It was Sunday evening in St. John’s Wood and the Baxters were enjoying the crackling of the grate fire and the cackling of comedians on the television set in the morning room. No one else was in the house and, therefore, it was rather odd to hear a sharp knock on the morning - room door. We were even more astonished when we found that the intruders were a husky policeman plus a plainclothes officer and a dark-haired youth with Teddy-boy clothes.
“Sorry to disturb you,” said the policeman, "but this here young fellow got onto the roof of the house next door and jumped across to your roof, Ma’am.”
It was all very cosy and congenial, so much so in fact that I felt we should offer refreshment at least to the uniformed policeman. “No thanks sir,” he said. “Not on duty.” A log in the grate fire fairly split its side and then calmed down.
“That house next door,” he said, “is always being burgled.” This seemed odd for it used to belong to the famous ex-Torontonian Miss Beatrice Lillie and I cannot imagine her taking in burglars like unpaying guests. But if the youth was on the roof of the house next door why and how did he get into the Baxter abode?
"Well, you see sir," said the constable, "they’ve been burgled so often in that house that the whole place is full of burglar alarms. So this young fellow got frightened by the alarms and jumped across from their roof to yours.” With an air of official dignity he added: “From your roof Ma’am he made an illegal entry into your house.”
“He seems harmless enough,” said my wife.
“Perhaps,” said the officer, “but take a look at this.” Whereupon he handed us a thin rubber-covered “cosh.” “It doesn't look much,” he said, "but one crack with that and you don’t know what day it is.” Feeling that he had probably said enough on the subject the constable took the youth by the arm, and we
escorted them safely to the street.
“Apologize to the lady,” said the policeman. The wretched boy turned to my wife and then with downcast eyes said: “Sorry you’ve been troubled." Thus was decorum maintained to the very end. But there was an epilogue. “I’ll let you know when his case comes up,” said the constable. And thus did St. John’s Wood return to silence and respectability.
So in a few days’ time my wife and I went at eleven o'clock in the morning to see justice administered. But there were many cases to be heard, and we settled down to study the tragi-comedy of a London police court. Here in ordinary dress was the magistrate, calm, quiet-spoken, and understanding. First he took the drunks.
The morning after the night before has always been a harsh experience even without the interference of the law, but to wake up in "jug” continued on page 54
London Letter continued from page 8
They were for easy money even if it meant blackmail, violence or
and face a crowded court is enough to make one banish John Barleycorn for life.
In the box is a blousy female who has slept off her drunkenness in the cells. The charge is read, the policeman gives evi-
dence and the magistrate asks the woman if she had had too much to drink.
“I'm a respectable woman,” she says.
“Then why did you get drunk last night'.’“ asks the magistrate. “According to the evidence you screamed and tried
to hit someone with an umbrella. When the constable took you under arrest you are reported to have said: 'I II get you for this, you pie-faced slob.’ ’’
The magistrate turns to the bareheaded constable in the witness box. “Did she
a term in a prison cell
use those words in your presence?” The policeman straightens up and declares: “She used worse words than that, your honor, but I did not like to put them on record.”
"Yes, yes,” says the magistrate. “No doubt we can imagine what the accused said.” Then turning to the woman he announces the size of the fine and adds: “This was your first offense and I have let you off lightly. I may not be so lenient if you come here again.”
But the drunks are only the dreary hang-over in the morning proceedings before the more serious cases are reached. Here is a nice-looking young fellow who cashed a forged saving certificate for five pounds. There is no question of alcohol, nor is there even the partial excuse of harsh necessity. Any normal parents would be proud to have a son of his appearance. The magistrate who has to deal alike with thugs and tarts looks at the young fellow in the box as if to break down the barrier between the hoy and himself.
“You knew you were committing a very serious crime?”
“You were in some kind of trouble?”
“Do you want to tell me what it was?”
The boy looks down and his lips tremble. Then pulling himself together he answers: “I don’t want to say any-
thing except that I’m sorry.”
So the mills of petty crime grind on. Harlots, cheats and drunks; a fresh supply of them each day. The very lies that are told become in some queer way a form of truth, but the police court does not deal merely with the ramifications of petty thievery and drunkenness. Soon we were to be regaled with the case of two young men of splendid height and peroxided fair hair, complete with Victorian side-boards and semi-sporting jackets and drain-pipe trousers. The charge read against them was the serious one of robbery with attempted violence which was probably why they looked so pleased with themselves. They were big shots and they joked under their breath until the magistrate brought them up with a jerk. Broad shouldered and slim of waist, they looked like a pair of perverted Tristans. They were for easy money even if it meant blackmail, violence or a term of prison.
Yet there must have been a time when as little boys they gave joy to their parents. Tall and crudely handsome they would make any parents proud if only their insatiable vanity and dislike for honest work had not eaten at their vitals. Not for them the blood and sweat and tears of high endeavor. Even under arrest the police court was to them a theatre in which momentarily they were the stars. By nature I do not dislike easily but when conceit links up with crime and when honest work is regarded as a mug’s game then it is difficult to feel pity or even to hope that the sentence will not be harsh.
By contrast one felt nothing hut compassion for a youthful colored Jamaican who. with a gang of toughs, had stolen a lorry. Because Britain is the mother country a colonial subject can land in the United Kingdom without any money
beyond a few shillings and go at once on relief and enjoy the full benefits of the welfare state. Now' that the Caribbean federation has come into being the law may be altered but let me put on record that the Jamaicans especially have usually proved good workers and good citizens. The problem of black and white with all its inherent prejudice still remains, but on the w'hole our colored kinsmen in Britain have settled down even though they long for the sun that stays in hiding beyond the English clouds.
Moved by a natural curiosity as to the adjourned fate of my youthful burglar 1 attended the court next day as well, and sure enough up came my innocent-faced intruder who was so sorry we had been troubled.
Believe it or not his record of violence and robbery was so bad that the magistrate felt that his w>as not the proper court in which to deal with the boy. Instead he will be tried at the Old Bailey with its atmosphere of famous murder trials and other serious crimes. That cosh he carried on his visit to St. John's Wood was meant for business.
And once more we saw the peroxideblond male voluptuaries of the previous day. It seems that a week ago while their case was being heard they made a getaway and were recaptured. This time 1 noticed that extra police stood at the exits in case the brothers might give a repeat performance. They, too, are to appear in a higher court, w'hich means that they will not have to worry about anything for quite a long time. The peroxide will have lost its lustre when next they see the open sky and feel the healthy sun upon their faces.
But they did smile good-by to their girl friend in the court, a young woman with bright-blue eyelids who looked like a lizard with dirty nails and blackrooted peroxide hair.
Yet there was one moment of real Dickensian humor. A woman charged w'ith stealing a wireless set was asked where she got it, and the following dialogue ensued:
Woman: It was under a tree, milord.
Magistrate: Under a tree?
Woman: Yes, milord.
Magistrate: You mean growing like
Thus ends my story. Like Dostoievski I ventured into the realm of crime and punishment and it is good to breathe the free air of the outside world again.
But behind the cosh-carrying youth who was our uninvited Sunday evening
guest, and behind the brutalized blond gangsters, is the gnawing question of what makes them turn to crime. There is good pay to be earned by young men of muscle and reasonable intelligence if they are willing to work. Even with their stunted intelligence and lack of moral responsibility they must know that once the police have had them in their hands they are marked men with no chance of eluding the law.
It may be that crime is a form of selfexpression to perverted youths who long for notoriety and dream of becoming big
shots in the underworld. It may even be that gangster films have demonstrated that it is easy to be a big shot if you are tough enough. Or perhaps it is partly the aftermath of the war when as small boys they saw the horror and excitement of the blitz.
Whatever the cause, there is a malaise of youth in America as well as Britain which has found expression in the Teddy boys and the wailing epileptic rhythm of hollow tired hit-parade songs emerging from youthful throats. It may be that the cinema and television must accept
some responsibility. It may be that the influence of the home is being weakened by the impact of so many mass-media factors.
I know that in this London Letter I have dealt with the problem of youthful crime and ignored the vast normality of countless homes. But the sociologist should turn his mind to the malaise which for one reason or another is stirring up the latent sodden vanity of young men who find the lawful battle of competitive existence too exacting and too unexciting for their taste. ★
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