LICIT OR ILLICIT ?
By PHILIP CARR
WE shall have to go to the black market, that's all," I said. As if that settled the matter. As if that was going to end the standing in queues, and the failing to get what you wanted; even when your turn came. But it did not settle the matter. The black market could not be found. Everybody talked about it, but nobody could tell me where it was.
Did it really' exist? " The truth is that we English are a law- abiding people," explained one of my friends. " It's not the same thing where you have been living "—I had just come home from abroad—" but the average Englishman does not try to evade the law." I supposed that this was the explanation. But from other friends I had a different story. It was all right in war time, they said. Then we did follow the rules. Then we played the game. But it was , not so much from honesty as from patriotism, patriotism with a touch of the snobbishness from which nothing English is ever quite free. Getting round the restrictions was simply not done, even by those who could afford it, which most could not. The King in Buckingham Palace had no more than his rations, and we all steed together to win the war.
However, since the V-days, things had changed, I was told. Sacrifices were no longer necessary, and had ceased to be fashionable ; and then lawlessness was in the air. On the one hand, the veriest amateur could become a successful thief, when, as the Home Secre- tary told us the other day, to steal was so much easier than before, and the universal shortage had made so many more simple things expensive enough to be worth stealing. On the other hand, the black market was flourishing as it had never flourished during the war, when it was almost limited to whisky. You can now buy anything you want there, said my friend, always supposing that what you want exists. In Germany there is a brisk trade in badges and certificates, which show that the holder has been in a con- centration camp. There would perhaps be no sale for these in London, but you can get - I protested that I wanted nothing so sensational. My require- ments were much more modest. I should like to be able to secure a chicken, and some real butter, and perhaps a few " shell " eggs and a pair of child's shoes—for the last of which I had been searching in vain. And my wife was longing for a couple of pairs of " fully fashioned " stockings. I was willing to go to the black market for all these things, but where?
"Come with me," said my friend, " and bring your wife too. In fact, she is indispensable. They don't like selling to men ; but they will trust a woman, when she is properly introduced. My wife will take her along; but you and I will have to keep in the back- ground."
So we made our way in a famous street in London's East ENO, and then up a side street and another side street. All the shops had Jewish names ; but it was not with the shops that we were—or appeared to be—concerned. It was with the stalls and the barrows in the roadway. They seemed to be doing a fairly active but homely business, although that in itself can be surprisingly profitable. The other day at a police court three costermongers admitted that they had jointly netted a clear profit of £1,25o in five weeks by selling roasted chestnuts and toffee apples—whatever these may be.
The wife of our guide stopped at one of the stalls, which was being served by a woman who was wrapped in several layers of mufflers, great coats and snowboots and wore a knitted pirate's cap. She had just lifted the corner of apiece of sacking, negligently thrown across part of the stall, and had withdrawn from under it a pair of silk stockings for a customer (her ostensible trade was in vegetables). Later, we saw her drive off in a taxi, after her day's work.
" Where's Sara? " said our friend.
" She 'asn't come down today. She's up in 'er flat," was the answer. So the two ladies went to Sara's flat, rouad the corner. They knocked without reply ; but a neatly dressed young Hebrew popped out guardedly from an adjoining door, verified the bona-fides of the visitors, said Sara was at her mother's, and directed the ladies thither, with instructions to knock three times. Arrived there, they were submitted to further verification from another door by a similar youth, and also to the intervention of an old • woman, who said, " She's not there, I tell yer." However, they persisted, and eventually did business—the goods being fetched from various nearby and un- likely-looking addresses by one " Ernie," a rather ragged but typically genial cockney. They consisted of a magnificent fowl for £2 15s. (sold alive for breeding, which brought the price within the law), a bottle of whisky for £4, a dozen eggs for 15s., a pound of butter for 8s., a pair of inferior shoes for a child at 3zs., and a very superior pair for a grown woman at 19s. (the two prices were interesting, but
apparently normal). Certain transactions were also effected in coupons. Some were purchased, others exchanged—for example, coupons issued to seamen of the Merchant Service cannot be used by their women folk, and must be traded first.
With our acquisitions we returned home ; but here is the most surprising part of the story. We had gone so far afield to find the • black market ; but it was at our door after all. Only we had not known how to ask for it. Our butcher and our grocer will stoutly refuse to sell us more than our ration, and neither will charge anything higher than the controlled price. Oh, no. But if you make friends with your butcher or your grocer, there are all sorts of little things he can do for you, without really breaking . the law.
Many years ago, before rationing was thought of, a stage hand in my theatre said to me at Christmas, " I can't stand this cold weather. It do make the butchers so wonderful saucy." Well, the butchers are wonderful saucy today, without needing any very cold weather to enable them to do such an incredible thing as holding back their stocks. And you simply must make friends with them.
Why not? I remember a hotel-keeper in Normandy, introducing a man to me as "un de nos plus sympathiques bouchers," and a butcher can be as good a friend as another. There are various ways of approach. The crude way is to tip him heavily. Of course, that is not paying more for your meat, which would be illegal. I have known others who invite the butcher to their parties : others again, who teach their children to call the butcher " uncle " ; white the judicious offer of a packet of cigarettes to the grocer's assistant will produce apples when there are no apples.
Besides, the butcher and the grocer in these dangerous times deserve all our sympathy. I know of one who had to sleep in his shop with a loaded revolver for a fortnight before Christmas, just because he had got in a few turkeys. The curious thing about it all is that we, the slaves of the black market, could strike off our manacles at any moment, if we were determined to do so. There would be no black market if everyone refused to buy in the black market. But then, there would be no wars if everyone had confidence in everyone else, and were not trying to steal a march on everyone else. Is not that what Mr. Bevin has been telling us?