Poor People series 4 – the thief’s tale

The Guardian, August 31 1994

The little thief sits on the old park bench with his chin on his chest and his feet in the dust, wrapping a long blade of grass around the knuckles of his hand and trying to explain his dream. Do you know the thief’s dream? He wants to go to college.

He’s been trouble’s closest friend for the last four years, the little black hoodlum of white middle class legend. He’ll tell you all about it – how he got in and out of houses, how he cheated the electronic security system in shops, how he nearly got arrested and then got away with it – but now he is 18 and he has made a decision, a big one. He has had enough of crime. He’s got this dream now.

“I would like to go to college and further my education and I would like to get a proper job with pension contributions and pay tax. I want to move away and start again. I don’t want no more foolishness.”

He has done a lot of thinking about this dream, mostly this spring when he was in hospital recovering from being shot, and in the last few months, he has turned his life around. No more thieving, no more raving and racing around in high-performance cars, no more fear. But can he get to college? Not nowadays, he can’t. Life’s not that simple any more.

Daniel grew up in Lewisham in south London, the youngest of seven children. Both of his parents came to England from the West Indies in the early 1960s, and they have been determined to produce a good family. His father is a plasterer who worked regularly for most of Daniel’s childhood, although recently he has had to sign on. His mother is a tailor who has managed to keep her job through the recession. His five sisters and his elder brother have all grown up and done well with their lives.

As far as Daniel is concerned, he would probably have done the same if it had not been for two little things. One was simply that he was the last child in this large family and so, as he admits, he was always inclined to be a little bit spoiled and, maybe, a bit cheeky, too. The other thing is that his parents moved house and went to live on an estate where, as far as he could see, just about the only thing the children ever did was to smoke weed.

By the time he went to secondary school, he was well used to the sight of children smoking spliffs and by the time he was in the third year, he had joined them. The teachers didn’t allow it, but he says it was easy to do, and a “big minority” of the 14-year-olds were smoking routinely. He’d build several spliffs on the way to school and then he and his friends would disappear down the dark cracks between buildings or just hang out on the far side of the playground where they could see the teachers coming in the distance. He liked it and pretty soon, he was smoking every breaktime and lunchtime.

Around this time, certain things began to frustrate Daniel. One of them was that his parents refused to buy him new Nike trainers like he reckoned everyone else had. How could he show his face in class with these cheap old clothes they expected him to wear? And then there was a new teacher who told him on the first day he taught him that he had his eye on him as a trouble maker. Daniel was indignant. The man didn’t even know him! He was just going by some report he’d read. This teacher was always on his back, trying to follow him and his friends around the place as if he didn’t have anything better to do. Daniel got more and more angry. He thought school was rubbish. Then he got kicked out.

He was 15 when it happened, just about to take his exams. A history teacher noticed he had a cigarette packet in his pocket. She took it from him but she didn’t seem too worried until she looked inside and saw his little spliffs in there. She walked him down to see the headmaster. The headmaster said there was nothing to discuss and told the secretary to write a letter. And that was it. He was out of school. The way Daniel saw it, he knew he was sometimes out of order and he spent too much time hanging round the girls, but he thought he was doing OK really and he was planning to work hard on his exams. He felt like they had just been waiting for an excuse to get rid of him. He had never even been suspended before. But they had sent him away. Now, he was really angry.

The next time his dad tried to beat him, he told him to get off him – he was too big to be beaten. When his mum arranged for him to go to a special school, he just stayed at home and slept. And when his dad finally exploded and hit him over the head with a monkey wrench, he knew for sure they didn’t care about him and he went to live with one of his sisters in Herne Hill. But she only shouted at him and complained that he showed disrespect to her boyfriend and then one day when he was trying to annoy her by sharpening his flick knife in the front room, she called the police on him. He talked his way out of that but, a little while later, she called the police again and told them she felt threatened by him, so they pulled him out of the house and dumped him in the street.

Up until now, Daniel hadn’t broken the law in a big way. He’d smoked a lot of weed and he’d sold some to his friends, and he’d stolen this and that, but nothing serious. Now he went for it. The way he saw it, he had nothing – no family, no sisters, no flat – he was too young to sign on, he had no exams so he couldn’t go to college. He was lost in the big world. He really didn’t care too much.

A friend let him stay in an old flat in Brixton and he started learning how to steal. Like shoplifting, for example. It was easy. He learned how to take an old supermarket carrier bag and line the inside of it with tin foil. Once he’d done that, he’d pick a clothing store with electronic security, where they wouldn’t be watching too close because they thought they had everyone covered, and he’d stuff the bag full of clothes and walk straight out – and the electronic eye couldn’t see the security tags through the foil.

