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David Aaronovitch column

When Andrew Rickards of Gloucester pleaded guilty to serial shoplifting earlier this week, his solicitor - a Mr Jon Holmes - told the world that his client was "neither needy nor greedy. He is an old fashioned kleptomaniac." Mr Rickards subsequently asked for 2,308 other offences to be taken into consideration.

My first reaction to the solicitor's attempts at mitigation, was an "old- fashioned" harrumph! People nick things - I thought - because they're avaricious and amoral, or because they wish to contribute, in a pleasant and individualistic way, to the demise of capitalism. Or a combination of the above. It is precisely our recognition of this that has made the concept of kleptomania so old-fashioned.

But then I looked at the list of things that were discovered at Mr Rickards' house, and began to wonder. There were - inter a good deal of alia - 32 bottles of cod liver oil, 35 cans of tuna and 131 tins of pilchards.

No simple illicit desire for the goods themselves could possibly account for these thefts. What was propelling Mr Rickards' hand to the shelf full of fish products - and then back into the carefully slit carrier bag he used for his blags - was not a wish for the things themselves. Indeed it must have been immensely irritating to have all these tinned goods forever cluttering up his kitchen. The only conclusion was that the Holmes analysis was correct - Mr Rickards had been in the grip of a compulsion.

Once upon a time such compulsive behaviour was thought to be a purely female problem - like neuroses or anorexia (one of our recent queens was supposed to have stolen regularly from Harrods). But looking through the cuttings I saw that the last great kleptomaniac prosecuted in Britain had also been male. Two years ago an East Anglian theology student turned poultry worker, Duncan Jevons, was discovered to have stolen 42,000 books over 30 years - a rate of over three a week.

Mr Jevons also showed signs that the problem was not a desire for material gain. The 100 volumes of the complete works of St Thomas Aquinas, as whipped from the Catholic Centre Library in London, may be explained in terms of Mr Jevons's interest in religion. But the second full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica (both from the same library in Suffolk) is not so easily rationalised. Nothing was to be gained, other than satisfaction of the need to steal (accomplished in this case by carefully lining the volumes up on the inside windowsill of the library, leaving the window open - and then stealing the books from the outside).

There are two observations to be made here. The first is that a remarkable lack of vigilance on the part of shopkeepers and librarians must attend the career of the successful kleptomaniac.

It is easy to see, for instance, that the trusting Catholic book-keepers might have missed the fact that the first couple of volumes of Aquinas had gone walkies. And the next score or so may just about be explicable, given high shelves and small librarians. But after 60 had gone, someone really should have noticed. And when only two were left, leaning sadly against each other in acres of space? Roughly the same, I feel, goes for the pilchards.

My second thought is even more profound. Mr Jevons, by his own admission, populated his house with the books. Mr Rickards - also living alone, and powerless - did something similar (though less intellectual) with canned goods. These were compulsions then, derived less from opportunity than from a need to fill the aching void. So, my thought continued, if I had an aching void (which you can see from my photograph, I do not) - what compulsion might I fill it with?

One woman journalist friend of mine, asked this question, plumped for compulsive letter writing, where you think up a grievance and pester every newspaper, MP, councillor and TV station with copies of your voluminous one-way correspondence. Each failure to reply properly can become a casus scripti for a new outbreak of writing.

For myself, I considered stalking, then dismissed it as too energetic. And abusive phone calls are easily traced these days. So, in the end, I settled for jigsaws. What would you have done?