27 APRIL 2002, Page 27

Second opinion

THE Americans have a theory that to allow small crimes to go unremarked and unpunished is to invite bigger crimes. Needless to say, Britons of intellectual disposition despise this theory: first, because it is American; second, because it does not address the root of all crime — that is to say, the injustice of our present social and economic arrangements; and, third, because it is obviously true.

We British intellectuals prefer to think of criminals the way some people think of dormice and fieldmice: i.e., as harmless little furry creatures in danger of extinction. We have also tended to romanticise our criminals, at least so long as our own houses have not been burgled and we ourselves have not been attacked in the street. Here is what H.G. Wells said in 1904: ... a large proportion of our present-day criminals are the brightest and boldest members of families living under impossible conditions, and in many desirable qualities the averaze criminal is above the average of the law-abiding poor, and probably of the average respectable person.

The criminals themselves, however, agree with the Americans. Last week, for example, I saw in the prison a young man who had cut his wrist in an attempt to prove to prison officers that he was suicidal, and therefore needed to be removed from his current location in the prison. I

did not entirely believe the young man's story that he was distressed over the imminent demise of his grandmother: if prisoners were to be believed, there had been a veritable holocaust of grandmothers that week, For most prisoners, a dying grandmother means insomnia, and insomnia means (they hope) a sleeping tablet `blagged', as they call it, from the doctor. Many prisoners seem to have about 15 grandmothers, two thirds of whom are just about to die or have just died at any given moment.

I digress. I looked at the young man in question — weak and frightened — and asked him whether, perhaps, he had enemies in the prison. He did, They were drug dealers to whom he owed £50 for drugs he had bought before he came to prison. They were after him.

'How do you know?' I asked.

'They've told me that unless I give them the money, they're going to stripe me up.'

Stripe him up — that is to say, slash him with razor blades. It might seem excessive over a paltry £50, but they didn't want to give him the impression that he could forget the money because it was so small a sum. To disregard a small crime would be to invite a larger one.

Then I was called to another inmate's cell. He had abdominal pain. I asked his cellmate to withdraw for a moment while I examined the patient. The cellmate left a half-written letter to his girlfriend on his bed, and I could not help but notice an expression in it that I had never encountered before. I had heard of being lifed off by the judge (sentenced to life imprisonment) and being nutted off by the doctor (sent to the mental hospital), but in the letter were the words 'if I get birded off by the judge'.

Birded off: sent to prison, to do bird. Eric Partridge, in his wonderful A Dictionary of the Underworld, British and American, Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Bears and Trumps, Convicts, the Commercial Underworld, the Drug Traffic, the Witite Slave Traffic, Spivs (published in 1950 and, therefore, now sorely out of date), suggests that the term 'bird' as denoting prison is derived from the idea of a cage, and quotes Edgar Wallace as his reference.

However expressive the argot of prison, I can only hope that I am never birded off and striped up.

Theodore Dalrymple