- Living Dangerously: Young Offenders in their Own Words by Roger Graef
HarperCollins, 262 pp, £14.99, January 1993, ISBN 0 00 215967 8
‘Hang down your head, Tom Dooley’ was a hit song in the winter of 1958. If I was hanging mine, it was because I was a caught robber in a remand home named Larchgrove, on the Edinburgh Road, just outside Glasgow. Larchgrove was built on an incline so that as darkness fell you could see the city, a splash of lights. I was 14 then and on the fringes of the gangs. As you often met guys in rival gangs from other parts of Glasgow at Larchgrove, it was essential that you acted tough. Your whole street-future hung on how you bore up. That comes to mind as I remember the song, but mostly I remember the khaki shorts they made you wear. I felt so stupid: when you went for a pee you had either to hitch up the leg or pull down the front, and you wore no underpants. I’m sure this operation was a delight to our keepers. When I think about it now, it surprises me that the place functioned, or malfunctioned, for so long. After my time, there was a sex scandal and the place was closed down.
I escaped intact but was for the first time aware of my arse, since the greatest insult in that place was to call someone a poof. In any event I spent only a short time in Larchgrove – a week, ten days at most – before they put me on probation. It was a relief to get out of the khaki shorts and I had made some pals, some connections, guys I could team up with in future if I wanted to. That’s the way it goes in borstals and remand centres: once inside, the young offender just widens his network of cons and connections. The teenage Krays, for instance, first met the Richardsons in military detention. The places I’ve mentioned were relatively high security – behind closed walls – but the site of Roger Graef’s investigations, Sherborne House, is hardly that. It is a day centre, nine to five and five days a week, that makes even Larchgrove seem like Devil’s Island. Living Dangerously best: is supposed to be about ‘young offenders in their own words’. Yet Graef is too directly involved for it ever to be that. He prods and quizzes find, in his own fashion, analyses, to the point where he seems to hog the whole work.
Sherborne House, ‘the gift of the trustees of Sherborne School in the old tradition of helping the less fortunate’, is now run by the Inner London Probation Service. A building of three storeys situated in South London, its cold floors and walls, its draughty high ceilings, are ‘mocked by the opulence of the City just across the river’. It brags ping-pong and pool tables, a music room and Judy, the young cook, who produces the best institutional food Graef has ever eaten. She also helps keep the young people in line with ‘the blunt humour of a riding-master – her spare-time occupation’. Judy is only one of the goodies at Sherborne House: they have sports and adventurous trips abroad. Graef warns that such a programme might ‘sound like a holiday camp’. It does. I found it hard to believe the claim made by some of these young offenders, that they would rather be in prison. Graef is sympathetic, and before long you begin to doubt him. An anonymous judge, speaking to him, wishes that ‘transportation were still available’. ‘I’d like nothing better than to take one of these youngsters who’s reappeared for the umpteenth car theft and say: “You’re a thoroughly bad sort. Off you go to Australia.” ’ Graef bemoans the fact that ‘rehabilitation was never mentioned, except as a sardonic joke.’ He later speaks to the much more hopeful and helpful Judge Butler, of London Crown Court, who directs him to Sherborne House, where persistent offenders are given one last chance before prison. It seems to have slipped Graef’s mind, among all this talk of rehabilitation and last chances, that the offenders claim they would rather have gone to prison in the first place.
Whatever, It is a ten-week programme and Graef is there for the duration. Graef’s plan was to observe them during their time in Sherborne House and then interview them a year later. His original idea was to do this as a television documentary, which might have worked but as a book the idea flops.
There is a sameness about Johnnie and Stan, Sunny and Winston and the other five boys on the programme Graef writes about. Six of the boys are white and three are black; their ages vary from 17 to 20. Johnnie, the first of the boys to be interviewed, is a slim, sallow Irish lad who has no known father and an alcoholic mother. Chloe, his probation officer, reckons it’s ‘conceivable he just might be gay but doesn’t know it’. This is patronising shit. Chloe’s as bad as Graef in her condescension about what the boys do and do not know – though it is clear they know little of Aids transmission and often scoff at the idea of condom-use. Johnnie is lethargic, except when playing fruit machines, which he attacks ‘like Steve Davis playing championship snooker on speed’. He is in Sherborne House for a breach of community service. Most of the boys’ crimes are petty; they don’t come across as at all fierce. Johnnie worries himself sick when he is left in charge of £400 stolen money. The boys I knew would have rubbed their hands, while he sees it as a responsibility. Still, on a trip to France he brings himself to spend some of it on a jacket and a pair of jeans. Graef is with him on this daytime shopping spree in Dunkirk, and guides us through their tour round the shops in search of Johnnie’s ‘perfect’ jacket. You might expect a bit of joy but no, Johnnie is edgy and anxious and later admits to Graef that he feels guilty about ‘borrowing’ the money. It’s pretty limp stuff and Graef comes over as a sort of kindly if nitwit uncle.
