I was either nine or ten at the time, and I was the biscuit monitor at my primary school. So what is, or rather was, a biscuit monitor? Well, it’s like this.
At that time, every child in Britain was given a small bottle of free milk at morning break. I gather it was to stop us getting rickets or something. (Mrs Thatcher later put a stop to it, as Mrs Thatcher put a stop to just about everything which had a whiff of altruism about it.) And along with the milk we were offered a selection of biscuits (two as I recall – malted milk with a cow embossed on them, and a wrapped, chocolate-covered confection called, if I remember correctly, Choc-a-Doodles. They had a cartoon cockerel on the wrapper, just to explain the otherwise arcane nature of the humorous name. Maybe they should have been called Choc-a-Doodle-Dos, but I expect the wrapper wasn’t big enough.)
Anyway, the biscuits weren’t free; they had to be paid for at a nominal price, and one child was selected to take charge of the biscuit box and sell the comestibles. That was me.
Problem: I didn’t get enough pocket money to afford such luxuries as biscuits at morning break time, and I suppose it should come as no surprise that I felt some slight sting of deprivation and injustice when I saw the other kids freely producing their pennies and munching happily on the sweet reward. So what did I do? I decided that as there were no teachers around while the biscuits were being dispensed, I’d simply help myself to one every now and then (probably every day, if I’m to be belatedly honest.)
Second problem: Nobody had explained to me that there was such a thing as stocktaking or how it worked. I had no idea that there would be a weasly teacher somewhere counting the stock and counting the money and putting the figures together and discovering that two and two make three. Which they don’t, and which is why I was stopped one day and told to empty my pockets. I hadn’t eaten the Choc-a-Doodle that day; it was in my pocket… Damn! I was told that I would be seen by the headmaster in his office later.
And so it came to pass, only the headmaster wasn’t alone in his office; my mother was there, too. She was sitting in a chair, sobbing.
‘You black-hearted little villain,’ intoned the headmaster. ‘Look what your depraved and dastardly deed has done to your poor mother. It has heaped upon her such disgrace and distress as the day would quake to look on, and she such a fine, upstanding woman who deserves better than your wretched little self is capable of giving her. I hope you are truly ashamed.’
Or words to that effect.
‘But she isn’t upstanding, sir,’ I replied. ‘She’s sitting down.’
(No I didn’t. I made that bit up because I just realised it’s what I should have said.)
I must admit, I did feel ashamed, although mostly because it seemed the right thing to feel in the circumstances. I didn’t really understand why my mother should have been so upset. She hadn’t stolen anything, had she, so what was her problem? Still, at least I wasn't consigned to a life of toil and turmoil in a penal colony in New South Wales, as my sheep-stealing peasant forebears had been.
So did it cure me of stealing? More or less, but mostly it taught me that if I were going to do something against the rules, or the regulations, or the law, or whatever, I would need to be more circumspect. I would need to consider all the ways that my action might be found out and proceed accordingly, and to work out a variety of means by which I might wriggle out of retribution should I be discovered. And it’s mostly worked.