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The Smoke Spectres in the Smoke
Tony Broadbent London
Tony Broadbent London
The Smoke
But First, a Word or Two in Your Shell-Like Ear

The War had ended. But the peace that followed was far worse than anyone could've ever expected. Rationing was in full force, we all had to carry identity cards, crime was on the rise, and there was masses of unrest. Bread went on ration in the Summer of '46 and was kept on for over two years, and they'd never had to do that once during all the fighting. Then they cut the meat allowance in half, and tried to make up for it by bringing in horse meat, whale steaks and something called 'snoek'—don't ask me what the hell that was when it was at home, because it came in a tin and tasted bloody awful. But that was just about par for the course for anything you could officially get your hands on, as anything half-way decent went straightaway for export. You had to put up with it though, because there was nothing else. Nothing. And round London's East End, or what was left of it after the Blitz, a good few people, started eyeing their cats and dogs in a different light, I can tell you. Make do and mend, it was called.

And just to rub it all in, it was the cruellest winter in living memory. The River Thames froze over and snow blanketed the streets. And as if that wasn't bad enough, the idiots had gone and nationalised the coal-mines. And when the Smithfield Market porters went on strike, they had to send the Army in to keep the meat moving. There would have been rioting in the streets otherwise, and that was something the powers that be could never let happen. And in those first bone-chilling months of 1947, it looked as if Clement Attlee's Labour Government had done what even Adolph Hitler hadn't managed to do; bring the country to its knees.

There was no heat, no light, and no water; factories were at a complete standstill, and so were the roads and the railways. Big Ben froze solid. And for a while, it seemed to many of us as if time itself had stood still or started going backwards, because millions of men found themselves thrown out of work again. And deep down inside everyone feared another depression and the mass unemployment that went along with it. It was the friggin' nightmare of the Thirties come back to haunt us. No jobs meant no wages and that meant the dole or the Means Test, and no one who'd lived through it all before could ever forget it. And neither could their kids. It marked you for life. The Blitz had nothing on it. If a Jerry bomb got you, at least you went quick.

The only way to survive was to bend the rules. There was no other choice, everything was on ration: eggs, bacon, tea, margarine, cornflakes, tinned milk, tinned apricots, tinned sardines, carbolic soap, coats, skirts, trousers, socks, shoes, underpants, everything. And to go and add insult to injury, you had to queue for anything worth having, whatever it was. People only had to see a queue and they'd go and stand in it, even if they didn't know what the hell it was for. And if you found you didn't want what was on offer, you took it anyway and traded it for something else later.

Even with only half a brain you could see the Black Market was one of the few things in the country that was working properly—or at all. So, everyone was on the fiddle in one way or another. And I do mean everyone. High-born or low, it made no difference. Nobs, toffs, men of the cloth, the whole lot of them. The ladies, too, whether they came from Mayfair or Hackney Wick. And if you ever tried pushing your way in front of them, you'd be lucky if you got away in one piece, let alone with your skin still on your back. They could strip a 'spiv'—that's Cockney back slang for 'VIPs' or Very Important Person—of whatever he'd got in his suitcase in minutes, whether it was nylons, lipstick, perfume, whisky, or a tin of peaches. Horrible to watch it was.

But you couldn't blame them for it. You've always got to look out for yourself, haven't you? It's how we're made. And unless you're prepared to push and shove with the rest of them, you and your own just end up going without. And who in their right mind ever wants that to happen? I know it was a right carry on, but it was the only way most people could carry on during those hard times.

Britain can take it? Yes, and they did, too. And with both hands.

Because the honest truth is, there's a little bit of larcenous villainy in each and every one of us. But none of us ever need be ashamed of it, all it takes is the worst of circumstances to bring it out into the open. Then you just watch as polite society starts to crumble around you.

Take me. When I was a kid we had nothing. No money. No property of our own. Nothing. Not even a good name, to keep up, only the tradition of surviving. And any silver spoons we had in our house had all been nicked from somewhere else, and even then, they always ended up down the pawnshop. So very early on, like everyone else round our way, I had to learn how to survive. And I did. But even I had to be a bit nimble to get me and my own through those grim austerity years that followed the War. And just like everyone else I bent the rules. Only I bent them until they broke and then kept on going. But I reckon that'd be just about par for the course, for a hard-working London cat burglar. Wouldn't you?

© Tony Broadbent

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Tony Broadbent