During ‘project week’ four of the boys, accompanied by three probation officers as well as Judy and Graef, take up the ‘challenge’ of becoming part of a team, helping out with chores on board a ship. Graef makes a meal out of this trip to Belgium and France. The story of Joel, a drug offender, somehow brings in the tale of the ship’s captain – a bearded cynic in his mid-forties who has done time for fraud – and you’re left wondering what is what. The basic problem with Living Dangerously is the impression it gives that these young crooks were just too much for the author. Graef is far too much of a gentleman to get close to them and, really, he understands the street about as much as I understand him for taking on this subject. He is very fond of Johnnie and he believes that Johnnie likes him. I’d like to hear how these young guys, Johnnie included, spoke about him when he wasn’t there. I think they’d see him as another species. It is worth asking whether or not Sherborne House deserves a book. If we think it does, we must conclude that Graef was the wrong person for the job. But you have to admire Graef’s perseverance. He visits Johnnie some eighteen months after Johnnie’s left Sherborne House. The lad has changed. He has steered clear of trouble and hopes to go to college in the autumn.
Another boy, Stan – well, I’m going to pass him over. It’s sad enough that his mother gives him the thrashing of his life in a police cell. Far better if Graef had interviewed her instead of her joy-riding son; she’s a big woman and a practised boxer. Mark, who cut a man while trying to defend his brother, impresses the group with his violence and the fact that he has already been up at the Old Bailey. Graef is a bit perplexed by him, and hopes the Sherborne House experience will prevent, or at least delay, the likelihood of a long prison stretch. Joel has been on drugs since he was 11 and is still on them a year after leaving Sherborne House. He thinks Ecstasy is easily the best: it lasts between four and eight hours, costs £15 and turns girls on. He tells of people who spend £150 on E, taking ten in one night and warns of the possibility of Parkinson’s disease in later life. Joel has tried everything from lighter fuel to crack, acid, marijuana and cocaine. Drugs counsellors could do worse than read his story.
Graef tries to help Joel in a practical way by getting him a job. But he drifts back to drugs; rings up a worried Graef and admits to being addicted to crack. It’s not at all easy to cure a habit, but over a long weekend Joel comes off the drug and by the end of the book he is clean.
Seventeen-year-old Sam is the youngest of the group. He, too, is into fruit machines and to help pay for the addiction he burgles houses and shops. He is in Sherborne House for grievous bodily harm: hitting a neighbour over the head with a pool cue in an argument over fireworks. Another stupid, puny offence – Graef doesn’t say whether it was 5 November or what – but the squabble was certainly over a squib. Sam can’t read but he’s okay at screwing car stereos which he sells to minicab offices for £25 a time. The money is squandered on fruit machines. He wants a legal job, and while he looks for one he lives in a bedsit with his girlfriend.
When Sunny was young – not that he’s old now, he’s 19 – he and his mates would board a bus and rob everyone on it. They’d come away with watches, rings, wallets, the lot. He gave up robbing bus passengers to deal drugs. He claims to make £300 a day from this; I doubt if Sunny, tough though he may be, is tough enough to bring in that kind of money. He is already scared of boys who live in Ebony House, a special unit for young offenders, also in South London, and would have no chance fending them off if they got to hear of his £300 gold-mine. Sunny looks Asian but is at pains to explain that he is black; ‘in fact, he’s from Mauritius.’ It’s a trifle ironic that our hero, the successful drugs-dealer, is arrested in his third week at Sherborne House for stealing a crate of tinned tomatoes. Though he avoids being pinned down, we learn that Sunny is haunted by his fear of a guy named Tommy. Without knowing why, you get the feeling that one day it will be either him or Tommy. But not for a while: Sunny is currently doing a five-year stretch for armed robbery.
Winston, a tall, dignified boy from Hackney, is another for whom Graef finds a job. Unfortunately, a camera goes missing – I think the real culprit was a guy called Silk Cut – and Winston can’t handle the suspicion that falls on him. He was working at Book Aid, the scheme that sent one million books to Russia and the Republics, and he leaves it under a cloud. As Book Aid was a voluntary thing, I fancy that Graef slung Winston a few ‘back-handers’. When last seen Winston is out of work and lazing around his mother’s house. She wants to kick him out but fears that this will only lead him back to crime.
Luke reminds Graef of the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland, and Graef gets to know him better than any of the others at Sherborne House. He puts Graef on the line within two hours of meeting him by asking for his help in becoming a videotape editor. It happens that Graef has an editor friend in the East End and a rapport is struck. Luke’s background is ‘yet another painful saga’. His mother had two children by a West Indian man who was very hard on Luke. She couldn’t cope (Luke was her first-born, from a previous relationship) and had him taken into care at the age of seven. He was 11 when he first got into trouble with the law – a shoplifting charge that put him in an approved school for a year. He is without convictions from 12 to 16, when he gets done for drugs. According to Luke this was a frame-up, but it is enough to send him back to the approved school and on from there to a Christian Fellowship, whose staff he described as ‘a right bunch of plums – no sex, no violence, no drugs, no drink’. But Luke is pretty resourceful. He continues doing ‘creepers ... burglaries when people are in the house. It’s great – you listen for the breathing. It’s the risk of getting caught that makes it exciting.’ He also manages to get a girl pregnant. Luke was something of child-prodigy, beginning to both drink and steal aged eight. He had sex at nine, if not before, and is already an alcoholic.
Graef kept his promise, and got Luke a job as a runner (his friend is editing a religious series) at £70 a week, ‘with the likely prospect of training as an assistant editor if he did well’. This is a real chance, but Luke doesn’t show up for work and blows it: we last see him, looking deprived and undernourished, in a Fulham café. He is just out of court, where Graef appeared as his character witness. He is suffering from depression and seems ‘to be weighed down by the difficulty of being free and responsible again for his own actions.’ I’m left with the impression that much the same thing happens to each of these boys. Like Graef, we eventually lose sight of them all.