SPECTRES IN THE SMOKE
But First, a Quiet Word in Your King Lears
It'd promised to be a very different world after the War ended. But now, nearly three years later, we were all of us still waiting for the dust to settle and clear. At times, in between the curtains of soot-laden fog, it seemed as if London was one huge wasteland. There were bombsites everywhere. Dark toothy gaps a dozen houses long in streets otherwise untouched or whole streets and neighbourhoods gone, with solitary buildings left, here and there like pinched, blackened stubs in an ashtray. And even those rows still standing bore the marks of doodlebug, incendiary bomb, and fire.
And with so many things busted, broken, or blown to smithereens no one knew quite where to begin. Was it better to start by clearing away all the mess and confusion? Or better to soldier on, build what you could on top of the rubble, and simply hope for the best?
Most families had suffered a tragic loss of some kind. A dad, a son, an uncle, a brother, who'd once waved a "cheerio" by the front door and gone off to war, then never returned. Or a sister, a granny, an auntie, a mother, who'd watched and waited, and then had perished to blazes in the Blitz. And all of them now gone forever, leaving gaping holes that could never be filled. True, a lucky few did manage to come through the War unscathed, and some did very well out of it. And more than one or two had lined themselves up to prosper whichever way the War went. Not that you could pick them out in a crowd, mind you, but they were there. They always are.
As there was still no end in sight to the Government's austerity measures, most people also had gaps of a more pressing if no less dispiriting sort to contend with. Empty shelves and empty shopping-baskets seemed to be the rule, more often than not. And with officially-allotted allowances going up and down like a see-saw most weeks, people stood in queues for hours on end, never knowing what they'd get for their troubles. All basic everyday foods were on ration points, all clothing was on coupons, and as soap was rationed, too, it left people feeling pretty lousy about things. And what with it having been another especially hard winter, it was a miserable old time for most Londoners. Continuing fuel and electricity shortages meant that even the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus stayed forever dark. With no tinsel to be had anywhere, but down the picture house, life seemed forever grey.
To give them their due, Clement Attlee's Labour Government were still struggling to get to grips with the five giants of want, sickness, squalor, ignorance, and idleness, and were slowly starting to make good on their promise to provide everyone "comfort and care, from cradle to the grave." And despite bitter opposition from conservatives of every stripe, they forged ahead and introduced the National Health Service that meant free spectacles and false teeth for anyone that needed them, and a doctor or a hospital bed when you were ill. They promised better state pensions for the old and poor; new housing for slum dwellers; and secure employment for the men that'd fought the War. Add a new Education Bill, so kids could stay in school longer and go on to grammar school or even university if they had the talent, and you had the makings of something very different to what'd gone before. Even, perhaps, a new and better Britain.
To be honest, though, a lot of peopleme includedhad thought the Labour Party a right load of duffers when they'd first started nationalising everything in sight, and things had gone from bad to worse. And although many in Britain regarded the Welfare State as the promised light in the wilderness, a good few saw it as the first flicker of the all-consuming fires of Communism. The middle and upper classes felt uneasy, under siege, and resentful. To them, Socialism promised nothing but the end of the Britain they knew and loved; they were terrified of power passing over into the wrong hands. Fears made all the more real when Communist trade union leaders down the London Docks voted repeatedly to go on strike, crippling imports and exports. And so it was, as night follows day, that the spectre of Fascism began to rise from out of the ashes again and draw people to its "Britain First" banner.
Was it any wonder then that the very idea of "a new Jerusalem" gave rise to such bitter disagreement in England's green and pleasant land? Or that for one dark moment Britain stood at a crossroads, as if spellbound, with no one knowing whether the morrow would bring a glorious social revolution or mobs roaming the streets looking to put heads on sticks.
"Crikey," I can hear you saying. "What's all this politics malarkey got to do with an honest-to-goodness London cat burglar, when he's at home?" Well, you'd be surprised what people will try and steal from you when you're not looking, really you would. But I have to admit I had to keep asking myself that same question, over and over again, during this caper; what with all its "who's who's" and "what's what's" and all its strange comings and goings. I tell you, it's not easy being a pawn in someone else's game, especially when the clock's ticking and you're being played as a promoted knight out to lay an old ghost and save a king. And all the while, you're worrying yourself sick about one old mate who's in dead trouble and you're fighting to help keep another old china's dream alive.
© Tony Broadbent
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