An Underworld at War By Donald Thomas

The smash-and-grab years
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The Independent Culture

Crime needs its outlets and chaos is its friend. What better time for it to flourish, then, than during a war? Recent happenings in Iraq appear microscopic by comparison with Britain between the years 1939 and 1950. But the undercurrents were already there in the troubled 1930s.

Donald Thomas has unearthed a cornucopia of stories that helps us to understand these fractious decades. For example, we learn that the rise of the motor car kicked off the smash-and-grab raid and that, in most of Britain's cities, there were warring gangs fighting for their territory. In the capital, Clerkenwell, known as "Little Italy", was controlled by the Sabini gang who went in for racecourse protection. The elderly gang leader, Darby Sabini, was the inspiration for Mr Colleoni in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (1938), the novel which caught the restless, shadowy atmosphere that was to become commonplace as war broke.

190,000 bombs rained down on London during the blitz. Lootings from bombed-out streets went hand-in-hand with appalling shelter conditions. Air raid shelters allocated to hold 7,000 were crammed with twice that number. Teenagers pressed together indulged in sexual activities - but surely not only of a heterosexual kind and surely not only teenagers - while a stench of urine hung over all. In Bethnal Green Tube station a stampede killed nearly 180 people. "One thing about the blitz," as an eye-witness put it, "it certainly takes your mind off the war."

Looting became a capital offence under the Defence of the Realm Act but this was hardly an effective deterrent. Some got away for years with gunpoint robberies, while one man could be fined £1 for taking cups and saucers from a bombed-out bungalow and warned that the penalty could be hanging. As food and clothes rationing was stepped up, restaurants, department stores, and shops came under surveillance. Less easy to track down were the cremation coffin thieves: coffin lids and shrouds were nabbed as they slid towards the furnace. The shrouds provided a black market in women's knickers, then on ration with frills curtailed. Inspectors sent decoys to shops and restaurants to catch vendors trying to make that little bit extra, while also helping the purchaser, in a restricted market. A Times leader remarked that the black market encouraged "persons of hitherto irreproachable character [to] graduate in crime".

Wherever you turned your head, there was an offence. Petrol restrictions and the fraudulent use of a car sent Ivor Novello to prison for a month. Starring in one of his musicals, Novello needed to be driven home at weekends as he was recovering from pneumonia. His application to use his car was refused. A friend said she could register the car with her company, but Novello was caught. The case hung upon whether he was party to this as dishonesty or not. Character references from the likes of Sybil Thorndike got him a reduced sentence, and the public stood by him. On the first night of his return to his musical, he received a standing ovation.

There were immutable wartime rulings which gave no space to exceptions. This narrowness seems to have affected overall judgement and insight. The notorious acid bath murderer and conman Neville Heath duped the army to rise to the rank of Captain, while the post-war necrophilic murderer George Christie slipped through to be a police officer on the beat. Prostitution in Soho was rife and controlled by pimps who were often Maltese, known as Malts, or, to use the rhyming slang, "Epsom Salts". Former "good-time girls became brazen tarts, [while] ordinary wives became good-time girls," announced gang-leader Billy Hill. The unsolved killing of an ordinary wife turned good-time girl was not infrequent. "Mrs Clayton", wife of a cinema usher and living in Bayswater, was found strangled with a silk muffler in her Mayfair "sex" home, her handbag rifled. There was the blackout on one hand, and black-and-white London flickering out a thriller movie by the hour on the other.

Donald Thomas provides a factual narration that covers pretty well every aspect of this intriguing other side to the war. Some of the figures he gives are revealing; the value of stolen jewels then, for instance, compared with the value of them now. After a bit, though, the flow of enumerations, unavoidable maybe in a book of this kind, makes the head swim. Also, not every story matches for interest. Too many accounts of the robbing of government stores become a bore when set against some wonderful "character" tales. Like the 19-year-old boy who called himself "Tiptoes", modelled himself on the Saint, and burgled in stockinged feet, leaving messages in lipstick on his victim's mirror: "Tiptoes again, gentle in manner, resolute in deed." Sadly, we are not told what happened to this stylish young man after he was finally caught and had served his four-year sentence.

But this book should be read as a near comprehensive charting of mid-20th century crime, the information painstakingly culled from court reports, newspapers, and previously published works. Blackmarket crimes were to continue until rationing came to an end in the early 1950s. The post-war Labour Government, who had come in on a landslide victory, was also to be tainted by corruption. Plus ça change, one thinks. One of the more hilarious "character" portraits here is that of Sidney Stanley, an impoverished emigré Pole who had transformed himself into an affluent businessman living in Mayfair with ministerial connections. When the Stanley scandal of suits, holidays, and gold cigarette cases for ministers blew, the upstanding image of an altruistic Labour Party went. The scandal made a significant contribution to the Tories being returned at the next election. However, Stanley survived through the amazing carapace that he'd built around his web of lies and corruptions. "Do not try to trap me with the truth," he cried at one point in court, as pressure mounted. Typical of the times, and in contrast to the genuinely public-serving Ivor Novello, Stanley evaded imprisonment. He disappeared in "a pantomime puff of smoke" to live on for many years, quite happily, in Tel Aviv.

So wars are really not to be recommended for the development of integrity and well being, although it could be - as it has proved in the past - a long whilebefore we see the end of them. Horace Walpole, reporting back after the War of Austrian Succession in 1749, commented, "little news from England but of robberies".