Rehearsal with Preston Community Arts
A Cure For Light Fingers
Between the ages of six to fifteen, I stole many things. It started with pilfering money from my mother’s purse and concealing it in piles around the house, in the hope that when bankruptcy arrived (it was imminent if conversations between my parents were to be believed), I would be able to save the family by producing a hoard of blackened pennies and threepenny bits. That I was impoverishing the family by stealing from my mother did not occur to me. Also, I quickly forgot where I had stashed my hoards, possibly because the acts were so deeply instinctive. I had no awareness of what I was doing on a conscious level. I’m not even sure if I had a conscious level. When my squirrel stockpiles were discovered, I was punished and disgraced, but my light fingers grew only lighter.
Next, aged seven, I stole a roll of sellotape from a corner shop. Why? I didn’t need to stick anything so far as I can remember. I was caught and the shopkeeper said sternly that he would send the police round that evening to arrest me. Terrified, I confessed the misdeed to my parents, who punished me with the loss of various privileges. Yet again, despite the scolding and the frightening nature of what had happened, I strayed only further onto the path of the crooked and wide.
But on reaching secondary modern – I effortlessly failed my 11 Plus – I became aware that I was not alone. The secondary school I landed in on the outskirts of Manchester was a hotbed of petty crime. Most of the boys I sat beside in class, practised stealing and general lawbreaking on a daily basis. Hazel Grove County High was then (I hope it has reformed itself), a sort of penitentiary for working-class failures. Give or take a few sadists, the teachers were a well-meaning, decent bunch, but were pitted against a thousand or so lads who hated school in general and HGCH in particular. The child inmates had already suffered a good deal of violence, authoritarianism, boredom and coercion from their parents and in primary school. By the age of eleven they were in more or less open rebellion against the adult world – a sort of juvenile jihad against the adult brutalisation of their souls. So anything that adults didn’t like or forbade was good. Delinquency and thieving were therefore practised and enjoyed by the majority of my class – well over three quarters of the boys would have been on the wrong side of the law. Any boy who didn’t steal, smoke, wreck phone boxes, or scrawl graffiti in public places was considered an adult sycophant and creep.
Stealing then, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, became a regular event. I got much better at it. It was one of the few things I actually learned at school. I was rarely caught, and when I was, no punishment, remonstrance or reasoning stopped me re-offending. I could fill a book with larcenous tales of my childhood, and maybe one day I will! Stealing cigarettes and Mars Bars whenever a shopkeeper’s back was turned; shoving Enid Blyton books up my jumper in Smiths; ransacking beer from beneath caravans on a school holiday in Belgium; sneaking clubs from unattended golf bags on the local links and selling the irons to a second- hand shop. The list could go on and on. I’d be horrified if I ever felt the urge to steal now. Yet also, I can’t help looking back on those young lads and their escapades with a certain empathy and fondness. Sure, it was probably annoying and unpleasant for the people we stole off. Yet, for the most part, these Bugsy Malone’s of a Seventies Secondary Modern, really were angels with dirty faces. Petit petty criminals who were nevertheless often kind, decent, and honourable – even the ones who ended up in jail or institutions for armed robbery, arson and in one sad case, axing his parent’s while they slept. They were deeply traumatised children with family problems that would sink a battleship. And for the most part they were likeable. Unable to voice our pain and anger, we allowed it to surface in symbolic acts that spoke of a haunting isolation. Looking back forty years, I feel moved by the defiance and disobedience of those children in the face of a brutal adult world.
Around the age of fifteen, things stepped up a gear, quite literally, in the light-fingered circles that I frequented. My friends began stealing motorbikes and cars. I don’t know why I didn’t join in. I’ve never been interested in the Top Gear side of life. A few of my mates did house robberies. I had no interest in that either. I’m frustrated by not actually being able to recall if there was some reason for abandoning the crooked and wide. Maybe I had developed a greater awareness of the trouble that such acts could bring down on my head and decided to steer clear of larger misdeeds. Then again, the smaller misdeeds stopped too. I know the shoplifting and vandalism that enlivened my school years were manifestations of massive trauma I suffered in early childhood. But I still can’t really account for my fingers getting heavier. It wasn’t that I was doing much else as a distraction. I failed my O levels as completely as the 11 Plus and did not one jot of work to pass them. Music, art and literature, which were to become a vehicle for expressing my anger and trauma were still a year away. Something happened. I guess I must have developed an adult consciousness that could override my unconscious.
