Theodore Dalrymple

Second opinion | 18 June 2005

I went to prison last week to see a man about an arson

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I went to a different prison last week, in an ancient market town, to see a man about an arson. He had set fire to a house with four of his friends — or should I say former friends (his subsequent apologies not having been accepted by them) — in it. He said that he had been under a lot of pressure lately, ever since he had discovered that his ex, the mother of his two children, was injecting herself with heroin in front of them. So was their latest stepfather, her current boyfriend.

‘What has that to do with setting fire to the house?’ I asked.

He answered much as Mr Blair, or any other politician, might have answered in the circumstances.

‘I’ve never done it before,’ he said. ‘I don’t get no buzz off of starting fires. It was a one-off.’

These days, I grow impatient when people don’t answer the question. I asked it again.

‘I’d turned to drink,’ he said. ‘It’d been a heavy day, a bottle of brandy on top of ten lagers.’

‘So you were drunk?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But not out of my head with it. Since I’ve been in prison, I’ve done an Alcohol Awareness Course.’

As far as I can make out, Alcohol Awareness Courses teach people that drinking alcohol can make you drunk.

‘You went to your friends’ house when you were drunk?’ I asked.

‘It wasn’t their house exactly,’ he said.

‘Whose house was it, then?’

‘They’re all registered alcoholics, like. It was a squat.’

‘Why did you go there?’

‘I wanted to find out why they beat me up last week.’

Round here, of course, they don’t need a reason to beat you up, but perhaps it’s different in ancient market towns. There, they are five or ten years behind the times as far as social decomposition is concerned.

‘And why did they beat you up?’

‘I never found out why.’

‘And why not?’

‘They was all asleep and I couldn’t wake none of them up.’

‘So you set fire to the house?’

‘Not deliberate, like,’ he said. ‘I lit up a spliff and hey presto.’

‘Hey presto what?’ I asked.

‘They said there was a fire.’

‘Hey presto they said there was a fire,’ I said. ‘And was there?’

‘So they say. I don’t know. I went home.’

It was time for me to go home as well. I walked through the streets of the once beautiful old town, damaged beyond the wildest dreams of arsonists. If it’s damage that should be punished, all British architects and town planners ought to have life sentences without possibility of parole. They are very dangerous people.

On the train back home, I sat opposite a shaven-headed young man with a dragon tattooed on one arm and his blood group on the other. He was O negative: the universal donor, just like Mr Brown. He put earpieces in his ears, and it was tish-ter-tish-ter-tish all the way, for over an hour.

There’s going to be an epidemic of deafness in years to come. I’m glad I won’t be around when it happens. Vile old people will be shouting at each other, ‘What’s the f***ing matter with you, are you f***ing deaf or something?’