As I reach my twilight years, I find myself more and more inclined to look back on my life, and question some of the choices I made. However, this is not with any kind of morbid regret, but rather, with a sense of curiosity, and I am reminded of that famous poem by Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’.
I remember, years ago, meeting the Governor of Brixton prison, prior to doing drama with some of the inmates. “If you do not believe that, had circumstances been diﬀerent, YOU might have found yourself in here, I suggest you leave now”, he had urged us. Well, despite the fact it would have involved a sex change, I stayed. Nevertheless, the beginning and end of my life of crime sprang to mind.
As an accomplished fibber from an early age, I first encountered theft at the age of 6. My primary school was close to my home, and with my daily lunch money in my pocket, I saw the opportunity to indulge myself in the forbidden fruits that lay in wait for me in the local sweet shop. On the pretence that I was walking home for lunch, accompanied by my fellow fibbers, I would make my way to the confectionery store and spend, spend, spend. A gob stopper, a sherbet dip, some liquorice laces and many other sugar-laden delights were my daily diet, plus a three-penny bag of chips. Oh, it was heaven. But that was not all. Soon, the bright lights of Woolworths across the road were beckoning, and it was there that I learnt my first lesson. Gluttony doesn’t pay. Or, in my case, not paying brings with it a sense of guilt. As I patiently stood in the queue to pay for my purchases, to my dismay I found that they had made their way into my belly. I was empty-handed. What to do? Well, I was only 6, so flight seemed the best option. So flee I did. Now, although I felt bad, it did not stop my lust for sugar.
As time went on, the memory of my first crime grew like a cancer and I feared that although I had not continued in a life of thieving, it was probably only a matter of time. Clearly, I had deep within me the makings of a full-time criminal. Thankfully, a fear of heights ruled out cat burglary, and, as an ambitious child, common or garden stealing held no attraction at all. Besides, the glamour of the stage had grasped me firmly by the throat. By the age of 10, I knew that the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd was infinitely more intoxicating than the odd sugar rush. Fast forward, then, to the age of 17.
During the Summer of ‘63, travelling daily from South Kensington to attend rehearsals with The National Youth Theatre at Chalk Farm, I noted that was never a ticket collector at the station. Why, then, purchase a ticket at all? Robbing the London Underground could not have been further from my mind but I found also that on my return journey, without a ticket, I could simply oﬀer to pay the fare from one-stop-away Sloane Square on my arrival at South Ken. It worked well. That is, until an inspector at my destination enquired as to whether I had used the stairs or the escalator to reach the platform. In my confusion, I broke down, confessed all, and was forced to give my name and address. I immediately determined to pay the correct fare thereafter, and imagined that that would be the end of it. Not so . . .
A week later I arrived home to find my mother in a hysterical state. The police had called, but much worse than that, they were accompanied by an enormous Alsatian dog. Thankfully, her anxiety about what the neighbours might think took precedence over my small misdemeanour. It would be alright. How wrong was I? On my sweet father’s return from work it all changed. As a lawyer, he chose to err on the side of the law. If I chose to cheat, I must face the consequences. So Court [caught? – Ed] it would be.
As the day of reckoning approached, my anxiety escalated. Would it be a custodial sentence? Would it be community work? Would I be shadowed forever by the Fuzz? Worst of all, would I be saddled with a police record for life? I was a wreck. By now, my father was also suﬀering pangs of guilt. He agreed to accompany me, and even suggested a stiﬀ drink in the pub beforehand to calm my nerves.
Boy, did I need that drink! The magistrate’s court was Dickensian. Dark and gloomy and crowded with young oﬀenders, 95% of whom were black. I looked quite out of place, and it was certainly my introduction to a world of discrimination and racism. I was horrified and scared. And then it happened. It was my turn to stand up, and within a minute I had committed perjury. No sooner had my hand left the Bible than I lied, saying that it had been my first and only oﬀence. Had my skin colour been diﬀerent, I doubt it would have been accepted so readily. The result was a one guinea fine plus one guinea costs. I made my way across the corridor to the payment oﬃce, praying that my black brothers were treated justly.
On arrival at the counter, and on receipt of the order, I went to find my purse in my handbag. It was not there. I reeled back in shock, and burst into tears. My father, happy to be able to ease my pain, paid the fine, and we left. That evening, still weeping, I went out with my long-suffering boyfriend, convinced that the loss of my purse was yet further punishment for my sins. It was a wonder then, that on returning home, I was greeted by my father who introduced me to the dear old lady, who having found my bag in the pub, determined to return it to me.
Lesson? Honesty does pay, crime doesn’t. Here endeth the lesson!