Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

I probably look like someone I'm not too.

I mean at time of writing, this blog contains something like 1,500 posts, which probably gives the impression that I also read a lot. However click over on the Index button and you'll see that I hardly ever read. It takes a lot for me to actually sit down and pick up a book, so it should come as no surprise that my just picking up and starting this one has taken me well over a decade.

Shortly after the turn of the century I think, my hedgehog enthusiast colleague Jocelyn recounted to me pretty well the entire plot of the recent movie Catch Me If You Can. I think it was the central friendship between the principle conman Frank Abagnale and his FBI pursuer Carl Hanraddy that stuck in my mind, along with their annual Christmas Eve phone conversations. With Frank spending his whole life pretending to be other people before moving on, over time his authentic connection to Carl becomes the only one that sticks.

Over the years I've repeatedly forgotten the story's title, but recognised both the movie and the book it's based upon purely from her description of the tale.

So this Christmas, having finally got my own copy of this broadly true story, I've greatly enjoyed sitting down to read the escapades from the very conman who says he actually carried them all out. Despite the enormous disclaimer at the front about how the names and places have been changed, it goes without saying that you have to choose to believe this account, if you're going to get a ride out of it.

As such, Abagnale's autobiography of his younger years is a tantalising piece of escapism. As Frank mis-spends his youth hilariously pulling himself off as a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and everyone in-between, we too get to enjoy the thrill of his adventures.

It's fun because he spends his entire life on holiday. It's fun because we get to experience something of what it's like to actually work in those professions, together with the affirmation that we actually could do it too if we really wanted to. It's fun because it's all at the expense of profiteering companies with cash to burn, so it doesn't come out of any actual person's pocket.

And it's fun because we get to snigger at all those bozos who Frank puts one over on, purely because of how much their bureaucratic systems limit their understanding of the much bigger picture that we are privy to. Well, we all enjoy feeling like we know better than the man.

As such, one pattern that emerges is the importance of understanding any system that one finds oneself thinking within.

"I said earlier that the good cheque swindler is really operating a numbers game. All cheques, whether personal or business, have a series of numbers in the lower left-hand corners, just above the bottoms. Take a personal cheque that has the numbers 1130 0119 546 085 across the bottom left-hand corner. During my reign as a rip-off champion, not one out of a hundred tellers or private cashiers paid any attention to such numerals, and I'm convinced that only a handful of the people handling cheques knew what the series of numbers signified. I'll decode it:

The number 11 denotes that..."

The disparity between the actual world and an individual's necessarily simpler understanding of it is a lesson that I think we all need daily reminding of. On the other hand, if you're the sort of person who doesn't like knowing how magic tricks are done, then this probably isn't your sort of book!

Best of all though are the accounts of those times when Frank actually does get caught, but by using little more than his own ingenuity manages to get free again. If you ever need to escape from a passenger aircraft (albeit one in the 1960s), then this book will tell you how.

However, all that reckless audacity is uncompromisingly tempered by his prison time in France. Yes, he survived a French prison. No conversation, no bed, no toilet, no space to fully stand or lie, no clothes, and oh yes no light. For six months. His account of, upon his eventual release, seeing for the first time the bath of worms and maggots that he'd been unknowingly existing in will probably never leave me, nor of course him.

The book does end rather abruptly, a disappointment exacerbated by this film tie-in edition's addition of a third-person afterword, and an up-to-date interview with the man himself. (happily married worker with three kids now, thanks for asking)

Inevitably clamouring for the expected further half a dozen pages of Frank's words, I found myself reading the blurb on the back cover, beneath which… hey, just a second, that barcode looks like it's been replaced by a forgery...


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