The memoirs of Peter Scott, the prolific high-end-of-society burglar who died last week aged 82, were published as Gentleman Thief. That title was not his preference, and Scott had to be persuaded to adopt it. I think the reason he did not like it was, oddly enough, his honesty. He knew perfectly well that he was no gentleman; his character was much more complicated than that.
The parallel his publisher was anxious to highlight in insisting the book be called Gentleman Thief was with the cricketer/cat burglar A. J. Raffles, the "gentleman thief" created in the 1890s by the novelist E. W. Hornung. The line of connection between Raffles and Scott is superficially persuasive because Scott's background was undoubtedly quite posh. He came from a prominent Ulster family, and was educated at Belfast's Royal Academy, one of the city's smartest independent schools. It is not rare for career criminals to be readers – it is one way of getting through long years of porridge – but Scott had unusually sophisticated tastes. He could always drop a literary reference or quotation into the conversation and, once, when I gave him an edition of the poems of Alexander Pope, he was genuinely delighted.
Again, like Raffles, Scott was a handsome man who bore himself well and could deploy, when he chose, much charm; he was highly competitive in sport, with a very good eye for a ball; and, stealing exclusively from the privileged elite or wealthy criminals, he at times lived well from the proceeds. Scott's suits were bespoke, his wives were beautiful and his car was an E-Type Jaguar. He holidayed on yachts and gambled at Europe's best casinos.
But, as he himself well understood, that there was nothing noble, or pure, about his criminality. He described his motives as being a diabolical mixture of greed, arrogance and excitement, making him no different in his view from most other robbers. Thieving, he said, was his passion, and he was certainly clever enough to understand that word with all its complicated associations. Passion is love, but it can also mean hatred; it is anger and sorrow; pleasure and agony.
The periods of material luxury that Scott enjoyed brought him little lasting happiness. He had four wives, none of whom stayed on board for long, baling out whenever their married life was punctuated by one of Scott's departures as a guest of Her Majesty. His deepest degradation came at Dartmoor during a 5-year sentence, breaking rocks in the quarry. Far from complaining, Scott welcomed the work, for he had come to see prison as a place of hard labour, which he was inclined to believe was redemptive: even his last stretch, when he was approaching 70, was spent doing Stakhanovite shifts with spade and pickaxe in the garden at H.M.P. Ford.
Scott did not use violence during the commission of his crimes – he regarded it as counterproductive and a sign of stupidity – but that does not mean he had no violence in him. Prison had taught him that a crude preemptive attack was often the best method of protection. His fluent tongue had much wit and humour in it, but also a frightening line in threats and curses.
Scott would sometimes meditate on the scene at Calvary, with Christ crucified between two thieves. But instead of doing the conventional Christian thing, and identifying with the suffering Jesus, it was the two thieves he was looking at. One had called out "If you're Christ, save yourself and us" while the other, according to St Luke, rebuked him with "we deserve our punishment, but this man has done nothing wrong", before asking to be remembered in paradise. This little dialogue fascinated Scott. He saw in it, I think, the two poles of his own character: the arrogant self-harming bastard jeering his way to damnation, and the clear-eyed reasoner, who knew all there is to know about justice and guilt.
Peter Scott appreciated the commercial value of identifying with A. J. Raffles, but his own opinion of himself was so different from anything implied by the association that he tried his damnedest to get his publisher to accept another, much truer and much better title than Gentleman Thief. In the end he bowed reluctantly to their wishes, but he had always wanted to call the book Golgotha's Men.