18 DECEMBER 1993, Page 12

If symptoms persist.. .

CRIMINALS too wear the old school tie; or rather, the old borstal tattoo. It is a small blue dot (or other symbol) inject- ed into the skin over the right cheek- bone. When two Old Borstalians meet, they recognise one another immediately and start to talk about the good old days. To change the analogy slightly, it is rather like an encounter in the German Club in La Paz between two old Nazis.

When, therefore, I walked on to the ward and saw a patient with the mark of Cain (to change the analogy yet again) upon him, I remarked, 'You have been in borstal, I perceive.' He was so impressed and amazed by my powers of deduction that he gave me a grin — thus displaying a loss of several front teeth, though he was a comparatively young man. A white scar on his upper lip also grew more pronounced when he grinned. I remarked upon these slight defects, whereupon he told me that he had come by them while watching a football match. But (he said, not without a certain pride) he had given as good as he got — or bet- ter, inasmuch as he served an 18-month sentence for the injuries he inflicted upon his opponent, while his opponent was not even charged with an offence. In fact, my patient had been to prison five times for violence at football matches, which he had always attended for the express purpose of having a fight. This, however, was in his youth, which had ceased about three years ago; he was now a reformed character.

`Mind you,' he added, 'I've got a case coming up against me.'

`What is it?' I asked.

`Rape and GBH.'

`Are you going guilty or not guilty?'

`I'm not a fool, doctor, I'm no mug. I'm going not guilty. It's only her word against mine.'

`But did you do it?'

`Oh, yeah, course I did.'

And he smiled at me with a conspira- torial smile, as if we were now united against the world by the sharing of his little secret. And he knew that he could rely on me not to grass him up. I believe he even imagined that I should not think the worse of him merely because he was a rapist: non-judgrnentalism being the ethic of the age, at least when it is conve- nient or advantageous.

I was in no very good mood, therefore, when I arrived that afternoon in the prison and received a letter from Mrs B about her beloved son Mr B, who was in the hospital wing suffering from swal- lowed razor-blades. Mrs B appeared to be labouring under the misapprehension that her son — a man who had commit- ted a horrible act, not once but many times — wanted to kill himself rather than to gain admission to the hospital, thereby evading his enemies on his land- ing, and where he could play pool or watch television all day long. Mrs B expressed concern that her boy was not receiving adequate medical attention, had had her letter witnessed by neigh- bours and copied it to her MP and her son's lawyer.

Dear Mrs B (I wanted to reply), I pass over your atrocious orthography in , dignified silence, but honesty compels me to tell you that, as far as I'm concerned, your revolting male offspring can swallow razor-blades to his arse's content.

Yours sincerely, Actually, what I wrote was: Dear Mrs B,

Thank you for your letter about your son. Let me assure you . . . etc. etc.

The frustrations of this life of untruth are enough to drive one to . . . to . . . razor-blades!

Theodore Dalrymple