A Short, Sharp, Shock!
A memoir by Steve Bale
In trouble with the law from aged 9, a thieving newspaper boy pushes his luck with one too many scams and ends up in a detention centre in 1976, aged just 15 ,one of the youngest prisoners in the place, and being a wimp, he looks set to do hard time.
May not be suitable for children under the age of 13.
In the following true story, some names and places may have been changed, and some incidents may have been left out, or marginalised, for legal reasons.
You can watch the video or read the text of this story here, or download the .PDF of the whole story for reading off-line, whichever you prefer.
This web version has the latest edits, so may differ slightly in places.
Total reading time is approximately 35-40 minutes.
1974, Waltham Abbey, Essex, England.
I’m 14 years old. I had been doing early-morning newspaper deliveries for a few years now. Getting up at 5.30 AM seven days a week, doing a two-hour paper round before bunking off school was fine by me, especially as I was making bits of money stealing stuff all over the place.
A typical morning for me at the time involved collecting my newspapers at the newsagents, where the poor overworked guy marking the papers into rounds, trying to serve customers and sending us out on our paper-rounds was too busy to notice most of us paperboys chucking stuff into our newspaper bags from off the shelves.
We would steal anything we could get our hands on, sweets, cigarettes, and even records.
Then it was off to deliver the papers, usually on a knackered out old push-bike. I learnt to keep a sharp eye on the pavement, especially at weekends, for dropped money, cigarettes, wallets, purses, handbags, lighters etc. that the previous night’s revellers had dropped or lost. As we were often the first out onto the streets in the morning we found loads of interesting stuff.
Another occasional bonus was when a shop window or door was broken or kicked in. A lot of shops had no alarms in my little town at the time, so it was not unusual to find one broken into once or twice a year and I was not shy of nipping into a shop and helping myself to some goodies, if it was possible.
For example, one day I found a chemist’s front window completely shattered. I filled my paper-bag with perfumes and aftershaves, I didn’t even have to get off my bicycle. I sold them the next time I went to school.
There were a few other scams, I can’t talk about most of them, but I can tell you about one that I got caught at.
Please be aware I am not proud of the illegal things I did. I didn’t plan on most of it. Most of the things I did at the time just seemed to come “natural” to me.
Although our family did not have much, we were not so poor that I didn’t eat or go without basics, we were OK really, so I don’t have that excuse. I was just a thieving little git. It’s still a complete mystery to me why I was such a natural prolific petty thief, it’s not as if I had come from a family of thieves or anything.
I can’t even blame my gambling addiction at this point, as I had no viable places to gamble in those days, even when I did have money, so it wasn’t that.
I couldn’t get into the bookies or the pub because of my age, and the nearest fruit machine arcade was in Edmonton Green, a long bus ride away, and too dangerous a place for a 14-year-old on his own, with money in his pocket.
But I digress, back to the scam.
One scam I always looked forward to was “Milk bill Saturdays”, as long as I was ahead of the milkman I could make some hard cash. In those days, people were still trusting enough to put the money for their weekly (sometimes monthly) milk bill in an envelope and stick it into the neck of an empty milk bottle on their doorstep. I know, it sounds incredible nowadays.
I’m ashamed to say that I had absolutely no qualms about nicking any and all milk-money I could get my hands on, on my paper round, and off it. Sometimes I would even cycle miles out to find more milk bills if I was really skint.
This went on for at least a year. I was actually surprised I had never got caught, but of course, anyone dumb enough and greedy enough not to stop will eventually get their collar felt, and sure enough, that is what happened.
The place I got caught at was in a small three-storey block of flats. I only had one paper to deliver in the block, on the third floor.
Of course, I checked all three floors for goodies on the way up and this block usually had a milk bill. I found one and swiped the envelope from the bottle, put it in my newspaper bag, walked down a floor, where I tore it open to reveal a single five-pound note, not bad.