Burgling was even easier: ring the doorbell; if there’s no answer, find a window with an ordinary lock; slide a screw-driver underneath and lever it upwards till the lock pops; grab everything you want and then call a taxi to take you away. If it was a flat with a Yale on the door, he learned to cut a section out of the side of a plastic Coke bottle and slide the curved edge in between the lock and the door, till the lock sprung back; then call another taxi. Getting rid of it was easy, too. He was introduced to people who always had cash for electrical goods: £80 for a video, more if it was new; up to £150 for a television if it was a Sony Trinitron.

He soon found his way around the ghetto, dressing flash with plenty of cash. One night, when he was still 16, he went out to a party in Loughborough Road. He called on a friend to come along with him. “I ain’t got no money,” said the friend. “I can cater for that,” said Daniel, who had £400 in a fat wad in his pocket. So they went to the party, which was going along fine, until a fight started and somone broke a bottle and someone else pulled out a gun and started shooting – right there in the room where everyone was dancing, where Daniel was standing. One guy fell on the floor with a hole in him. The man with the gun ran out and when people started peering out of the window, he opened fire on them from the road below. Daniel had seen guns before, plenty of times, but this was the first time he’d seen one fired. It shook him up.

Daniel was happy enough with crime. There was easy money to be made, even more if he went into selling crack. He knew guys who were going up to Kings Cross and earning a grand in a day. They had three or four cars – and we’re talking about brand new BMWs and Porsches – and they strutted around with Valentino shirts at £100 a time. When they went to a club, they didn’t mess around with warm beer. It was champagne all the time. But Daniel stuck to thieving and selling weed to his friends. He wasn’t sure he could handle street dealing and he had enough money to pay for a good time, tearing up to the West End for raves, which were a kind of madness where he’d drink and dance and smoke a little crack, too.

He got himself arrested once or twice on suspicion, but they could never prove he was going out burgling, so he carried on. He didn’t worry one bit about the people he was stealing from. Nobody cared about him, so what did it matter? There was no reason to stop thieving. But there was something else that Daniel was looking for. He wanted to get back with his parents, and he knew they wouldn’t let him near them while he was living like this. So, he tried to get a job.

He signed on for a Youth Training Scheme place and they sent him to work in a canteen. He thought he was going to learn how to be caterer, but he spent all his time washing dishes and collecting dirty plates and then one day he was sick and he didn’t phone in, and they told him not to come back. He didn’t care; the money was so bad. Stealing was much better. Still, he asked around to see if he couldn’t find a better job, and a friend found him one. It wasn’t anything fancy. He had to ride a moped for a fast food shop, delivering meals around Brixton. He couldn’t earn more than £150 in a week. But he felt good about it and he got in touch with his mum, who gave him her blessing.

He carried on smoking and thieving. How else could he afford a good time? And the ghetto kept pulling him in deeper. There was one evening when he was delivering to a house where a friend lived and he found the friend had his cousin there, too, so they decided to have a spliff together. They were still smoking when there was a knock on the door and half a dozen men with guns barged in. They grabbed hold of his friend and his cousin. One of them stood on the door. And one of them started gabbling into a mobile phone. Daniel didn’t know what was going down here, but it was obviously bad. The guy on the phone was getting instructions about what to do if his friend didn’t tell the truth. Daniel took the money for the fast food and left.

It was a couple of hours later when he heard that his friend’s cousin was dead. He had been shot through the neck and left in the house. His friend had been driven out to Peckham Rye, where the men had told him he was going to be shot, too. But there had been people around, walking their dogs, and he had run and got away. Now the police had found the remains of the fast food and they were looking for the person who had delivered it. He took his chance to leave the old flat in Brixton and move back with his parents.

He kept his job in Brixton, but Brixton kept being crazy. A few of the people there were trying to live like gangsters they’d seen in videos. And that was one reason he didn’t want the police talking to him about what he’d seen when the gunmen burst into his friend’s house. These were dangerous people. If someone got shot, that was nothing. That wasn’t even news. They were fighting with each other about who controlled which streets – who sold crack on them or set up dances on them or ran protection rackets in the shops on them.

Late one Friday evening, he was just helping to clean up the fast food shop when two men ran in with masks over their heads and guns in their hands and shouted “Nobody move”. But everybody moved. They all ran back into the toilets. To Daniel, it was like a dream. He ran so slowly that he was the last to get into the toilet. He followed his boss and the two other workers into a cubicle, slammed the door shut, and scrambled up so that his feet were jammed against the door handle and his arms were braced against the wall. The gunmen walked straight into the toilet and shot the lock off. It was his boss they wanted first.

They had his boss kneeling on the floor with his hands behind his back and a gun right up against his head. They were yelling at him to give them money. His boss reached up and pulled the mask off one of them, and the other man was yelling “Kill him”. It really was like a dream. By this time, Daniel had been dragged out of the cubicle and told to kneel on the floor and empty his pockets and while he was doing that, handing over all his pay for the week, he noticed there was blood on the floor and it began to dawn on him that the blood was coming out of his trainer. There was a bullet hole in his trainer. So he told everyone “I’ve been shot”.

