Magazine article The Spectator

Spivs and Shysters

Magazine article The Spectator

Spivs and Shysters

Article excerpt

Spivs and shysters

AN UNDERWORLD AT WAR

by Donald Thomas

John Murray, L20, pp. 429, ISBN 0719557321

Joe Walker, the street-smart spiv of Dad's Army, could be relied on to come up with the goods. In his rakish trilby, he supplies the platoon with contraband cigarettes and is familiar with the 'legendary backs of lorries that things fall off of'. Rough diamonds like Walker were legion in Britain during the second world war. Draft-dodgers and coupon-robbers thrived in the conflict, even if the majority of Britons were good patriots.

In this marvellous book, Underworld at War, Donald Thomas investigates the shoulder-padded spivs, racketeers and other flash sports who operated on the rim of Britain's wartime society. Inevitably crime was a consequence of destruction and austerity. Under cover of blackouts, gangs were able to smash jewellers' windows in Mayfair and loot with little risk of recognition. Indeed, the blackout was 'a present from Hitler' to safe-blowers and other ruffians. In Nuzi Germany looters were usually executed; in Britain, too, they were reckoned to be traitors if not mere criminal opportunists. In desperation, the police recruited 'looter-spotters' from among the community; there were calls for flogging and even firing squads.

Towards the war's end, however, the public saw looting as a less heinous crime. Allied victory now looked certain and the nation's mood had relaxed somewhat. Indeed, jubilant crowds seized a bewildering variety of timber (ladders, coffins, wooden barrows) to add to the victory bonfires during London's VE-Day celebrations of May 1945. The conflagrations were lovely, but the government did not want a repeat performance when it came to celebrating Japan's defeat later in the summer.

Unsurprisingly, acute rationing obliged people to bend the rules. The Ministry of Food employed highly unpopular 'meal-snoopers' to prevent restaurants from serving illegal extra portions. Food wastage was a punishable crime, says Thomas, and J. Lyons Ltd was fined by the Ministry for allowing mice to eat a supply of cakes in one of its Corner-house kitchens. (Didn't the mice know there was a war on?) Some of the crooks and shysters in this book reminded me of the penicillin racketeer Harry Lime in The Third Man. …

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