Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Turn-Around

Two hours one way, the briefest breath of foreign air, and then back on the boat for the return journey. They call it 'the Turn-Around'

Tobacco Smuggling in the UK

It was 5.30 on a cool but bright Monday morning. The sun was just nuzzling over the horizon sending sprays of orange light into the milky air. I met Louie at a pre-arranged spot outside the pub. He was carrying a black briefcase, dressed for the part in a flared pin-striped suit, with a stripy shirt underneath, his half-inch thick glasses catching the light and obscuring his eyes. He looked like some psychotic dentist out on emergency call. He said he wanted to blend in, to look inconspicuous. “No one will notice me dressed like this,” he said. “Ha.” And he gave me this conspiratorial look.

We were going tobacco smuggling.

We'd made the arrangements the night before. I'd met him down the pub where he told me the deal. I was to bring £50 with me to buy however many packets of Golden Virginia, which I'd hand on to him, and then, two days later, he'd give me my fifty quid back, plus £16 extra. He made it sound like it was a big deal.

"Hang on, Louie," I said, "sixteen quid. It's not a lot for a day's work is it?"

"No, think about it," he said, tapping his temple wisely, and giving me this arch, knowing, business-like look: "a free trip on a boat, a day out, a couple of pints, and then you come back with 16 quid in your pocket. You can't argue with that can you?"

Well I could argue with that. It was the least convincing argument for an illegal deal I'd ever heard. Sixteen pounds to put my liberty on the line. Fortunately I knew that it would also be an immeasurably entertaining day, and worth all the discomfort just for that.

"Game on?" I said.

"Game on," said Louie, blinking from behind his milk-bottle bottom glasses.

So here we were, speeding down the motorway, heading for the ferry port at 5.45 in the morning, Louie rolling endless cigarettes, and explaining that, actually, he didn't need my fifty quid after all. He'd managed to get Big Ted to lend him the money. Which was a relief, really. I didn't want to get involved in any smuggling operations. I particularly didn't want to get involved in any smuggling operations with Louie, who is the least likely tobacco smuggler on the planet. Which is probably no bad thing. No one can take Louie seriously, not even the Customs Officials, who would be looking for some hard-nosed types, out to make a few hundred, rather than a demented dentist, satisfied with sixteen quid and a day out on a boat.

You've probably guessed by now that Louie isn't a proper tobacco smuggler. I mean, he's been on a few trips, and been caught once or twice, but he's hardly likely to make his fortune in the trade. His regular partner is Big Ted, who is just as unlikely in his own way, but at least has the advantage that he's been in the game for a few years. Originally I'd set out to do the trip with the two of them. This was several weeks before. I'd got as far as the ferry port before it occurred to me that I might actually need to bring my passport with me. So it was two unconvincing smugglers, and one unconvincing journalist, all just as unlikely to succeed in our own chosen trades.

Anyway, Louie and I had arrived at the port by now, and I'd parked the car. It was 6.10 am. Louie had gone in to get the tickets, which are called Flyers. There were a few dead-eyed young men about, gathered in knots in the car-park, or sitting in cars with the windows open, smoking cigarettes with a faint air of desperation, as if they were waiting for more than just the ferry to arrive. "Want any Baccy mate? Marlboro? Superkings?" They say the same thing to everyone.

The trip takes two hours. You arrive on the Continent, pass through Customs, walk across the road and straight into one of the many tobacco-shops lined up by the dock-side waiting to take your English money. The shops are full of English 'Runners': that is, the people who transport the tobacco, day in and day out, across the channel. They make this trip two or three times a day. It's like a job to them. They buy maybe two or three hundred packets of tobacco at a time, talking in English to the English-speaking assistant, who answers through a microphone from behind his bullet-proof glass. The exchange is mono-syllabic and brief. The money is slipped across, counted, and then the tobacco slid beneath the counter through a rubber flap, with a shove of the foot, in boxes of a hundred.

The shop Louie and I went into was clearly set up precisely for this smuggling trade, and nothing else. There's a skip in there. The Runners grab their tobacco and then set about stripping off the packaging and loading the separate pouches into the hold-alls they're carrying. All the packaging is then dumped into the skip, which is already overflowing from the debris of numerous journeys.

You wonder how the British government puts up with this: a supposedly friendly nation allowing dockside shops specifically set up to aid British smugglers. You wonder why there hasn’t been some sort of a protest. It makes no difference to the tobacco companies, of course. After all, they still make their profit whichever country the stuff is sold in, whatever the language is on the packet. Only the tax is missing.

After that the Runners might buy a few cans of strong lager, to help with the journey back. And that's it. Two hours one way, the briefest breath of foreign air, and then back on the boat for the return journey. They call it 'the Turn-Around'. No wonder the tickets are called Flyers. It's a flying visit. Then it's a two hour journey back, when they drop the tobacco off with the men in the car-park, pick up their money, turn around and start again. They go on like this until the van is full, and then drive off to whatever part of the country they come from. And that, in brief, is the illegal tobacco trade. Every port is Britain is bustling with it.

On the way back Louie was telling me about the times he's been caught.

The first time this bloke had came up to him. Hair down to his shoulders, looking like it hadn't been combed in a month. Leather jacket. He said, "I want to look in your bag." "Hang on mate, I want to see an official," said Louie. "I am an official," he said, and pointed to his official-looking badge. So Louie showed him what was in the bag. Three hundred and fifty mixed packets of tobacco. Golden Virginia, Drum, Old Holborn. And the scruffy customs official laid it all across the counter. "It's a fair cop," said Louie.

"And then he started putting it all back in the bag," Louie told me. "I said, 'excuse me, but that bag is my personal property. You can have the tobacco, but I want the bag back.'"

"That's all right, mate," the customs official had said. "I'm not going to confiscate it this time. But next time: be warned." And he passed the bag back over the counter.

So Louie had got away with it. But he wasn't so lucky the next time: he lost the lot. There's Louie, all 4'11 of him, struggling through customs with this giant-sized hold-all. You couldn't see Louie, only his legs, tottering away beneath the weight. "Like a hold-all on legs," as Louie described it. And he was pulled.

"Excuse me, can I look in your bag?" Same thing. 350 packets of mixed tobacco. "I don't believe this is for your personal consumption," said the official.

"Yes it is," said Louie. "I don't like any one brand, so I mix it all together. And then I freeze it."

"Freeze it!" said the customs official in laughing disbelief. "You can't freeze tobacco."

"You can freeze anything," said Louie.

But they didn't buy his story that time, and he had the whole lot confiscated, about £600 worth. "The first time it's a warning. The next time they confiscate the tobacco. After that it's a fine, and if you're caught four times it's a prison sentence," Louie told me.

"Let's hope you don't get caught this time," I said.

Anyway, the return journey over, we were passing through the customs hall on our way back to the safety of English soil. All the Runners were there, with their giant hold-alls packed to the brim with tobacco, mingling with the tourists; Louie with his psychotic dentist's brief case bulging with contraband. The Customs Officers were lounging about looking bored, glancing at passports, but very little else. We passed through without incident, except that outside there was one cool-looking dude with mirror-shades and a green shirt, leaning against the wall and talking on a mobile phone.

"He's Customs," said Louie, sounding nervous.

Well he might have been. