Every now and again a word pops up which I have not heard for ages. That was the case recently with an email from a London-born friend who complained about “spivs” who had contributed to ruining his local football club’s finances.
For those unfamiliar with the word, spiv is defined as “a man, often flashily dressed, who makes a living by illicit or unscrupulous dealings”. They are sometimes referred to as “wide boys” and in Britain are often associated with the expression “something that fell off the back of a lorry”, meaning stolen goods.
The origin of the word “spiv” is unclear but most likely came from the word “spiffy” meaning well-dressed. It came into popular use in Britain during and after World War II, concerning people involved in dubious activities on the black market during rationing. The image of a spiv was thickly greased hair, a pencil-thin Clark Gable moustache, trilby hat, broad-shouldered jacket with velvet collars and a loud “kipper” tie.
Curiously, despite their “low-life” reputation, spivs became popular comedy characters on stage and screen just after the war. Best known on the radio was Arthur English, a fast-talking stand-up comedian with a cockney accent. Billed as “Prince of the Wide Boys”, he sported a giant garish “kipper” tie that rolled down to his knees. His wife made the ties from hideous curtains.
More spivs surfaced in television comedies, including Private Walker in Dad’s Army, wheeler dealer Del Boy played by David Jason in Only Fools and Horses and the celebrated Minder character Arthur Daley, portrayed by George Cole. Private Walker described his occupation, with a commendable straight face, as a “wholesale supplier”.
In addition to being a compulsive liar, Del Boy was known for attempting French phrases he didn’t really understand, frequently greeting people with “au revoir” and bidding farewell with “bonjour”.
The world was his lobster
In all the TV series the spivs tended to be portrayed as lovable rogues but in real life they were mostly unsavoury characters, who could be quite nasty. After all, they made their living from ripping people off.
In his autobiography The World Was My Lobster, Cole said he was alarmed by the amount of fan mail he received from children who said they loved the Daley character because he was “just like my dad”. Cole wrote: “I think he was a dreadful character. I just can’t understand how he became so popular. He behaved terribly to people who got in the way of his making a quick quid.”
Despite Cole’s negative view of Arthur, audiences loved the dodgy used-car dealer who was always on the lookout for a “nice little earner”. The popularity was a tribute to Cole’s acting and often he didn’t even have to say anything. He mastered the art of the shifty look and a subtle change of facial expression when things started to go wrong, which they often did.
He was also guilty of regular malapropisms including the “lobster” in his book title. Then there was “‘er indoors” a reference to his wife, who we never see but get the distinct impression she was rather formidable.
I don’t know if there is a Thai equivalent to a spiv. There must be a few such characters around because I’m sure precious goods fall off the back of lorries in Thailand in the same way as they do in England.
There was a story in the Post some years ago about a Mr Preecha, who was not a spiv but a security guard. He was cycling to work in Bangkok one morning when he spotted two large plastic bags by the roadside which, on closer inspection, happened to be stuffed with 9.5 million baht. Mr Preecha was faced with the dilemma of deciding whether to hand the loot over to the police or taking the money home. Unsurprisingly he chose the latter.
Instead of keeping quiet about his new-found riches, Mr Preecha headed for his local temple, making unprecedented generous donations to the monks and friends in ostentatious fashion. News of a low-paid security guard splashing the cash quickly spread and it wasn’t long before the constabulary were knocking on Mr Preecha’s door.
It turned out the money had literally fallen off the back of a lorry — or rather, a security truck — which had malfunctioning back doors that refused to shut. One would have thought that doors that don’t shut properly would be bit of a worry for a security firm transporting millions of baht.
Easy come, easy go
The urge to go on spending sprees with their ill-gotten gains has long been the downfall of Thai miscreants. Some years ago there was a 22-million baht bank heist by two men in Phitsanulok. The ever-alert Thai police were greatly helped by the behaviour of one of the robbers. Within two days of the heist, this unemployed gentleman suddenly acquired two brand new limousines, two motorcycles, 70 baht weight in gold and a couple of televisions, while giving generous tips. Not exactly keeping a low profile.
There was a pleasing symmetry in one case. A few years ago in Bangkok a bank security guard’s current account suddenly increased by 950,000 baht on the very same day 950,000 baht went missing from the bank’s ATM. Even Inspector Clouseau might have solved that one.
Bangkok Post columnist
A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.
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