Brothers Abroad brand

Thursday, August 03, 2006

” The Leaning Fence of London”

For several months at sometime during the first half of the ‘90s, it became quite common for young guys going about their own business in and around Central London to be accosted by men leaping from white vans, which would usually have screeched to a halt at a ridiculous angle in a totally unfeasible roadside spot. These ‘white van men’ of yesteryear were not officers of the Flying Squad - they were in fact flogging gear and for reasons which soon became obvious, they had preferred a mercantile method that was more Starsky&Hutch than market stall. The gear in question was ostensibly a consignment of Acoustic Research speakers worth £1,500 a pair, but ‘available to You, sir ( it being of course your very lucky , pre-National Lottery day ) for a mere 150 notes.’

I experienced this approach at least twice and having enjoyed some gratuitous banter about the origins of this particular species of gear, I was able on each occasion truthfully to declare that I was already the proud and extremely satisfied owner of some ‘AR boxes’ (it only later dawned on me that perhaps these chaps were being literal). At the risk of reinforcing ‘stereo-type’, there was a substantial body of empirical evidence at the time to suggest that the vehicular vendors were particularly targetting us sun-kissed, rhythm-oriented types, who reputedly have a certain pre-disposition to ‘‘the bottom end’‘. I refer here sonically to heavy musical bass-lines, although there is arguably a certain anatomical relevance to this reputation.

[In truth, one would have had to be a recent arrival from the planet Veridim not to have spotted these approaches as a desperate effort to dispose of a large quantity of stolen goods in double-quick time. The particular explanation given by these street sellers lacked the endearing candour of the sales patter peddled by their Oxford Circus counterparts: ‘‘yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s cheap ‘coz it’s stolen!’‘. The wheel of Fortune had apparently spun a series of administrative errrors, resulting in some drastic over-ordering of which I could be the unwitting beneficiary. Having spent part of my very early career at the Criminal Bar, I had only ever come across one standard version of this basic story - namely in statements purporting to explain the innocence of the Defendant in cases of ‘handling’ (stolen goods). It ran along the following lines: ‘‘I, Fingers Smith, purchased the genuine 18 carat, diamond-crusted, Cartier chronometer in a public house, from a gentleman known to me only as ‘John’. I paid John the princely sum of £50, which amount I genuinely believed to be fully representative of the item’s market value ‘’.]

From the earliest of childhood fables, we learn that cities are not necessarily paved with gold and that should the urban walkways appear to glitter, this is may be inadequate evidence of their purity of carat(er). One would therefore have expected that, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, all newcomers to metropolitan living would have written reminders on all their cash notes: ‘‘caveat emptor!’’ or ‘‘am I being had?’‘. But, oh no, the con artists can always rely on irrational human optimism or straight-up greed. Some of us city-dwellers are even more vulnerable than the greenhorns from elsewhere, often because we actually believe that we’re so smart that we ourselves can play the game, rather than it playing us. Others simply feel that they’ve got life so sorted that they treat limited engagement in such dodgy dialogue as audience participation in the improvised street theatre that is the city…Enter yours truly, stage left…!

* * *

There I was just outside a Soho car park, relishing the ‘auto-erotic’ retraction of my soft-top on one of the first, really balmy summer evenings. I had clocked a blue, left-hand-drive Merc CLK coupe with unusual number plates on its way into the car park and as the driver drew alongside me, he gave me that unmistakable ‘lean’ of a man who has some merchandise to offload as a matter of some urgency. He began to explain to me that he was Italian and that he did not ‘speak well English’, but the ‘lean’ had been enough for me and by now we were both blocking entry to and exit from the car park. I sped off with a gesture intended to convey something between ‘sorry mate’ and ‘time waits for no man ‘. At Wardour Street, as I contemplated the social dynamics of the dinner party I was now going to be late attending, ‘he of the lean’ appeared from nowhere on the pavement beside me - in his car! This fellow clearly had some serious ‘news’ to share and I was intrigued by both his persistence and his evident driving skills through the chicanery of one-way Soho. We agreed to pull over and meet around the corner where we might be less of an obstruction.

Signor Lean (maybe he was from Pisa?) began by explaining to me, in broken English through broken, brown teeth with the help of eager eyes and expressively latin hands, that he was a good friend of the Director of Ciro Citterio, allegedly a menswear outfit of Oxford Street repute. ‘The Director’ became his cousin halfway through the spiel. He himself had just come from a curiously unseasonal fashion show and (wait for it) had a few leather jackets left over. I wasn’t particularly interested, but the guy was making a good effort, so I obligingly (some would say foolishly) got out of my car and went round to check out the goods in his boot. Now, I know that readers will be visualising the inevitable and undignified consequences of the scenario (‘do have a look in here, sir’ ) , but I was careful not to get too close to the boot - indeed, I kept Lean himself at a healthy ‘jump-sidekick ’ distance. The stuff looked decent enough and definitely worth a few bob, but it wasn’t really my thing and I reassured him that he would definitely find a willing buyer in due course (just not me , thanks very much). The panic which flashed across his face when I made my move back towards my own car was what really brought me back to my senses. He was desperate alright…He threw onto my passenger seat the garment in which I had inadvertently shown the most encouraging interest, as if to indicate its relative lack of value to him, given the gravity of his predicament.

However, the most extraordinary aspect of this bizarre encounter was ‘‘the deal’’ itself. This was not a case of the usual exchange of goods or services in return for some used notes. No, we are talking serious barter - and incidentally, my dictionary helpfully informs me that the word ‘barter’ is derived from the 15th century French: ‘barater - to trick or cheat’. In return for any one or all three of the leather jackets, Lean wanted only one thing - ‘’ a full tank of gas ‘’. Having already allowed such interference in my evening’s activities, readers will no doubt be surprised to learn that even I didn’t get into the ‘whys and wherefors’ of his apparent lack of fuel and funds. And anyway, why wasn’t he just flogging me the jackets for 100 quid or whatever, like any other self-respecting fence…? The approach seemed to be much more than a variation on the attempted credibility of the regular, street-level ‘cup o’ tea’ appeal, because had I turned round and offered him legal tender, my strong sense (admittedly in short supply at the material time) was that his mission would definitely not have been accomplished. But how do you give someone a full tank of gas, I asked myself? Presumably, you accompany him to a petrol station (limited options in Soho) and at some point leave your car to pay for the fuel…

I picked up the jacket from my passenger seat, threw it back at the Leaning Fence, cranked up the subwoofer (aah! the reassuring comfort of some ‘bottom-end’!) and sped off towards the relative sanctuary of Primrose Hill. My somewhat dramatic ‘exit stage right ’ from that scene of improvised street theatre scarcely disguised the fact that I remained totally bemused by the experience. The dinner party hosts and guests shed no light at all on the situation. They simply choked in unison on the most impossibly smooth tiramisu, shocked by what they seemed to think was the madness of my own astonishing performance. Nobody has since been any more helpful in assisting me with my subsequent enquiries, as I continue my search for insights into the scam at play here.

* * * * *

The following night (no word of a lie) , I was driving my mother home from Victoria , having collected her from the airport courtesy of the Gatwick Express , when I thought it prudent to stop at a red traffic light although it was, after all, nearly 2 a.m. (my Sardinian neighbour , himself a man of great integrity as well as humour , tells me that in Naples a red light is ‘‘just a suggestion’’ ) . Call me paranoid, but another car pulled up alongside me and I noticed its driver leaning characteristically towards me…This was not Signor Lean himself, driver of a blue Merc, but more like his uncle, carrying an adolescent passenger in something of a banger. He declared that he was Italian and did ‘’not speak well English’’. Amazingly enough, he then began to explain his own predicament in French…He had just come from a fashion show and…Beep! Beep! The lights had turned green and the driver behind him clearly had places to go and people to do. This was definitely not the time and place for my participation in Act II of the Street Theatre production, so I exercised discretion over valour putting my pedal to the metal and fled northwards! 

  Copyright MM (Revised Edition) Ayodeji C.R. Mahoney

Posted by Dej on 03 Aug around 2pm

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