Mary Dejevsky: How come pawnbroking is becoming respectable, all over again?



Walking down Victoria Street in London at the weekend, I noticed a stylish new hoarding in front of two of the many shops being redeveloped. It looked as though a new restaurant might be in the offing, an outpost of Fortnum & Mason perhaps, or one of those tailored shirt and suit shops that have proliferated recently, with double-barrelled names and old-fashioned crests. What the hoarding actually promised was the arrival of a company called Suttons & Robertsons, which boasted that it had been "unlocking the cash value of your assets for more than 250 years". It promised enjoyable shopping for jewellery and other valuables.

But it was only after reading further that I tumbled to the nature of Suttons & Robertsons' business. They are pawnbrokers. Upmarket pawnbrokers, no doubt – if this is not a contradiction in terms – at least in so far as their pitch to the potential clientele of Victoria Street, but pawnbrokers nonetheless. And, with due apologies to this venerable company, my expectations dived: not just for this shop, but for the street and the district as a whole.

Now I know that pawnbroking is back in a big way, with branches even in that hive of prosperity, the City of London. But for all their efforts to cultivate a new image – sorry, Suttons & Robertsons, again – pawnbrokers and their three balls still conjure up Dickensian London and abject need. I once went into a pawn shop out of curiosity. I didn't like it, not because of any musty smell or hand-rubbing proprietor, but for the ghosts of desperate people and treasured heirlooms that hovered.

The area around Victoria station in London is a mixture of tatty and trendy shops, dereliction and a glass-fronted mall full of chains that also houses Google's London HQ. The dissonance lasts all the way to Westminster Abbey. But the whole area is now subject to a grand =redevelopment plan – which is why half the street and most of the station precinct are strewn with rubble or under wraps. I'm sorry that the council – having ejected the only supermarket from the block being demolished opposite – could not find a more suitable tenant.

A defence will be that today's pawnbrokers are not the traders in misery of yore and that "financial services" come in many legitimate guises. But if the banking catastrophe was not just about banks, but about a whole country hooked on debt, I'm not sure that making it even easier to obtain last-resource credit is a good idea. The same applies to those TV adverts for Wonga. Whenever they pop up, offering cash at the end of a phone line, I can't believe they are legal. Apparently, regrettably, they are.

They also serve who sit and listen

A recent Independent obituary – of the French psychoanalyst, Jean Laplanche – contained these words. "His wife went with him everywhere and sat through hours of lectures which surely held little interest for her." I wonder whether that assumption is true. Obviously, times are different; Laplanche was born in 1921 and his wife may just have observed the mores of the day. I wonder, though, whether she might not have become almost as absorbed in his subject as he was, and almost as much of an authority, too.

Having, long ago, typed my husband's thesis, I have some strange little areas of second-hand expertise far outside my own speciality. Remember Dick Francis's wife, and the way, as it emerged, she was apparently the ghostwriter of many of his thrillers. An interest shared may be an interest doubled.

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