Another excision from Tickling Sharks is this sequence on my criminal career, and that of an uncle:
When we came back from Greece, I moved to London to be with Elaine, while she began to work with Oxford University Press, in Dover Street, in the former town house of the bishops of Ely.[i] Mention of the good bishops, gatekeepers to heaven and hell, reminds me that my life sometimes ran perilously close to the guard-rails of legality, and occasionally beyond.
When Elaine and I were hitchhiking back from seeing a former Swedish boyfriend of hers in Stockholm in 1969,[ii]we accidentally ended up in the Reeperbahn, the red-light area of Hamburg. Here we bumped into a short, owlish German, Peter Siemer, who became a friend. He turned out to be a dealer in ancient gold coins but had become too well known in the London auction houses. Whenever he arrived, the prices went up. So, I ended up bidding for specified lots for him, then travelling across to Hamburg with the coins, on ferries sailing to and from Harwich. No tax was paid, as far as I know, so already we were crossing the line.
Then I met a friend of Peter’s, Frank Stop, a towering student with long blond locks and a stubbly beard. A German Viking. At his suggestion, Frank and I began buying left-hand drive Volkswagens in Germany, after which I would ship them back to London and sell them through The Evening Standard, for around twice what we had paid. Most were bought by American students wanting wheels for road trips across Europe.
I recall one German count, from a well-known family, arriving and paying for a car for his son, in cash—and Elaine insisting we sleep on the loot until the banks opened in the morning.
On the subject of lawbreaking, maybe there are genes for smuggling? I learned from my mother, and her youngest brother Paul, that their brother Peter had been a ringleader in a smuggling racket after WW2. That said, Uncle Peter’s prior service in the Fleet Air Arm had not been without incident. On one occasion, he had steered a Harvard training aircraft into the station commander’s married quarters—and promptly been asked whose side he was on?
When the European war ended in 1945, Peter was back in the UK again, a qualified naval fighter pilot, still training for the final push in the Pacific. When the atomic bombs in Japan brought WW2 to an end, the founders of the gang—‘Pete’, ‘Gus’ (Adam Thomson, later founder of British Caledonian Airways), and ‘Hank’ (MacArthur)—were still together as chief petty officer pilots, kicking their heels until they were demobbed.
Wanting to earn more money, they set up their own air transport company, using old Walrus seaplanes, previously used in whaling operations. They smuggled in freely available and relatively cheap contraband from France: cognac, nylon stockings, perfume, branded cigarettes etc.—all scarce to the point of non-existence in post-war, poverty-stricken Britain. One flight ended close to total disaster when flying back from Caen they made their UK landfall in thick fog on the last few drops of fuel sputtering in the Auster’s single engine. (See High Risk by Sir Adam Thomson, Sedgwick & Jackson, 1990.)
Eventually the trio were forced to throw in the towel, selling the Walruses for their scrap value. Compared to such entrepreneurial exploits, ours were modest affairs. But I have often wondered about any genetic links between the appetite for entrepreneurial risk-taking and for pushing the law to—and sometimes beyond—the limits.
In the same spirit, something that I am not remotely proud of is that, like some other students at the time, I periodically stole books from bookshops. There was even a book at the time by counter-culture activist Abbie Hoffman called Steal This Book.[iii] But, really, there was no excuse. Inevitably, I was caught red-handed at a large London bookshop, charged, and fined £10 at the local magistrates’ court. Asked why I had done it, I replied that I had never done it before (not true), didn’t know why I had done it (though I did, and in retrospect books had become—and remain—something of a mania) and would never do it again (at least I didn’t lie there).
Meanwhile, by her own account, Elaine ‘cooked and cleaned and bottle washed at our flat in Ebury Street for John, his brother Gray and a huge number of visitors who often stayed, some for extended periods.’* One of the latter was someone we had grown up alongside in the Cotswolds, who came to stay after being released from prison in Austria.
He had been in Iran for some time, eventually driving homeward in a car packed with cannabis. He had been arrested after he ran out of money to pay for petrol and tried to sell drugs to a plain-clothes policeman at Vienna’s central railway station. Sentenced to twelve years in prison, he had spent much of his time playing chess with the governor, only getting out because his father, an international judge, had pulled strings—though he cut off his son from that day forward.
Among his guests when he stayed with us was a mother and sometimes also her daughter. He had been sleeping with both, though I’m not sure either knew that. I had just returned from Germany and had brought back a bottle of whisky from duty free, something we usually never had in the flat. The mother arrived and polished off the whole bottle in a single sitting. Anaesthetic, perhaps?
* Crucial to that period were John Bennett and Charles Logan, more than twice our age and living around the corner in Eaton Square. Our ground flat at 91 Ebury Street flat was theirs. Gloriously gay, in Noel Coward fashion, they had picked up Gray when he was hitchhiking to Oxford—and, in hindsight offered us the flat in the hope that he would play the piano with John in the basement flat at Ebury Street. He did—and we reaped the rewards, until the 99-year lease ran out. The flat came with a wonderful little garden.
[i] The story of Elaine’s working life from 1968 to 1977 can be found here, https://elaineelkington.com/biography
[ii] I’m not sure I had thought very much about Scandinavia before that, except via the Vikings and the adventures and writing of Thor Heyerdahl, a huge inspiration—who I later heard speak at London’s Royal Geographic Society.