Streetwise I'm not, says a chastened Alan Bennett

Playwright describes for the first time what happened when he fell for a scam and had £1,500 stolen from him

The playwright Alan Bennett has written of mad kings and deranged women, of black markets and Cold War Spies, and has railed against politicians and media moguls. However, as he is the first to confess, he is not streetwise. Writing publicly for the first time about his encounter with two pickpockets who stole £1,500 he had just withdrawn from a bank, he said the experience left him "less ready to believe in the kindness of strangers".

He was conned out of the money in June in Camden Town, London, when two women approached him in a branch of Marks & Spencer to tell him he had ice cream spilt down the back of his coat. The playwright said he walked from the bank, where he had withdrawn money to pay his builders, and into M&S where the women – "Italian by the look and sound of them" – tried to help him clean off the spilt ice cream.

"I take off my coat and they very kindly help me to clean it up with tissues from one of their handbags and another man, English, I think, big and in his fifties, goes away and comes back with more tissues," he writes in the latest edition of The London Review of Books.

"The ice cream (coffee-flavoured) seems to have got everywhere and they keep finding fresh smears of it so that I take my jacket off too to clean it up. No more being found, I put my jacket on again, thanking the women profusely, though they brush off my gratuitude and abruptly disappear.

"I go back to the car, thinking how good it is that there are still people who, though total strangers, can be so selflessly helpful, and it's only when I'm about to get into the car that I remember the money, look in my inside pocket to find, of course, that the envelope has gone."

After reporting the loss to the police he learned that the pickpockets were most likely Romanian and that the con is common enough to have been given the name "Mustard Squirter". It was thought "the women or their male accomplice" saw him in the bank and followed him into the shop.

He recognises that they were "very good at their job" but said: "Quite hard to bear is that I have to go back to the bank to draw out another £1,500 or the builders will go unpaid." And he added: "The casualty, though, is trust, so that I am now less ready to believe in the kindness of strangers."

At the time he was reluctant to talk publicly about the encounter, saying only that it was "most upsetting" and that he would record it in his diaries. This he has now done in the diary he writes annually in the LRB.

Later that day, having given his details to the police, Bennett answered his doorbell to find a reporter, giving her name as Amy, on his doorstep. "I close the door in Amy's caring face, tell a photographer to bugger off and come in and reflect that though the theft is bad enough, more depressing is that someone in the police must immediately have got on to the Mail." He wonders how much an Alan Bennett tip-off was worth.

The crime was brought back to him in September when he came across an old lady behaving oddly. He offered to help and assisted her to a bench, whereupon the "woman" stood up straight and was revealed as a man, an actor trying to create a BBC3 programme.

He lamented that the reality made the "whole encounter more ordinary" but thinking back to how easily he fell victim to the pickpockets a few weeks previously he recognised that "had this been a similar scam it would have been just as easy to pick my pocket again as I'd helped the 'old lady' to the seat. This had never occurred to me. Streetwise I'm not."

News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drinkFrom Mediterranean Tomato Tart to Raw Caramel Peanut Pie
Extras
Boys to men: there’s nothing wrong with traditional ‘manly’ things, until masculinity is used to exclude people
indybest13 best grooming essentials
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Travel
travelPurrrfect jet comes to Europe
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch attends the London premiere of his new film The Imitation Game
people He's not as smart as his characters
Life and Style
healthMovember isn't about a moustache trend, it saves lives
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities