Friday, 5 April 2013
By chance I'd been reading a moderately entertaining fantasy novel about a thief, and it brought home to me the stark contrast between attitudes to theft in fiction and in everyday life. Thieves are very popular as fictional heroes, and not just in fantasies. From Robin Hood to Raffles to modern thrillers, they're cast as dashing outsiders who dare to take on the powers-that-be; their victims are usually depicted as stodgy snobs who can easily afford to lose both cash and dignity. I enjoy a good heist movie as much as the next person, but sometimes I wonder: have the scriptwriters never been burgled?
The first time we were burgled, I lost the contents of my jewellery box. Most of the stuff in it wasn't particularly valuable--my great-grandmother's pearl earrings might have been, but even their value in cash was a pittance compared to their value as a family heirloom passed down four generations. The worst loss, though, was of a little butterfly necklace, not valuable at all except for the fact that it had been bought by my father for my daughter when she was eighteen months old and he was dying of cancer. It was the only gift she would have from him, and it was probably sold it to a dodgy second-hand shop for a pound or two, the money used to buy dope.
That, of course, is the sad truth about thieves: most of them are not suave jewel thieves swanning about on yachts in the Med. No, they're pimply adolescents or smelly drunks, snatching whatever they can to feed their addiction, and their victims aren't high society snobs but ordinary people. The statistics are clear, too: poor people suffer more regularly than rich ones. I am sorry about that butterfly necklace, but even more sorry about the playstation taken from an acquaintance's mentally handicapped son: it was his greatest pleasure, and when it went he curled into himself and gave up.
Theft is nasty; it requires an absolute indifference to the effect of the theft on the victim--and that's just burglary. Robbery, which by definition involves violence, is worse. In real life we know this: we exclaim in horror and sympathy about the friend or acquaintance mugged; we know all about the visits to A&E and the often-debilitating after-effects--the fear of going out, the depressions, the panic attacks. In fiction, however, we're happy to cheer for the gunman during the stick-up. We're even willing to make heroes of hitmen, as numerous films and books have proven.
Of course, we don't really approve of murder, let alone cold-blooded murder undertaken by a professional for a fee. Violence is and always has been a staple of fiction because it fascinates: we're afraid of it, and sometimes tempted by it; it is dramatic, exciting and scary. It's natural to want to tell stories about it. I just wish, though, that our stories were more truthful. After all, thieves watch movies, too, and I suspect that they find the false glamour comforting.