22 SEPTEMBER 1939, Page 12


By R. C. HUTCHINSON AYOUNG policeman, in his rather theatrical helmet, keeps the queue close to the wall. Today it only extends for thirty yards or so ; on Monday, the 5th, it was at least five times as long. They wait with extraordinary patience, these people ; they are used to it. For months past it has been a condition of their lives, this eternal queueing, in the dusty corridors of police-offices, in windy customs- sheds. The multilingual chatter is low and continuous, like the noises in a telephone. But many are abjectly silent, and their eyes do not seem to see the sandbags along the dirty grey wall. They see, perhaps, the trees in the Konigsplatz.

An Austrian girl, who wears her shabby clothes with an astonishing chic, keeps lighting a new cigarette from the butt of the old.

At the end of twenty minutes the swing-door opens, an elderly, clerkish officer appears, and half-a-dozen from the head of the queue are let into the building. " Any of you got slips telling you to come? Between two o'clock and three o'clock? Right! Along you come!" Four more go in, the door swings shut, another twenty minutes pass. When the door opens again the sad-eyed officer is followed by an emergency-duty man, a gigantic and ferocious-looking fellow with the cut of an admiral. The sight of this man is too much for a little Jewish lady, she suddenly bursts into speech with a string of explanations: she has not reported before, she didn't know she had to report, nobody told her, she didn't understand what they said in the paper. The giant regards her woodenly until she stops. " You're a very naughty girl," he says, " we shall have to shoot you." A ghost of a twitch in his eyelid makes the woman laugh and he strides on. Farther down the line his colleague is sort- ing out the customers with lugubrious efficiency. " Here, let's see what you've got! Well now, you don't want to hang about here, you go home and wait till we send for you. . . . Well, now, what's your little packet of trouble? . . . You, sir, I'm not going to say one word to you till you take your place in the queue!" An Italian girl presents a problem: her papers seem to be in perfect order, the officer can't see why she's come, she doesn't seem to know herself. Another Italian (there is always another Italian) comes to the rescue.

" Ah, but you see she have got marrit."

" Married, has she! Who's she married?"

" She have marrit a fellow."

The officer, as one knowing the seamy side, lugubriously nods. The case I wanted cleared up was of the simplest kind (a distinguished German-Jewish writer had been registered as living in Hampshire, when his home is really in Camden Town) and all the creaking, blundering machinery of govern- ment had worked to turn this molehill into a Matterhorn of correspondence. I had been on the pavement for fifty minutes when I got inside, and my temper was fairly ragged. Yet the very fact of admittance was soothing (as the dullest plays seem good when you have stood for an hour in the gallery queue). And in the drab, yellow-lighted basement to which we trooped there was a subtoned atmosphere of festival. We sat on rows of chairs set in a geometrical figure—the side AB having been produced—while an exact replica of the man on duty outside came to ask each one his business, in the tones of " Thick or clear, sir? " Accord- ing as our answers pleased him we were shifted on to other chairs. 1 had a feeling that presently he would tell us a story, and that when the word " harness " was mentioned I should have to leap up and change places with the fat Hungarian on the other side.

Seated, now, we went on waiting.

The staff was doing its best. There were ten or twelve of them behind the long counters, with uniform collars open, one or two in shirt sleeves. Nearly all were past the middle of life, they had their hair in rather unexpected positions and a certain misanthropic severity, as if they had all been bred from the same Cathedral Verger. I had to watch closely, and for some time, before I perceived that the dour expression was as much a part of their souls as a Clarkson wig.

" Next, please! "

The player on the left of the dealer, so to say, goes up to the counter. He is—at a guess—a shopkeeper from Bavaria, a swarthy little man in high alarm.

" Well, now, what's your trouble ? "

The shopkeeper mumbles in a pathetically eager " English " and I can hardly get a word of it ; but the officer's side of the conversation comes through to where I sit.

"Well, the question is, Where are you living now? Or don't you know? . . . Well then, we've got that all right-as- a-daisy. You live in Finsbury Park—nice place, had an old uncle living there . . ." It is done very thoroughly, no one is at the counter for less than five or ten minutes. " . . . Well then, here's your book, and don't you lose it, mind, or there'll be a whole packet of trouble!" Still anxious and uncomprehending, the shopkeeper aJances up and sees a certain light in the policeman's eye. can it—can it be possible that within this English police- officer a clown is hiding? He suddenly smiles, bows, crams the registration-book in his pocket, tries to shake hands with the officer, thinks better of it, turns and walks smilingly away.

The next two, South Europeans, man and wife, are done together. Then comes a little business man, who says in a finished cockney accent that he is a Belgian subject. After that a German girl who has modelled herself on La Bergner with, I think, some success. Her head is quite lovely ; her legs, of which I have the benefit, unbelievably slim. She goes to the broadest officer, the one with R.S.M. mous- taches, and I see now that he has been scheming to get her all the time. He becomes enormous and very fierce indeed, so that in half a minute the girl is bubbling with laughter. I hear presently, " I tell you, Madam, I was never more serious in my life. We have the highest penalties for that sort of thing. Crime, that's what w' call that! " "7a, ja, das Kreim! " the girl agrees, and her laughter echoes across the filing-cabinets. The sergeant shoots his wrists and leans far over the counter to develop his thesis. This will be a particularly long interview, and I shall miss my train at Waterloo.

One of the ushers, however, noticing my rolled umbrella and my shabby hat, had recognised me as a British subject who was helping to pay for this circus. I was beckoned, and, very uncomfortably, went over to a young Caesar in the corner.

.• I was told by the police at A— that I must apply to you. I did so a week ago and have had no acknowledge- ment."

" But the case *sn't in our district at all. You've got to apply first of all at Kentish Town."

" Isn't it rather a pity the police at A— didn't tell me that? "

" I don't suppose they knew."

• SI

I went on to the door labelled " Way Out, Sortie, Auf- gang." " Next, please! Well now, what's your trouble? " The fat sergeant still had the pretty girl; undoubtedly the lady's papers were in a terrible mess, and they were both quite lost in enjoyment of each other. A tubby little Frau stumped in front of me, clutching her registration-book as happily as if it were a prize for needlework. I was rather ashamed to be the one disgruntled person there.

Up the stairs and through the tunnel of sandbags, past a board which said " Contaminated Policemen In," round again to the street. The queue is half as long again now : it will be more than an hour before the present tail is inside. The same tired women, the same patient faces. They arc always patient, these lonely exiles with gas-masks slung on their backs.