Terence Blacker: Why do social inadequates want to steal?

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It has been some time since Mike the shoplifter has been in touch with me but, since thieving was recently in the news, I fully expect to hear from him soon. Mike has an eye for publicity – it was why he contacted me in the first place. He seemed to consider me as some sort of ally, as the official, political wing of his provisional shoplifting movement.

It was some unwelcome publicity which first brought me to his attention. I had been in a spot of trouble one Sunday morning at Somerfield in Diss last year, having made the mistake of shopping there with a couple of newspapers bought from a nearby newsagent. On my way out, I was stopped by a couple of security-minded Somerfield employees who took me to the manager's office, showed me a CCTV tape of a suspected shoplifter and then, in spite of the fact that the suspect was clearly not me, called a police constable who cross-questioned me about my newspapers.

It was silly, nasty, business, more the product of stupidity than anything more sinister, and I wrote about it in The Independent. It must have been a quiet week because I was interviewed on the Today programme and made the lead spot on the local TV news.

Mike reached me a couple of weeks later. He was interested in my case, he said, because he was the man for whom the Somerfield hit squad had mistaken me. He felt a bit bad about that.

At first, I was sceptical. Why on earth would a complete stranger want to ring me specifically to identify himself as a known shoplifter? But, as Mike told his story, I began to believe him. He shoplifted on a regular basis and was well-known in the area.

Following his last court appearance, he had been banned from the centre of Diss, but nonetheless had recently been pursued down Mere Street by the very Somerfield operative who had detained me. When I asked why he stole, Mike seemed taken aback by the question. He'd got a family, hadn't he? He was out of work. He had no choice.

It turned out that the reason for his call was not merely to apologise. He had an interesting story to tell. Maybe I would like a drink at the pub in my village – he was there most nights.

If I were a real journalist, I might have taken him up on his suggestion, but there was something off-puttingly chummy about his manner, as if we were basically on the same side. I decided, without too much difficulty, not to be his publicist.

I was reminded of Mike while watching the rather brilliant TV documentary series Lifters. Each programme followed the progress of one or two whey-faced inadequates who, for differing but entirely predictable reasons, stole things from shops. Some were feeding a drug habit. Others were despairingly bored with their lives. A few just liked getting by without paying.

Unwittingly, the programmes revealed another disturbing truth. Far from being wary of exposure on camera, the participants welcomed it. They loved the idea of being followed around by a man with hand-held camera. When interviewed, they sounded like people who had seen enough fly-on-the-wall documentaries to know what was required of them. It was their childhood that was to blame, or relationships that had gone wrong, or they had this problem of self-esteem. Proudly, they laid the mess they had made of their lives before the viewer like the haul of a particularly busy day's lifting.

How jealous Mike must have been. Like him, the lifters seemed to have had half an eye on the prospect of celebrity as they stole – it was partly why they did it. After all, what easier way was there for an ordinary person to get on TV, in the newspapers, than to be a criminal?