MY criminal career was quite possibly the shortest in history. At the age of five I used to walk to school in Nelson, Lancashire, and was often joined by a thuggish classmate named Michael Pitt, youngest member of a notorious family of ne’er-do-wells. They really were the Pitts.
Our journey used to take us past a newsagent’s which had a rack outside containing papers and comics. Michael told me that these were free samples and we should each take one.
After school I went for tea at my cousins’ house because my parents were at work, and proudly showed off my copy of the Topper, featuring Beryl the Peril long before she defected to the Dandy. ‘Where did you get the money for that comic?’ asked my aunt. ‘I didn’t – it was free,’ I replied airily, going on to explain the circumstances. ‘That’s stealing!’ she cried, slapping my bottom and adding a clip round the ear for good measure.
Worse was to come. When my parents came home my aunt was waiting with me on the doorstep to report my act of thievery. Dad gave me a sound thrashing, sent me to bed and ordered me to take a different route to school avoiding both Pitt and newsagent. Yes, it was painful at the time but the punishment had the desired effect and I vowed never again to take anything without paying for it.
My next encounter with the criminal fraternity happened one hot summer Saturday night in the mid-1960s when we had gone out as a family, leaving open the bathroom window to let in some fresh air. Seconds after we arrived home, there was a knock on the door from an elderly neighbour. She said she had seen a man climbing the drainpipe and disappearing into our bathroom. This was in the days when hardly anyone had a telephone, which is why she hadn’t been able to ring the police.
My father bravely picked up a poker and marched upstairs, warning the rest of us to stay put in the back. He opened a wall cupboard to find the burglar crouching inside. As Dad raised the poker to bash him one, the man, who was twice his size, pushed him out of the way, ran downstairs, saw us in the living room, turned tail and fled through the front door which was secured by a Yale lock.
The police were summoned via a phonebox half a mile away and two officers arrived swiftly. Dad was able to give them a detailed description of the burglar and they said they had a good idea who he was.
Within hours he had been arrested and he turned out also to be named Ashworth (no relation). He was remanded in custody to Lancaster Assizes, forerunner of today’s crown courts, and went on trial soon afterwards. Bizarrely, he was accused of breaking out of our house because he had entered through an open window and left through a door which had been locked. His feeble defence was that he thought there was a party going on in our home. A court report in our evening paper was headlined: ‘Party’ man denies breakout. After a short hearing he was found guilty and banged up for two years.
What a contrast with today, when you’d be lucky if the police turned up within a week, if at all, the chances of catching the culprit would be virtually nil and, should by any remote possibility the burglar end up in court, he would escape with a slap on the wrist.
Fast forward to January 1974, when I was one of two trainee journalists starting work on the Burnley Evening Star. With the other guy, a strange character named Ralph Norton, I was introduced to our future colleagues as part of our induction procedure before decamping to the training centre in Newcastle which I have described here and here.
After the first morning we were told to go out for lunch and following fish and chips I suggested we visited the Record Exchange, a favourite music store in Standish Street. I bought a couple of LPs but Norton failed to part with any cash. When we were a safe distance from the shop he grinned and opened his raincoat to reveal two double albums, Tales of Topographic Oceans by Yes and On The Road, by Traffic. I couldn’t believe it. On the very first day of his working life, he had jeopardised his entire career by risking prosecution for shoplifting. And he was proud of it.
Life with him in Wallsend on Tyne would prove to be a nightmare. Every Saturday morning he, I and our flatmate Mike would go shopping for the week’s food. Without fail in the supermarket Norton would be pocketing expensive items and when we got to the checkout would try to appropriate stuff from the customer behind, claiming it was a mistake when he received a brusque Geordie reproof. Mike and I used to go ballistic, saying he was dragging us into his thieving habits, but he was incorrigible. He left the Evening Star after a couple of years and I never heard what happened to him, but I shouldn’t think it was anything good.
Meanwhile my future wife Margaret had a similar experience with a friend named Frank. He would thieve for the sake of it, usually taking things for which he had no use such as bicycle accessories and tablecloths. Unlike Norton, he didn’t get away with it and was sent down for four months.
I can’t help thinking that the two of them would, like me, have benefited immeasurably from a good hiding the first time they were found out trying to nick anything. Or did they just find the risk irresistible?
Old jokes’ home
Customer in a Chinese restaurant: ‘Waiter, this steak is rubbery.’
Waiter: ‘Thank you, sir.’
A PS from PG
Many a man may look respectable, and yet be able to hide at will behind a spiral staircase.
PG Wodehouse: Sunset at Blandings