The gunmen took everything they had, even the rings off their fingers, and an ambulance came and took Daniel to hospital, where they fed him gas which made him high so he was still thinking it couldn’t be real. But over the days, lying in his hospital bed, with his foot in plaster, he began to think.

He thought about the friends he knew who were locked up behind bars. One of them had been busted for selling stolen computers and now he was locked him up in Feltham where he was being beaten up by the bullies. His cousin had been sent away for 15 months because he got caught with more than ten grand’s worth of stolen electrical equipment. The whole family had been very embarrassed. And Daniel wanted to belong to his family.

He thought about the people who were dying. There were shootings and there were people messing around with drugs. One of his best friends, Michael, had been taking a lot of LSD and Ecstasy and he’d been ill – it didn’t seem much at the time – but he’d ended up dead. Daniel couldn’t really work it out, but he knew that drugs were at the bottom of it. A lot of youths he knew were smoking crack. There was a lot of heroin, too. If he carried on mixing with these people, he could see how he was going to end up dead, too.

He saw that it was only foolishness, the way these people lived, spending hundreds of pounds on clothes and buying jewellery, always having weed and crack to smoke, big cars and big money. They might drive those high-performance cars but they didn’t have any insurance or tax. They could spend a whole year earning a lot of money and at the end of the year, they’d still have nothing to show for it. They were doing nothing with their lives. And, deep inside, he began to feel he had been wrong to steal people’s things. So he made his big decision. No more crime, no more crazy living.

But he couldn’t just walk out of his life. He needed money and if he wasn’t going to do crime, he had to get a job – not some cash-in-the-hand ghetto job, but a proper job with security and real money. He couldn’t get that without qualifications, and he had none. So he had to get to college. That would be his first step towards a new life. And once he had been to college and got his qualifications, he would be away. The more he thought about it, the clearer it became and, by the time he left hospital, Daniel was all fired up and ready to go.

It didn’t take long for things to go wrong. As soon as he started asking about a place in college, he ran into a jungle of regulations – discretionary awards, mandatory grants, qualifying criteria – and he emerged from the other end with a simple answer. If he wanted to go to college, he would do it without any money at all from the state.

There were no grants for full-time students unless they were studying for a degree. He could work at half the pace and become a part-time student, and then he would be entitled to sign on for income support – except that he was living with his parents, which would disqualify him. He could join the queue for a discretionary grant from his local authority, but they were handed out on a first-come basis and he was joining the back of a very long queue. And anyway, it wouldn’t be nearly big enough to support him.

He couldn’t go to his parents for the money. They didn’t have it: his father was signing on himself. He could get a job, but there was no job. That was why he wanted to go to college in the first place. He didn’t know it, but there were an awful lot of other young people caught the same way. In his borough, Lewisham, just about no school-leavers were finding work. Of the 3,667 children who left local schools last year, only 293 went into work, just 7.9% of them. Daniel was trapped.

He kept trying. When his friends called him up and asked him to come out raving, he refused. He told them he wasn’t excited by that kind of thing any more. He sat at home and he knew they were out there with the girls and all having a good time, but he told himself it was better to be broke and bored than to be shot. So he stayed in and watched television. Sometimes that was all he did, all day long. He looked for jobs, but they were rare and they always needed qualifications. He couldn’t even go back to his old job. His boss had refused to pay his protection money, so some gangsters had come round and shot the place up. Daniel didn’t want to go back to Brixton at all. He hated the place now.

Still, the old life kept trying to pull him back. The police had tracked him down and were pressuring him to give evidence about the men who had shot his friend’s cousin. Then there were other people who kept calling him up and warning him not to talk to the police about it. They were offering him £3,000 to stay away from the trial. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to get shot, and the £3,000 would be good to have. In the end, he told his dad, who called the police, who persuaded him to come to court. They said they would make sure he was protected and they could move him to a new flat.

So now he sits on the old park bench, twisting the grass through his fingers, and he can’t exactly see where he is supposed to go from here. He’s been to court and given his evidence, but the police have never helped him. It’s more than four months now since he discovered his dream and he is nowhere nearer to achieving it, not one step. He knows he has made some mistakes in life, but they were mostly a child’s mistakes, being cheeky and messing around in class. He never thought it would be so hard to get away from them.

The worst thing now is that he can see the dream every day – people with jobs and houses and prospects – but he can’t touch it. It’s like pulling into a station in a train and looking out at the platform you want, and then the doors open on the other side – no other way out. He still has his eyes set on the dream, but he can see the reality now. He knows he is more or less locked out of it.

He stares down at the dust on his feet: “I don’t know what to do and I haven’t got so many options. It is hard to say that you’re going to college when you’ve got no money in your pocket, and you can’t sign on if you go to college. I definitely think there is still a chance that I can better myself. I mean, without qualifications, you ain’t shit. Without money, you ain’t no-one in society. I tell you: it’s easier to do crime than college.”