Tuesday 23 January 2018

You are what you steal

In his youth, Donal Lynch went through a phase of nicking stuff, until an incident scared him straight

Donal's Artful Dodger days are well and truly behind him
Donal's Artful Dodger days are well and truly behind him
Donal Lynch

I remember when I finally got caught shoplifting, the mother of a friend of mine sighed, and said, "It was obviously a cry for help". I nodded vigorously when I heard this, as it seemed to suggest that I had been the sorry victim in the whole thing.

Which was definitely a genius take on things, as far as I was concerned. But the truth, when I look into my sullen adolescent soul, is that I just wanted to not have to pay for stuff. My 'cry' was for free CDs and magazines, and the 'help' came from my light fingers and innocent appearance. I couldn't even say I fell in with the wrong crowd. I was entirely self-taught. To be real about it, I was the wrong crowd. 

Today, I know stealing is deeply wrong, and no amount of youthful exploration should end in a five-fingered discount at a leading department store. I'm not trying to portray myself as some loveable scallywag. But to my 15-year-old self, shoplifting did not seem like a remotely shameful activity. It seemed, in fact, like a very necessary bit of rebellious balance in a childhood in which piano lessons were seriously considered as a possibility. I knew shoplifting was more associated with loopy housewives than spotty schoolboys, but it also had its own spotty-schoolboy anthem - Shoplifters of the World Unite by The Smiths. And it somehow fitted into some hazy student notions I had about redistribution of wealth. "Property is theft, anyway, so you may as well nick some property" - that sort of thing.

A huge part of it was the adrenaline rush. The comedian Eleanor Tiernan says that the only time she feels truly free is right after she exits security at the airport and begins to float towards duty free. I am aware of this sensation - somewhere between an endorphin rush and a Valium - but I have to say it probably pales beside the feeling you get when you're walking out of a shop with something unpaid-for under your school uniform. You are now one up on the civilian world, and you click your heels all the way back to your poster-covered bedroom, where you pore over your stolen swag like a robber baron of yore. Sometimes, in my haste to get something out of the shop, I'd pick up the wrong thing, and would feel outraged when I got home. "How could they let me risk everything to steal if they're going to have messed-up sizes like this?"

Somewhere inside my warped moral compass, I still had what I thought of as standards. I only stole from places that could "afford" it - so no little family places or actual people I could identify - and sometimes, in an expansive mood, I would take things and leave them in other parts of the shopping centre for people to "find". I thought of myself as a sort of Robin Hood character, except instead of food, I redistributed glossy lifestyle magazines. Those would be more nourishing, I assured myself.

My career came to an abrupt end one day on Grafton Street. I took a quick whirl around a large record shop and decided that my own collection could no longer hold its head up high without Radiohead's The Bends. By this stage, I literally just thought of stealing as shopping, so I was more surprised than anything when a security guard gently touched my arm and asked me to follow him into the basement, where a bigger, meaner security guard brandished CCTV footage at me.

I'm ashamed to say that my first thought when I saw it was, "Oh no, now when I become world famous, this will be the clip they'll show". I pictured myself shaking my head genially as Michael Aspel queued up the clip on This Is Your Life ("I know, I know, Michael, but it was the mid 90s - everyone was into Radiohead!")

Unfortunately, I never did go on to become important enough to be vulnerable to such embarrassments. But the incident did mean that my days Artful Dodger-ing my way through record shops were over. Thenceforth, I paid for stuff the old-fashioned way, started writing for magazines instead of nicking them, and got my adrenaline rush by barely making flights. Radiohead might have hailed to the thief, but I had to retire him.

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