ONE of my favourite pastimes as a child was secretly trailing the grandmother of a friend of mine.
Looking like a typically doddery old lady, she would enter a department store inconspicuously and hover around the counters.
Then, while no one was looking, she would swiftly scoop up anything from necklaces to neckties and stuff them into a capacious shopping bag.
It was blatant. It was audacious. But I also found it rather amusing, for somehow shoplifting by a granny did not seem to be in the same league as crimes committed by well known gangsters of the day such as Jack Spot.
The comic element of shoplifting was compounded by Margaret Rutherford in Norman Wisdom’s first big film, Trouble in Store, in which she played a prolific shoplifter not unlike my friend’s grandmother.
It has continued right up to this month when celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson was caught five times stealing shopping from his local branch of Tesco.
Although he gave a fulsome apology, the public reaction to his thefts was a barely concealed guffaw and the birth of many ribald jokes about him on the internet.
Worrall Thompson was by no means the first celebrity to have admitted shoplifting. Footballer Steven Gerrard is said to have done it as a young man.
Peaches Geldof was once involved in a shoplifting incident, while back in 1980 the TV show panellist Lady Isobel Barnett was stopped for stealing goods worth less than a pound.
There may have been mitigating circumstances in her case, for sadly she committed suicide four days later. Worrall Thompson also appears to have his troubles.
His thefts were persistent and obvious. He stole groceries on five separate occasions. Yet in a sign of how seriously shoplifting is taken, all he received was a caution.
Many other shoplifters are often given a ban from the store they plundered which can be hard to enforce. Others are issued with fixed penalty fines but the British Retail Consortium says half of them are never paid.
The Worrall Thompson case increases the perception that shoplifting is largely a middle class crime undertaken by people with hitherto blameless characters.
I covered the criminal courts in Brighton for many years and there were some cases like that. But most shoplifters were – and are – professional criminals.
It is only a short step from nicking items on a regular basis from supermarkets to looting shops as in last August’s riots.
Yet the first is condoned while the second is reviled.
There also seems to be a feeling that supermarket shoplifting is a victimless crime with the likes of Tesco being able to afford the losses.
But theft is theft whether it is from a corner store or a chain of shops.
How big does a store have to get before it becomes acceptable to rob? Answers, please, on a plain piece of paper, preferably not pilfered.
No one knows how much shoplifting takes place but one estimate is that it amounts to £4.4 billion a year.
Another is that losses are equal to £70 a head each year for every man, woman and child in the country.
Far from being a victimless crime, shoplifting means we are all victims in that we have to pay higher prices at the tills to cover the losses.
Shoplifters used to appear before the courts when I wrote about them. They would usually be fined and in some persistent cases jailed.
Their cases would be reported in papers like The Argus and that was part of the punishment. It all added up to a considerable deterrent for many people.
Now theft is so widespread that if Napoleon were to come back he would change his verdict to say Britain was a nation of shoplifters.
The shops have become much more adept at catching criminals. Luxury goods are tagged.
Detectives roam the aisles posing as ordinary shoppers. CCTV cameras are installed everywhere.
They caught Anthony Worrall Thompson and I have little doubt that my friend’s granny would not have been smart enough to evade their unblinking eyes.
Stores in Brighton town centre, where shoplifting is rife, have for years had a warning system so that each one knows when a crook is approaching.
But the criminals constantly think of new ways to beat the system and can be bold, knowing they are unlikely to be punished heavily if at all if they are caught.
Most shoplifters are not little old ladies or celebrity chefs of faintly comic aspect. They are professional thieves.
They are harming the high streets and we are all paying for that. It is no laughing matter.