Down in the Jungle

DAVID DOWNES is 23 and for the past two years has been doing post-graduate research on juvenile delinquency in East London for the LSE.

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 15, 2016

BEFORE THE LATE 1950's, the criminal in literature was very much a stereotype. In English fiction particularly, the criminal is treated as a different species of human being: two fairly representative examples are Kyle — the killer with the hare-lip in Graham Greene's "A Gun For Sale" — and Fortescue, the psychopathic sex-murderer of James Barlow's "The Protagonists". There were endless variations (there still are) but the theme was always the same: the criminal is in essence a different type of person. Fiction lagged decades behind the findings of criminologists, and our antiquated idées fixes about the criminal are constantly reinforced by the 'thriller', TV melodrama and souped-up journalism. Two years ago, Colin MacInnes' "Mr. Love and Justice" and Alan Sillitoe's "Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" completely blasted the current notions of criminality and justice. In effect, they devalued the rhetoric of the 'thriller', and replaced it with the struggle to comprehend the life-view of the criminal. Their rightness in doing so has never been in doubt artistically, but empirically they still needed vindicating. The publication of The Courage of His Convictions, by Tony Parker and Robert Allerton (Hutchinson 16s.) should prove that they are.

The self-scrutiny to which 'Robert Allerton' subjects himself — with the aid of Tony Parker — makes previous 'old lag' confessions look like the memoirs of faithful family retainers. But if his coherence is exceptional, his way of life is representative. Its most immediate value is criminological, and lies in the first-hand descriptions of the life and career of a professional criminal. The only precedents are American (that I know of): Clifford Shaw's "Natural History of a Delinquent Career" and "The Jackroller" (published in the early 1930's) and Edwin Sutherland's "The Professional Thief" (1937). But Parker has none of the theoretical interests of Shaw and Sutherland: he concentrates on keeping the flood-gates open. In fact, he rejects theories at the outset as a concession to the complex personal testimony to follow. Parker's aim throughout is to elicit self-portraiture, not give a theory of art.

But the book is much more than a criminal case-history. It is that least of all. It has poetry and humour — the child huddled in the blitzed pub waiting for the bombs to the 'bird' who painted one breast green and the other one red — and the tension of debate between the criminal and the 'straight' world. From this debate springs the main quality of the book, which is to spell out the content of the professional culture, the values behind deviance. And, behind it all, lies Allerton's personal credo, that we've got it all wrong in the 'straight' world. We dedicate our lives to an ever-expanding, regulated affluence, and spend it on the consumption of — what? — boredom. The price of conformity is too high: not only is suburban life dull and pointless, it is bought at the expense of acquiescence in all the flaws of the social system. It ignores the kind of question every criminal career implicitly answers. Why should they get away with it, the grabbing landlords, the take-over experts, the legatees of wealth acquired via ancestral pillage? Or — if they get away with it, why shouldn't we? When Parker asks: "But it's fortunate not everybody uses your methods, isn't it, or else we'd all be living in the jungle?", Allerton replies: "But we are living in a jungle … That's all it is, a question of method. Lots of people take money off others, but they use other ways of doing it. Some are considered respectable …"

The social verdict is implacable: the system is wrong. Given this — to 'Allerton' — two reactions were possible. Either conform — and accept your ascribed status and that "there'd always be somebody higher up than me who had the right to tell me what to do" — or revolt, live against society, and accept its sanctions as occupational hazards. "(My father) was good and kind and honest … but all it got him was poverty. He was a socialist … and he was always talking about changing the system which brought richness to some and poverty to many. He believed it could be done by education and political activity … I was too impatient for that. I believed the system was wrong, too, but I knew it wouldn't ever be charged by our sort. I didn't want to wait two hundred years for the day when everyone had fair shares," and "As a child, to me poverty was a crime: the nastiest crime in the world. Imagine the foulest most repugnant deed you can think of, and then change the image to poverty. That was what it meant to me …" But poverty is not enough to alienate: it is the context of poverty that matters. Allerton grows up in Stepney, a stone's throw from the City, where the real robbers operate. His reaction to the laughter of a group of City workers at the hole in his pants is a classic instance of the way class conflicts operate: the difference between Spitalfields and Bishopsgate is that between two worlds. Back in Spitalfields, "I could relax … because there I was among my own people again, who were as poor as I was, whose fun was good-natured fun … without any malice in it at all."

