he told us he had received a fifty pound fine for ‘urinating in a public place, to whit within the curtillage of a shelter on the sea front at Llandudno’.
Evan was unfortunate in that his micturition was a little too public. Though, if you were the next user of that shelter, you may well conclude he got off lightly. Others confessed to crimes for which they had avoided capture. It was one of those moments when, if you had led a totally unsullied life, you would have been ridiculed. But I couldn’t unburden myself then. I was too inhibited. Now, perhaps is the time to come clean, to see what is on my charge sheet.
1. Accessory to shop lifting. Not really my fault this. We were at scout camp in Lampeter in West Wales (actually that year it was more correctly Wet Wales). We had a day trip to Aberystwyth and one of my friends, as we cruised Woolworths looking for the pix and mix, grabbed a Kitkat and did a runner. The three of us left standing were panicked into running after him. I did enjoy eating the stolen goods, mind you.
2. Drugs. I didn’t spend my youth puffing or popping or pricking myself, far from it. But I’m sure I committed various crimes involving packets of this or that being left here and there. A sort of passive handling as well as quite a degree of passive smoking. Me and Billy-boy Clinton never inhaled…
3. Arson. That same scout camp we dropped a match into a boy’s pubes – as you do by way of experiment. Les was sleeping off a night hike and on that one hot day had pulled open his sleeping bag to cool down… If memory serves it took him 11 seconds from the match being dropped to the scream… I ran. A lot of my criminality involves running.
4. Aggravated trespass. I get really cross, being an avid walker, if our dear farmers do not restore footpaths after planting or ploughing. One time, confronted with a field of wheat where the path had been eradicated, I furiously tramped diagonally across the field flattening the crop to create a two foot wide path, so future hikers weren’t defeated. About two thirds of the way across I realised I was in the field next door to the one with the path.
5. Stalking. I visited the doctor. I’d not been before. I was told to stay in the waiting room until called. A woman appeared. ‘Mr Le Pard?’ she said. For reasons I still can’t explain I assumed she was a member of the surgery staff so I followed her down stairs and out of the front door…. It was only on the pavement as she put up her umbrella I twigged she was the previous patient. The look of horror on her face as she turned and skedaddled will stay with me. Someone else did the running this time.
6. Theft. My mother was a great gardener and could conjure life from the most unpromising of situations. She was also cautious with money. So if she could take a cutting from a shrub and propagate it, she would. Summer pruning, she called it. But she learnt that an innocent face breaking off the end of a branch was more likely to be forgiven than an adult. I was the Arthur Dodger to her Horticulturalist Fagin. I do believe mum and her shenanigans were single-handedly responsible for the WI being banned from the Royal Horticultural Gardens at Wisely for a while.
There. Guilty as charged. Time I moved on. As for Dad, he agreed he was wrong but pleaded insanity. As today, my son gave this thought and saw the wisdom of allowing some leniency to the aged and infirm. I believe a fine in the shape of an ice cream might have entered into the calculation.