Poppy for a Bobby

In class-conscious, snobby, mid-century England, the family kept quiet about my father, now a respected and much-loved general medical practitioner, having once been a successful market trader.

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London 1943

“Won’t be long , sir” I said as I put the cork liners in the perfume bottles. I was almost five years old and helping my father as he set up his stall to sell perfumes.

This was my father’s first day in the business. Dad was a medical student. He earned his living, fed and housed his family and paid for his studies by a variety of jobs, always self-employed. At one time he sold tips at the races. At another he hired space in a department store and told fortunes, capitalising on his exotic Bengali appearance and the mystic East. At some time he and my mother ran a fancy goods store in south London.

His most successful business venture was going to be making and selling perfumes. During wartime there was a scarcity of luxury goods and perfume provided a great opportunity to earn some real money.

The night before he had mixed all the ingredients at home in our small flat in Brixton,, sorting them into a number of large glass jars. At the market the contents would be transferred, according to popularity, into small bottles for sale to the customers. That morning we had set off walking to the tram stop at the top of the road, my father carrying everything in a large leather suitcase. The case must have been unimaginably heavy, but this is where his early athletic fitness would have stood him in good stead. He had been an Olympic swimming triallist for India.

By tram we travelled to the East Lane outdoor market, a piece of London history dating back to the 16th century and still in existence today. Here he hired a stall and commenced trading.

Dad had an aversion to bureaucracy and had not bothered to get the obligatory traders permit from the authorities.

Not long after we set up stall we were approached by a burly London bobby who asked to see Dad’s permit. When my father was unable to produce it, the policeman asked, “Where’s my poppy?” My father was unaware that “poppy” was cockney slang for a bribe.

Innocently my father replied, “Sorry, we don’t have poppy. How about a bottle of June Rose?”

Remember this was wartime and luxury goods such as perfume were almost unobtainable.

The bobby burst out laughing and went away delighted with his bottle of June Rose, as was no doubt his wife or girlfriend.

ROBIN SEN

One thought on “Poppy for a Bobby

  1. Interesting that your could tell fortunes persuasively on the strength of his Bengali appearance. I am amazed by a local fortune teller who claims to be able to deal with all kinds of problems – love, debt, family, jobs, marriage…. everything you can think of.

    Like

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