In his review of "The Courage of his Convictions', (New Statesman, 16.3.62) Colin MacInnes feels compelled to pose the question: "Is Robert Allerton an 'admirable' man? The answer must still be no, but only provided all those of us who are not criminal in fact can understand our criminality; can know how much we conform through prudence and not through virtue; can realise how our instinct to judge criminals is related to our own fear of being judged." A related question is how far are Allerton's assumptions about society valid? If the profit-motive is the instinct that really makes our society cohere, what is wrong (apart from his use of violence, which he himself deplores) with the criminal pushing this ethic to its logical conclusion? If the Law is an instrument devoid of moral content, devised to protect other people's property, what is wrong with opting out of a system that is felt to have nothing to do with you? The eighteenth century notion of 'social contract' would leave Allerton cold. Society preceded him, he thinks it is basically still a system repressing the many for the sake of the few, he is not even alienated from it: he never came to terms with it in the first place. He has been at the receiving end of all its institutional hells: Hostels, Army, Prison. He hated them all: for example, "I ended up in a Colchester glasshouse, doing a spot of refined army punishment, like running on the spot, in the full heat of August, in full service marching order; buttoned-up overcoats, helmets, packs, rifles, the lot. I don't know what this is supposed to do for you except fill you with black hatred for the bastards who put you through it." Deterrence, far from deterring him, merely sharpened his wits: "Being beaten was a reason for not being caught; never a reason for not stealing." Crime, for Allerton, is one way, the only way, out: out from under, out from the crushed subservience of the suburb and the grinding poverty of the slum. He does not think himself admirable, however. There is no easy cant about his rejection of conventional society, no glib talk about 'suckers' and 'squares'. He genuinely feels — and conveys — that if the 'straight' world is essentially 'bent', you run risks by breaking its rules but your conscience is clear.

Significantly, the one thing that ever disturbs Allerton is "kindness; that gets under my skin a bit sometimes, it perturbs me … I'm not making a plea for more kindness in dealing with criminals. It's quite immaterial to me what method you try — but I think it's probably better for you, it does you less harm, to be kind." But he hates charity — kindness for much the same reason he hated himself for stealing off his mother as a child: it brought falsity into a human relationship. Apart from that, he has never stolen from the poor, except in their capacity as lackeys, carrying somebody else's money around. He has the arrogance of a latter-day Robin Hood: "A lot of other people don't 'work' for their living … Quite a large proportion of the 'upper classes', for instance …I can steal from people like that without the faintest compunction at all, in fact I'm delighted to do it … And how many of us, ostensibly in the 'straight' world, feel a sense of retribution when we read of thieves knocking off some load of furs and jewellery in a Mayfair apartment? The Establishment image of the 'criminal' — a thug coshing an old lady for her few life-savings — is well aimed. Nobody would lift a finger to stop a thief lifting Lady Muck's necklace. In fact, if criminals were really smart, they would unionise themselves and blackleg any mug who stole from people with less than two thousand a year. They'd still make a living and would improve their public relations. They might even increase their trend towards respectability. A few more Frank Normans and Robert Allertons, and every good glossy will have its resident criminal, reviewing 'jobs' done every month. Alan Brien (Spectator, 30.3.62) suggests that Allerton's future is one of script conferences and fiction. But this runs counter to Allerton's own expressed views. Crime for him is much more than a way of making money: it is a guarantee of his integrity, and of his freedom — for two-thirds of his life — from all forms of authority.

