BOOK REVIEW / Guilt-edged security: 'Living Dangerously' - Roger Graef: HarperCollins, 14.99 pounds

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ROGER GRAEF'S shocking new book is a journey into the world of London's teenage thieves. It consists of apparently seamless and skilfully assembled transcripts of interviews with nine young men who were sent to a rehabilitation project as a last alternative to prison. All had committed many more crimes than they had been charged with. As Graef's introduction says, four-fifths of detected crimes against property are committed by 8 per cent of criminals; and most of these are teenagers.

Some of them are even younger. Here is 'Stan': 'When I was young I'd nick a fiver off my Dad or Mum, go out and spend it on chocolate and on the machines. Then I got addicted to fruit machines. When I was seven I started nicking pounds 100 at a time off my dad and step-mum and that's when it got out of hand. At one time I nicked pounds 550 mortgage money and done it all in two hours on the fruit machines.' Stan was about eight at the time.

Here is Luke, who feels his headmaster let him down: 'He defended me in court, saying I was doing well. But the second time, when I was bringing machetes and knuckle-dusters back to the school, he took them to the police, and said I needed a custodial sentence. It doesn't make sense. They say they care, but they beat you too.'

After a while, the book seems filled with a darkness so thick and strange you wonder whether the whole thing is not the product of a bad dream. And then comes the little nagging echo of London's speech patterns which makes it immediately persuasive: 'I went guilty.' This anchors the fantastic criminal world to our own, and serves as a wider motto for the journey towards prison. They do not plead: they just go.

The boys don't respond well to punishment, but they don't respond to anything else either: after his difficulties with fruit machines, Luke was sent to a special school in the countryside, where the inmates raped one another, and then to a Christian fellowship in Chiswick: 'They're a right bunch of plums - no sex, no violence, no drugs, no drink. But I got a girl pregnant there. Spent every penny I could steal on drugs and drink - acid, Es, a couple of lines.'

There is plenty of evidence in the book, from their own mouths, to suggest that these boys are nothing more than hideous little toe-rags. Their own mothers do not love them, and it is hard to see why anyone else should make the effort. Yet Graef makes plain that no one could loathe or despise these young men more than they do themselves, in certain moods.

They are constantly in search of respect, for themselves and for their groups. 'If it is missing, they do not hesitate to fight for it.' This craving for respect from others has its mirror image: none of them believes that he will ever accomplish anything worthwhile or lasting. Half the struggle of the hostel at Sherborne House is to get them to do things they would have believed impossible, such as making a table, or turning up somewhere at 10 in the morning on most days.

Graef also makes clear that they do have ideas of right and wrong, and that it is only their ideas of wrongness which are really defective. They believe in loyalty to family and friends, at least in theory: 'You can't trust no one: you just have them as friends; that's it,' one says. All claim there are crimes they would not commit.

During their course at Sherborne House, on the other hand, almost all were smoking dope; one turned up every day in a freshly stolen car; others had a thriving racket going with forged pounds 20 notes. A couple of them were thieving almost full-time throughout the rehabilitation project to support serious drug habits. There is a tremendous fervour and invention in their self-justification. 'Don't make me out to be a fucking woman beater,' says one. 'I did that in the past and I don't look to the past.'

Despite all this, what these children really lack is not goodness or strength of character, but maturity and some reasonable hope for the future. They have nowhere but the streets to prove themselves.

To allow them to describe the narrow world in which they are imprisoned is only half the task that Graef has attempted. What he really wants to do is to prove that things might be better. The result is a book which has flaws - it seems to have been hurried through the press - but which has undoubted and welcome polemical vigour.

The statistic trumpeted at the start is that a third of all British men can expect to be arrested for a non-motoring offence before the age of 30. The essential point to grasp about this is that the effective deterrents to crime are moral or prudential, not physical. Inhibitions work better than locks.

The young men in the book do have inhibitions, but they only function within the confines of a narrow tribe. 'Rich people' - the term embraces anyone with goods to steal - are to them fair prey for anything. They see the gap between 'rich people' and themselves as fixed and unbridgeable. To some degree this is quite fair. An unemployed truant from a council estate with a criminal record is unlikely to get any job at all in the current depression. The only trading career open to them is in drugs, and when their youth is gone, everything goes with it.

The way of life Graef depicts may seem something entirely new. But the morality of these children is actually very old. You will find it in the Iliad (whose fondness for gory detail they would enjoy): the treatment of women as breeding chattels; the obsession with honour and respect; loyalty to mates and family as the strongest form of social organisation. The tradition of oral epic poetry speaks to something fundamental in the way that young men are. Given sufficient poverty and hopelessness, it will take root anywhere.

To allow young men to grow out of it is the chief aim of the probation hostel Graef describes. With its politically correct staff and very limited efficiency, it is easy to mock. But it is accomplishing a little, which is far more than the prison system does. And it is cheaper than prison, too.

Such projects offer the only hope of catching young men who fall through society's nets before they go guilty for life. Reforms left undone now will have to be attempted a thousand times in the future.

Perhaps the least vicious and most tragic character in the book is Winston, a black youth from Hackney. By the end of the book he has been trapped in his mother's flat, and has been for a year; so far as one can guess, he is there still. He has no work, and no money, yet if he goes out on the streets and meets his old friends, he is certain he will get into trouble again.

'I think the world is coming to an end' he says. 'When I was 12 I didn't know about smoking. I wouldn't even speak of it in front of my mother, but now they kids do rollups, smoke reefers. Aged nine, my little nephew is lickin' tits. He doing jobs, he doing burglaries. He hangs around with 18, 19-year-olds. His mum's boyfriend beats him already, but she's still young, still raving. She leaves him with money but he doesn't buy food: he goes to the arcades . . .'

Winston is 20, and all his choices seem to have been made for him already.

(Photograph omitted)