When I started this blog, it was definitely not my intention to use it to discuss politics or current affairs. This is a literary blog, not a rant about the state of things. No matter what political colour it starts off as, a polemic like that has an alarming tendency to end up by sounding like Jeremy Clarkson or the Daily Mail or some-one or something else that I loathe. If you don’t believe me, watch Ade Edmondson’s new programme.
However, I am making an exception in the case of today’s story about the letter written by a youth offender to a family whose house he or, as I suspect from the handwriting in this case, she, had burgled.
The reasons for this are (1) the letter makes specific mention of a set of streets in north Leeds called the Stainburns, where I used to live and (2) while I lived in the Stainburns, my house was burgled, twice.
I will briefly describe Burglary 1, Burglary 2, and my reaction to the recent letter story.
My then wife and I had just returned from a weekend away. It was evening and we were too tired to cook. We ordered a pizza from Pizza Hut, which was then (and still is, for all I know) owned by Whitbread. We had used this service, from this particular shop (the one on Chapeltown Road) dozens of times, without mishap.
The pizza delivery man knocked on the door. When I opened the door, though I attached no significance to it at the time, I noticed that he was leaning over, looking through the stained-glass window next to the front door. I paid for the pizza. I gave the young man a tip: two pounds. I closed the door. The delivery man started to walk back up the drive.
Subsequent revelations show that he was only pretending. After I had shut the door, he returned, tried the door, tip-toed inside, and took my ex-wife’s car keys, which he had seen on the window-sill. When we awoke the next morning, we found that her car had gone.
The car was recovered a few days later after being chased by the police. The driver was out on licence and was sent straight back to prison. The pizza delivery man was already facing a charge of something else, and another passenger was tried in a magistrate’s court for being knowingly carried in a stolen vehicle. He had been tracked to his door by a police dog called Stan who followed him by scent. He and his mother (who worked for Leeds social services) constructed a long and elaborate lie to account for his movements that evening, which the magistrates (as I had firmly expected) dismissed in an instant. He was found guilty. When he was talking to his lawyer while the court was considering sentence, he gave vent to a sudden outburst and shouted, “Yeah, but it were them what took it!” The truth will out.
My ex and I wrote to Whitbread’s head office asking for compensation for the distress the incident caused, plus the expense and inconvenience of having to replace the ex’s car, which was now the worse for wear and absolutely stank of cigarettes and lager. We tried to argue that Whitbread was vicariously liable because the crime had been committed by one of their employees. They (very predictably) returned with the argument that the employee had been “on a frolic of his own” (a well-known phrase in civil law). They offered us £500 but refused to admit liability, and, before handing over the money, they wanted us to sign a confidentiality agreement. We wanted them to admit liability, but we had not the resources to go to court, and so we politely but firmly refused the £500 and did not sign the confidentiality agreement, which accounts for why I am writing this now.
I awoke at about 3am to hear gentle footsteps on the wooden floor in the hall. I listened carefully, because my ex had four cats whose claws sometimes tapped on the wood almost like a human footfall. The footsteps remained unidentifiable, but then I heard whispering. I could not tell what was being said, but it was definitely human speech, almost certainly in English, probably one man and one woman.
I slowly got out of bed. I picked up a hammer. Don’t ask me why I had a claw-hammer by the bed, but I did. I took two careful steps onto the upstairs landing, and then I charged. WHO THE HELL ARE YOU? FUCK OFF! FUCK OFF! FUCK OFF! I was stark bollock naked.
At the bottom of the stairs, I could see the power supply for my computer. It was being held by a man in black trousers, donkey jacket, black woolly hat, boots, and with a very stubbly face and dark hair. He looked at me for a quarter of a second and then took to his heels. I followed him as far as the open patio door where they had got in, but he had gone. He dropped the power supply. All that they took was my ex’s Mulberry handbag. It had £300 in cash in it, plus about £300 worth of Monsoon vouchers, which Monsoon very disagreeably refused to replace. The bag (which was worth more than both these items combined) was found in a bin in south Leeds a few weeks later.
A few months later, a drug-addicted burglar was arrested for another crime and confessed to this one. I don’t know what became of the accomplice.
My reaction to the letter story
Some of my work colleagues were discussing this today. Most of them had read it in a thing you get free in the railway station called ‘Metro’, which I make a point of never reading. I don’t know what the article said, but it left them with the impression that the family who had been burgled received the offensive letter. According to the BBC, the letter was intercepted and never sent.
If the letter is genuine, then the person who wrote it clearly has a lot to learn. The part of it that I find most offensive is the bit about being “dumb” to live in the Stainburns.
The Stainburns are an excellent place to live. There are lots of shops nearby, including Marks & Spencer. They are next to a major bus route, which gets you into the centre of Leeds in 20 minutes, with buses going every 10 minutes for most of the day. There is an arts centre, some really nice pubs, bars and restaurants, and a library. And so on, and so forth.
The area is increasing in diversity and prosperity, which means there is stuff there worth nicking. It also has a lot of couples or other sharing arrangements in which everybody is in full-time work. Hence, there are a lot of properties which are empty during the day or at the weekend.
I have 8 ‘O’ levels, five at grade A, and 4 ‘A’ levels. I have an honours degree in chemistry from the University of Liverpool, a PhD from the University of Leeds, a Certificate of Higher Education in Computing Studies (with distinction) from Leeds Metropolitan University and am currently studying for a BA in Humanities with Creative Writing with the Open University. My average assignment mark over the course so far is 88 per cent. Next month I appear on a recording of Radio 4’s ‘Brain of Britain’. We may deduce, therefore, that I am not dumb.
I am not going to pontificate about social exclusion, or morality, or human nature, or the politics of policing or the penal system. Instead I will simply say that, if being educated and earning more than the national average is an offence in the moral code of the letter-writing burglar, then I am guilty. I have been affected by burglary in my life, and the first time I succeed in laying hands on some-one who invades the dignity and security of my home, I will – I admit, arbitrarily – hold that person accountable for all the previous invasions, everything that was stolen, and all the wastage, inconvenience and anxiety that went with these incidents.