John Walsh: Tales of the City

I assume the burglar was dead from the neck up. So why did he make off with my novel?
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The Independent Online

Writers have lost their work for the damnedest reasons. TE Lawrence famously left the completed manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in a taxi in London's Cromwell Road and was forced to write it all out again. John Stuart Mill's housemaid stoked his fire with the first version of Carlyle's The French Revolution. And now, me. I've been writing a novel since January, and came perilously close to losing it all on Friday.

An opportunistic passer-by, short (presumably) in stature and (decidedly) in respect for other people's possessions, jemmied open the tiny window of my garden shed, clambered in and made off with my laptop computer and my CD player.

Inexplicably, he ignored my Coldplay and Rufus Wainwright CDs, scattered my rare early Hitchcock DVDs on the carpet, and left my first edition of Beckett's Malone Dies on the top bookshelf. According to the scene-of-crime officers, he was wearing gloves, but he apparently took an invigorating swig from a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream that's part of the mini off-licence at the end of my desk. So we may be able to nail the blighter using DNA traces from his pinched, venal gob.

I'm not going to bang on about the indignity of having your sacred shed invaded, or even the iniquities of the crime wave that's to have fallen on south London lately, and my house in particular. I was really only worried about the book. It had been humming along nicely, 70 or 80,000 words, and was heading into the final straight when this happened.

Before you start to weep, O kind-hearted reader, no, I did not lose it all, I'd saved most of the chapters on discs. But as I sat in my trashed wooden cave last night, contemplating the workings of Fate and the ignorant muddy footprint on my desk - a souvenir of his rapid exit - it occurred to me he'd also pinched my Curry's pack of back-up CDs, leaving only the one marked "Chapters 1-10." It may not have been my life's work, exactly, but it was certainly something of huge personal importance.

Had the thief realised? Had he thought: "Poor guy - it'd be a shame if he lost his chapters an' all," and left my precious outpourings intact on my desk, to be found and clasped to my bosom like a small child?

I've tried to imagine his thoughts as he climbed into the shed. Did he wonder (in the spirit of TV's Through the Keyhole) what kind of person lived there - with the movie posters, the paperback library, the fridge of Sauvignon, the crossbow, the photos of James Dean and Anthony Burgess, the snaps of the children, the hate mail from American actors - and think what other people think on entering a shed ("Well, this is nice and cosy"/ "Well, this is utterly tragic"/"I see he's keen, like me, on post-schism Pink Floyd"/"I must get a big stone ashtray like that"...)?

No, I guess not. I expect he'd learned long ago to dismiss any thoughts from his head that weren't about fence-able technology. I have to assume he's dead from the neck up, except for the faculties you employ to spot an unguarded gateway or identify a Powerbook OS9 with Pentium doo-dahs. But I can't shake off the image of a larcenous philistine, briefly wondering if he should destroy the creative content as well as the hardware, like a Roman emperor extending a thumb to the Coliseum crowd and waggling it, tantalisingly, on the horizontal....

A moral maze

Manners are everywhere this autumn. You cannot move now for advice about divorce etiquette and wise counsel regarding tit-for-tat hospitality. We will all have to tend to our Ps and Qs like winter vegetables. Changing times have brought changing preoccupations, though. An ex-teacher called Thomas Blaikie lays down the law, in Blaikie's Guide to Modern Manners, about stuff that never troubled old-fashioned etiquette queens like Gloria Vanderbilt: the comme il faut of texting rude suggestions to ladies, say, or whether men should chat at the executive urinal. There's a whole chapter on the use of e-mails for maximum sensitivity (no capitals, go easy on the irony, which seldom travels.) Possibly in response, the Orange mobile network has a new ad campaign telling people not to answer their mobiles in company. When the distributors of the wretched things tell us when it's rude to use them, it means this etiquette thing has really taken hold; soon there will be signs in butchers' shops, telling people not to eat with their mouths full.

Now comes Lynne Truss with Talk to the Hand, which doesn't offer a set of rules about correct form in the 21st century so much as vituperate against how rude everyone's become (litterbugs, and people who leave you standing holding a door open, will be quaking). Controversially she suggests that good manners, as emblems of kindness rather than decorum, will lead to the improvement of general morality. Doing the decent thing, in other words, will make for a better society for all, unalienated, recommunalised.

I am all for Ms Truss's idealism - nobody but she, I suspect, could make this essentially Daily Mail-ish subject seem worth intelligent debate - but I suspect she is flying in the face of cultural history. Manners have, for generations, had a divisive, not an inclusive effect on society. The upper classes depended on rigorous social mores to identify and exclude people who were Not Their Sort. To the middle classes, manners were a shibboleth of social decency; they sweated blood worrying about whether they were using the right fork, or saying "looking-glass" instead of "mirror". And it was working-class nannies who made up the rules of behaviour by which their aristocratic charges could be cowed if they showed signs of wilfulness.

Public politeness has always concealed private dislike or contempt. I'm not convinced it's the way towards a more moral society. As Mark Twain observed: "Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person."