Now don’t ask me why, but I took the fiver and put it down my sock, there and then. Maybe I always did that, I can’t remember, but that’s what happened. Anyway, as I left the block of flats two policemen appeared from nowhere, they had staked me out and set me up. Not exactly Hill Street Blues was it? But effective nevertheless.
They stopped me, and then one of them went up to the doorstep to make sure the fiver had been taken while his mate questioned me. When the copper returned to confirm the fiver had been stolen they asked me if I had nicked it? I said no, so they started searching me.
After checking my bag and all my pockets they started to look a bit worried, and I must say, slightly embarrassed. If I could have got to my sock without them seeing I would have dumped the fiver and they couldn’t have done a thing, but they made me push my bike in between them as they walked me to the police station, about half a mile away.
In the interview room, they waffled on a load of stuff that went straight over the top of my head. I just denied everything, not because I was clever and realised without the evidence I was in the clear, but because I was too scared to admit it.
In those days the general public still had fear and respect for coppers, which must be hard for youngsters of today to understand I know, but it was very different then, I assure you.
In the end, they said they were going to do a strip-search on me, so I immediately took the fiver out of my sock and gave it to them, it was all damp and sweaty.
The relief on those coppers faces was palpable. I made a statement and they bailed me to await a court appearance. My Father had to come and collect me, he was not best pleased. When we got home, I got one of the few hidings that he ever gave me.
At that time, I had only been in trouble (I.e got caught) with the law, three times.
As a nine-year-old I was in a gang of kids that were playing about with lighter fuel and matches and we accidentally set fire to an old wooden shack. Unfortunately, that shack had a gas canister in it that exploded. I don’t think it was our intention to actually set the whole place on fire, we were just little kids mucking about.
The shack was used by cricketers to store their gear and as a tea hut. It was a very old shack, it must have been well over 50 years old and falling to pieces. The wood it was built of was so old it had gone silvery and was crumbling away in places. It was a disaster just waiting to happen anyway.
I personally did not start the fire, but I was there and know who did. We all got a massive rollicking by the Police and our parents but as we were under the age of criminal responsibility we were not charged. However, I suppose it stayed on record to add to my juvenile crime sheet.
I did pay for that sin, though, thirty odd years later. I was working as a security Guard with an old guy who I liked and got on with really well, and he turned out to be one of those cricketers!
We used to stand around talking about anything and everything during our long 12 hour shifts of boredom, and one day he mentioned that some “little bastards” burnt down his beloved “clubhouse” and it ruined his Sunday’s, as the team had disbanded because of it etc.
I felt obliged to tell him I was part of it, and I apologised the best I could, but he was really shocked, angry and outraged at me and would never talk to me again. Natural justice I guess?
The second blot on my record was also not totally my fault, I would admit it here if it was. Again, I was with a gang of friends, roaming the streets one evening, bored.
We weren’t up to anything in particular, just hanging about. A crowd of Cub-Scouts walked past us and someone in our crowd called them “little twats” or something similar, but then some dickhead from our lot threw an empty bottle at them, we never did find out who it was. It smashed on the ground, but nobody was hurt.
The upshot was, the Cubs went into the Police Station to complain about us. By then our group had separated and there was just me and three others. Of course, it was just our luck that we were the ones that got pulled by the coppers and taken in.
We all admitted that we were there, but we didn’t throw the bottle, however, we still all got charged with “threatening behaviour”.
It was a minor offence, but we still had to go to court. I got two years probation. This meant that I had to see a probation officer every month, and if I got in trouble with the law in that two year period I would be in big trouble with the court, and that was to cost me dear later.
The third time I was caught doing naughties was deadly serious, and the most shameful of all the bad stuff I did as a youngster. To be honest, I did not want to write about this, but it is crucial as to the reason why I got banged up in a detention centre a year later.
Note: I was a Cub-scout when I was 8 or 9 years old, for a year or so, just saying.
Or, skip to part 3 of A Short, Sharp, Shock!