People from different parts of Ukraine seen at Lviv Railway. Photo by Mykola Tys/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Send in the spivs

War offers so much more in the way of profitable procurement than even the pandemic

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It doesn’t matter how catastrophic, how terrible, how morally squalid, how globally imperilling the circumstances, there is nothing that cannot be shamelessly exploited by the descendants of Stanley Baldwin’s “hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war”. 

David Frost — the one Peter Cook called “the bubonic plagiarist” — once pronounced that “life is a theme of opportunity”. The language may be approximate but the sentiment is clear, and it’s one which hard-faced men and their apprentices like to hear. It is after all among their valued maxims along with “Look, if I wasn’t at it someone else would be.” 

The pandemic remains a reliable earner for crocuses, spivs, windsor knots, wideboys and widegirls. Or, as they would prefer: for donors, philanthropists and philanthropy advisors, patrons, lingerie barons, “disruptors”, reputation launderers, virtuosi of do ut des, generous friends and friends of friends and their chancer friends and big-hearted friends with foundations which “enhance lives”. All of them eager to serve, to be anointed with at least a bespoke damehood or seat in the Lords for supplying, say, kelp-based remedies and see-through air. 

Mine host at The World Is My Lobster claimed to be expert in these commodities because of his former life as a tree surgeon. Job got.

In the event of peace, they can be converted into makeshift BDSM utensils

War offers just so much more in the way of procurement. Let the hard-faced men not read about themselves. Keep them from Thomas Hardy: “Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame.” But what is the disgusted reproach of a century-dead unacknowledged legislator from Dorset to grim opportunists who would probably not recognise themselves in those words? 

What they do recognise, unfailingly, is the many profitable needs occasioned by war: guns and ammo, kit, foodstuffs, disaster remedies, prison camps, recruitment advertisements, mechanical services, crop pickers, fuel, full strength hardware, medications including iodine tablets which mitigate the effects of radiation, barbed wire, temporary shelter and ad hoc housing, combine harvesters, thunderboxes, toothpaste (German public transport during the second world war stank of halitotic breath), ballistic survival body armour and body bags aka Human Remains Pouches (HRP), available in a choice of colours, number of handles and zip styles. 

Special bags for contaminated clients are also available and provide unsurpassed protection against chemical, biological and radiological particulates. In the event of peace being declared they can be converted into makeshift BDSM utensils. Obviously the longer it isn’t declared the better for hard-faced men and for the prospect of the honour that befits them. 

The bestowal of that honour is a streamlined process in comparison with the clunky apparatus of a century ago. There is apparently little need for the intrigues and dissemblances of a Maundy Gregory. Cut to the quick: bung a bumper cheque and get your commission and gong by return. 

We live in an era of one nation backhanders. Both major parties are equally casual about rewarding the undeserving and equally hypocritical in “shaming each other”: how one shames the shameless is not disclosed. They hardly bother to cover their traces. So routine has the practice become that it has achieved a sort of brazen transparency. It is what the public expects.

The essential conditions of the low-life are heartless cruelty

Provision of needs is one thing, provision of desires is quite another. Shortages are sweet ruddy Tchaikovsky to the BOF, who took his acronym from beurre, oeufs, fromages (and probably drove a Traction Avant). This creature was not of course peculiar to collaborationist France. It is not to be confused with the original wideboy Arthur English or James Beck’s Private Walker in Dad’s Army. They were creatures of the picaresque, and likeable. 

The people they caricatured were not. They were violent low-lifes who traded in refugees. The essential condition of the refugee is vulnerability: those sleeping bags and plastic bottles and babies and entire lives in suitcases are not weapons but tokens of the desperate seeking protection which the Secretary of State for Compassion in Fugitive Obstruction wishes to grant them — if she only could. Sorree. So sorree.

The essential conditions of the low-life are heartless cruelty and a failure of empathy. These people traffick women and children. There are many forms of slavery. Mostly invisible, mostly ignored by the virtuous who destroy statuary and amend street names. They might be better employed freeing the still living: sex slaves, sweatshop slaves, labour slaves, child soldiers, drug mules. 

Every human being currently fleeing the terror for the certainty of uncertainty and likely destitution is a machine for making money, a windfall for the hard-faced men for these are a special caste of human being with built-in obsolescence. 

They are, as Kevin Bales states, “disposable”. Their use is limited. They have a short working life yet are central to the survival of many enterprises. They are the unknown, the nameless, the sans papiers. 

When a minibus packed with fruit pickers was hit by a train on an unmanned level crossing in the Vale of Evesham it took months to establish the identity of one of the dead. A man who didn’t count. 

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