My undercover life as a vigilante

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The Independent Culture
THE HATCHET was on the bed-side table. The car was hidden behind the outbuildings. All the lights in the house had been switched off. I was ready.

During the previous night, while I was away, the house - a farmhouse in East Anglia - had been burgled. Something must have disturbed the thieves because little had been taken: a few ornaments had been gathered on a blanket on one of the beds but had been left by intruders. The local policeman who had wearily taken my statement had commented that, if they thought the place was still empty, the burglars might return.

In retrospect, it was not the brightest of plans, but I wanted to catch them at work, or at least to give them a shock. A naked, middle-aged man with a hatchet in his hand: that would show them. I only wished I had a 12-bore which would give them a real fright.

Last week, up the road in Fenland country, a farmer called Tony Martin did have a shotgun and, it appears, he may have used it to defend his property. He was busy with the harvest, sometimes working at night, and was worried about break-ins. That isolated part of the country, apparently, provides another regular harvest - for burglars. Whatever precisely happened last Friday night, two men from Nottinghamshire were shot in the vicinity. One of them, a 16-year-old called Fred Barras, died from his injuries in a nearby field.

Already an affecting portrait of a beleaguered, exasperated farmer is emerging from interviews with neighbours and it can be safely predicted that pious editorials defending him, quoting the usual cliche about the Englishman, his home and his castle, will appear in all the usual places. Have-a-go heroes, like the plucky 68-year-old colonel who last week leapt from his bed stark naked and then pursued a thief down the streets of Devizes, will be invoked, as will the low clear-up rate of petty crime and allegedly lenient sentences handed out by the courts.

From the other side, it will be pointed out that life is not a Charles Bronson movie, and that no sensible, humane person can, on the one hand, excuse direct action in this country and, on the other, express moral superiority to the shoot-'em-up frontier spirit embraced by Charlton Heston, the National Rifle Association and various mass killers in America.

Only if you have been regularly burgled will you know quite how difficult it is to be sensible and humane on these occasions. You will have discovered that, as they dutifully dust the place for non-existent fingerprints and take down transparently pointless statements from the occupier, the police are doing little more than going through the motions. Domestic break-ins are low-grade crimes and getting a conviction is difficult; it is not difficult to see why the dodgier police forces like to load as many unsolved crimes on to one villain's account in order to improve the figures and public confidence.

More alarmingly, you become aware that, however convenient it may be for Jack Straw to blame this kind of crime on fake, non-Romany travellers, thieving is not something that occurs in society's dark corners, perpetrated by shadowy, amoral members of the underclass. It is everywhere. Leave a bicycle unlocked anywhere and it will go. The open window or door of a house or a car will probably, within a matter of moments, be seen as an invitation to theft.

Taking things, working the streets with the casual ease of a fox looking for a gap in the hen-house, is as unremarkable a part of everyday life as such widely accepted acts of white-collar theft as petty insurance fraud or fiddling one's expenses.

I have only caught one thief, and even then he escaped while the police were on their way. My car had been broken into in London. The 15-year- old boy responsible was not particularly alarmed when I pursued him - indeed, he virtually gave himself up. After all, although a side window had been broken, nothing had actually been taken. I knew him by sight as one of the boys who played football in a nearby park, and he was nobody's idea of a villain. The police, like me, were doubtful as to whether it was worth pursuing the matter, but my idea that the boy's parents might be informed was found to be particularly amusing. They were probably pleased that he was earning himself a bit of spare cash, they said.

What caused this ubiquitous moral apathy? Seventies welfarism? Eighties greed? Nineties self-obsession? Somehow the reasons matter little when you have repeatedly burgled and a hatchet is to hand. Luckily, my thieves decided not to make a return visit.

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