Column: June 15, 2011

ONE of the great pleasures of my day job is that I get to see the regular Caught On Camera feature in our sister paper, the Liverpool Echo, before anybody else. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it is a bit like the Tatler society pages, except instead of debs and toffs it features low-level criminals.

It also has a higher level of interactivity, in the sense that readers are invited to ring a number and identify the subjects.

Now, I do not want you to think that I am in favour of crime in any way. If anything, I think it should definitely be illegal. But the ludicrousness of some of the crimes featured amuses me on occasion.

As an example, in yesterday’s Echo, police were keen to identify a driver who filled up his tank and left the forecourt without paying for the fuel. This is a common enough crime, but the detail which struck me was the amount taken: £50.01.

I suppose it is possible that there was a £50.01-sized deficit in the driver’s tank and that he filled it up to the brim, but somehow I doubt it.

It is also possible that what we might be dealing with here is a very considerate crook, one who has thought: “In many ways, I am disappointed with the course of action I am about to take. One of the ways I can ameliorate the crime which I am about to commit is by restricting the amount of fuel I will abstract, say £50.” And then he has accidentally and regretfully gone over the target.

If only more low-level criminals paid this sort of attention to the impact of their activities, it would go some way to improving their public image. Perhaps muggers, once they have performed their distasteful business, could hand over a card with the local Victim Support telephone number.

Graffiti artists could take courses in calligraphy and grammar. The more fastidious would study the laws of libel and ensure, before committing paint to wall, that Tracy M does indeed do it for a bag of chips.

But the most likely explanation is that the miscreant was not operating with malice a-forecourt. He probably just fell into The Other Penny Trap. I have written before at length about The Penny Trap, which one falls into whenever one overpays in a shop by a penny and then has to decide whether to stick around for the change and look like a miser, or nip out of the shop before the assistant can say: “Ey, love, ‘ere’s your change.”

But The Other Penny Trap is specific to filling stations. I am sure you have experienced it if you drive. When one intends to fill a tank with £50 of fuel, one clutches the nozzle nonchalantly. Perhaps one finds oneself reading the sign on the pump advertising a special offer on rubbish yellow torches.

But as the figure hits £49.50, one stops dead. Then one risks a final spurt up to £49.96. Then time slows down. One squeezes the trigger so gently that specialist measuring equipment would be required to prove that it has moved. And the figure goes up to £49.97. One feels like a pontoon player on 18. “Hit me,” one tells the dealer, as one squeezes the trigger. An ace! £49.98. “Hit me again,” one says. Another ace! £49.99. 

Will one fold now? No, because then one would be caught in the normal Penny Trap. “Hit me,” one says. One squeezes the trigger. A two of clubs. £50.01. One then has to trudge into the kiosk to take one’s punishment.

“Pump three,” one mutters. “Fifty pounds AND ONE PENCE,” the cashier cries out. Everybody else in the kiosk looks up and thinks: “Idiot. He has fallen into The Other Penny Trap. Oh, look, a tin of Old English Travel Sweets. I don’t think I have ever seen anybody buy them.”

So, if anything, I understand the fuel thief’s bid for freedom from The Other Penny Trap humiliation. But I can’t help thinking that it is now worse for him as now everybody in Liverpool knows he messed up at the pumps. Crime does not pay. Obviously. It steals.

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