The thief who tried to change

The Guardian, December 1 1994

No one ever said it was going to be easy. Daniel had spent years getting in and out of trouble. He’d been thrown out of school without taking his exams, he’d fallen out with his parents, he’d started thieving for a living in Brixton, he had been taking drugs and then he’d got shot. So when, last summer, at the age of 18, he decided to change his whole life and go to college instead, he knew it was going to be hard.

But four months ago, when his story appeared in the Guardian, he still had no idea quite how difficult it could be. At that point, he could see only two obstacles blocking his way. He had none of the qualifications which the colleges wanted and he had no money to pay for his course fees or to keep himself alive while he studied. He had looked for help and run into a bureaucratic jungle, from which he had emerged with no course, no money and no idea of how to stop himself drifting back into trouble.

Guardian readers swept those obstacles aside. Several lecturers saw the story and offered to cut through the red tape to give him a place, and dozens of readers started to send him money – fivers, tenners, sometimes more, some of them anonymous, some of them with long letters of encouragement, all of them finally amounting to a fund of just over £3,500. Daniel was amazed, not only because the prospect of reaching college was now real but, more, because he had never begun to imagine that so many people could conceivably want to help him.

In some ways, things have gone well for him since then. In September, he started a three-year course in electronics. He grappled with Ohms law and voltometers and oscillators and, although he says he has often found it hard to follow the theory, particularly since he has some trouble with reading, he has stuck with it. His family confirm that he has been taking it very seriously. He talks with real enthusiasm about getting a job, working with telecommunications or computers. He has even started to read books (this from a boy who previously regarded them as some kind of disgusting infection).

The money has been vital. He has moved back with his parents, who have been feeding him but who cannot afford to pay for his studies. On the first day at college, he started to panic because he had no way of paying the enrolment fee and he discovered he also had to pay for two standard text books. He rang the Guardian, and we took money out of the Daniel Fund to tide him over. He agreed that we should start to drip-feed him £30 a week essential funds to cover his bus fares, books, meals away from home. So he became a student. And he was happier.

The past, however, has not changed and, in various different ways, it follows him around. Last month, for example, he got onto a bus, told the conductor where he was going and was surprised to be asked for only 40 pence. He knew it should have been more and he guessed the conductor had been misled by his face, which makes him look much younger than he is. He had a split second to decide – own up or shut up. He shut up and saved himself 40 pence. Five minutes later, an inspector came round the bus, and Daniel was suddenly all the way back in the past, up to his neck in trouble.

The inspector challenged him. Daniel said he was 15. The inspector asked him his date of birth. He stumbled and blew it. “OK, I’m an adult – how much money do you want.” But the inspector didn’t want his money, he wanted his name and address. Daniel protested that he was ready to pay, that the conductor had only ever asked him for half the fare and it wasn’t his fault if the conductor didn’t ask him for the right money. The inspector insisted, so Daniel gave him a name and address. It took the inspector about four minutes to check it out on his radio, to find out it was false and to call the police.

They came and arrested him, snapped cuffs on his wrists and drove him to the police station while they waited for him to admit his real identity. Along the way, they noticed little burn marks around the thighs of his tracksuit trousers and guessed – quite rightly – that they had been made by hot ash falling from joints he had smoked. They searched him and found nothing. When he admitted his name and address, they took his house key and looked round his bedroom and found nothing there either. So he was left with a date at magistrates court and a bout of indignant anger at just about everybody, including himself.

The problem is partly inside him. He has spent so long in trouble that he is in the habit of feeling bad. He admits that in the first few weeks of term, he came close to running away from college. “The way the teacher was going on, that I should know things, I should do things. I mean, if I don’t learn a thing, it’s his fault – he’s not doing his job properly. I felt like punching him.” But he didn’t.

Ironically, part of the trouble is that whereas last summer he was depressed and subdued, he is now feeling better with the result that his old pride is growing stronger. Last week, he took a cab and believed that the driver was overcharging him.. “The thoughts that were running through my mind. I get vexed and dark and I want to do someone. My heart beats faster. I mean, if people draw blood from my skin, I’m going to draw blood from them. I’m not having it. I promise.” But, again, he managed to keep hold of himself. “I paid him and I just slammed the door as hard as I could and walked off.”

And, all the time, the past that is outside him sets little traps. During the summer, the police persuaded him to give evidence about a murder, and now he is being pestered by a friend of the killer who is offering a heady mix of bribes and threats to persuade him to change his statement before the case goes to the Court of Appeal. He does not want to do it, but he does not feel safe. He is still not sure what to do. Since he gave up crime and crack, he has lost some of his friends, but he has started to hang around the restaurant in Brixton where he used to work and which has been the target of armed robbery and protection racketeers. This is the place where he was shot. He won’t work there again, because he is scared, but he drifts in there, because he wants the company, even though he knows it is taking him too close to the edge.

So far, he has survived. And with every week that goes by, his confidence in himself is growing. It is alarming to see him walking out on this fragile surface, which could so obviously give way underneath him at any moment, but he has his eyes on the prize. “I want a house and a car and a job, then I’m OK. Then I’m perfect.” He never said it was going to be easy, but he is trying.

UPDATE: At some point in the following 12 months, Daniel broke off contact and vanished.