On leaving school, it was my great good fortune to go to an FE college in Northwich to study art. I didn’t know at the time, but it was staffed by renegades, revolutionaries and bohemians who were interested in helping little hooligans like myself. After a couple of years under their anarchic ministrations (another wonderful book), I decided to resit my exams. It was while studying a sociology A level, that I came across AS Neill and Homer Lane. I read about how they dealt with troubled delinquents, my eyes getting bigger and rounder with every turning page. They rewarded criminals! Assisted vandals in their vandalism! So shocking and yet it seemed so right. Though I did not consider myself to be a criminal – and oddly, never had! – I knew their methodology would have stopped me in my tracks.
I went on to university, stumbling across John Holt on the way, and eventually became a community artist in Preston around 1984. There I was, devising community plays with, people from the local tower blocks, with the theories of Homer Lane and AS Neill bubbling away in my soul. Many of the lads attending the drama workshops could have stepped out of my old secondary mod. So I wasn’t surprised to find, after a drama workshop of no little mayhem, that someone had been in the office and snaffled the cash box and with it £120. My colleague Mick and I were annoyed, mostly because our management committee had just slapped our wrists with regard to being more careful with our spending. I had a fair idea of who had taken the box and its contents. A boy called Alan who had left early. When he didn’t return to the next couple of drama workshops, I was certain that he was the light-fingered culprit. However, I didn’t report it, feeling, perhaps because of my own history, that accusing him, even if we got the money back, wouldn’t be very productive for him or us. Not least, I didn’t want the drama group interviewed or interrogated, and I decided merely to be more careful in future. I knew where Alan lived, but I said to Mick jokingly, that if I went round to the lad’s house, I’d probably only end up rewarding him.
Well, there must have been some sort of synchronicity or fate at work, for the very next day, I turned a corner onto Preston’s main street and almost bumped into Alan. I was surprised, but said hello, while he looked uncomfortable and confused. I asked chattily, why he hadn’t been back to the drama workshop. He made a couple of plausible excuses. Again, I felt a little angry, but then remembered what I’d said to my colleague the day before, and on the spur of the moment, took ten pounds out of my wallet and handed it to him.
“What’s that for?” he asked, taken aback.
“For stealing the cash box.” I replied.
He looked very nonplussed, but before anything else could happen, especially a denial, I said goodbye and walked on. I have to admit, I was suddenly worried about what I had done. I’d just rewarded somebody for thieving! Would he now go out and steal more cashboxes? Would he now think crime was acceptable and go and brick the nearest jeweller’s shop window? Of course not. The next day, I went into work and the cashbox was on the office table. There was £130 inside. My colleague had found the box outside the workshop door that morning. I never saw the boy again.
For quite a few years after that, working in very heavy areas of Northwest England as a community artist and drama worker, I found myself having to pluck up the courage to reward criminals or join in with vandals to get them to stop. It always worked. I think back to my childhood, to that school full of disturbed and troubled boys, on whom punishments were heaped over the years in thousands, to no avail. Even when, in retrospect, it was glaringly obvious that the harsh and violent penalties were not working. Why did nobody listen to Neill and Homer Lane? Rewarding crime may seem counterintuitive, yet to my mind, most criminals are traumatised children and their acts are unconscious speech, symbolic acts of communication with a world they have long ceased to trust – usually with good reason. They can only really be reached by symbolic acts of trust. The sad thing is, it doesn’t take much, incredibly little in fact, to reach such people. I go back to two friends of mine who were put away for holding up a post office with a sawn off shotgun. They were nice lads. Their criminal spiral could have been stopped years earlier by adults showing their trust instead of doling out angry condemnation and violent smacks round the head. It seems that no matter how much evidence there is to support a liberal methodology to deal with antisocial behaviour in young people, there is a very stubborn desire not to learn lessons taught a hundred years ago by a couple of Victorian eccentrics.