These are the qualities which — in time, and under increasing pressures towards conformity — could well lead dwindling numbers of radicals to idealise the criminal. Crime as a form of social protest, admittedly the most negative kind, is easily intellectualised into real revolt. The process would be similar to that by which many Left-wing intellectuals fell in love with Arthur Seaton, not so much because they would like all the working classes to be like Arthur Seaton, but because they'd like to be Arthur Seaton themselves.

The trouble is that crime, far from undermining the status quo which has — by now — institutionalised the criminal role, merely serves to prop it up more securely. At once the victims and the villains of the social system, professional criminals are also thorough-going conformists as far as its ends are concerned. Yet Allerton — and this is where he is the atypical criminal — is basically a radical, not simply a deviant. Probably because he witnessed his father knocking his Socialist head against a brick wall for life, Allerton believes — with passionate intensity — in the here and now. He is unorthodox in that, although completely selfish, he retains the values passed on to him in childhood. His attitude towards the large-scale legalised money-makers is not "good luck, mate. You're on a game you can't get nicked for," it's "You hypocrites, you're worse than I am (because you screw more people) but you dare to represent law and order and the good society."
His despisal of the 'straight' world is not for its being 'straight', but for its grovelling in front of the rich and the powerful, its willingness to be pushed around, its acquiescence in the code by which, as Orwell puts it, "Good and evil have no meaning any longer except as failure and success."

These are some of the reasons why Allerton remained a criminal. Why he became one he himself cannot say. He rejects clearcut environmental arguments, but the fact remains that he grew up in a section of society where access to a criminal career was no more expedient than to a conventional one. Stepney of the Thirties and early Forties was nothing if not a place where the criminal could both learn and practise his trade. In his neighbourhood, Allerton's father was the exception: "'Prison' was basic in any child's vocabulary … The idea of a child being taunted by his schoolmates, for instance, because his father was in jail, would have been ludicrous." In such a community, the big step is not from complete lawfulness to small-time peccadilloes, but from the latter to serious crime. Significantly, Allerton's crimes as an adolescent were always utilitarian, never malicious or negativistic (except when he steals savings coupons from a hated Aunt). And, once he was caught, and despite the sympathy of Basil Henriques, the judicial apparatus whirled him away to the provincial universities of crime, the Approved Schools. The critical moment of his life came on release. He had a good job as a technician lined up. Instead, he got call-up papers, and was drafted to post-war Germany. Three years and several glasshouses later, he was discharged, but this time he never considered any alternative. He went straight into crime.

Since then, he has been unrepentant. An army of social workers, called in after the damage was done, have 'analysed' and 'advised' him. Allerton refused to be adjusted to a maladjusted society. With the ruthless perception of the non-combatant, he reveals — and reviles — the motives of the 'do-gooders'. They are either 'One up for themselves' — "Look, I've saved a criminal," — or "One up for the System". They do a good job wiping society's nose, but nothing about the catarrh. The tragedy is that Allerton knows how he'll end up — "pinching suitcases at Liverpool Street Station" — and accepts it. He gives himself up for lost, but then he gave the rest of us up years ago. There are exceptions — Danilo Dolci, Schweitzer and the man who taught him biology in prison — but in Allerton's Hobbesian world, criminals remain the only people who sense what life's about. All the rest are legal crooks or dull suburbanites: " the telly in the corner, lace curtains, a plaster dog in the window " a world where nothing ever happens, kept intact by illusions about incorruptible police, monogamy and a safe job, a clearing in the jungle which stretches above and below. As Tony Parker says: "The problem he ('Allerton') presents, that of the unreformed and unrepentant criminal who is so much at odds with society that he has formed a viable asocial pattern of his own, is one scarcely yet touched." I don't think we can touch it, not unless we're prepared to touch a lot of other things first. The fact that most of us aren't is the surest guarantee that 'Robert Allertons' will be with us for a long time to come.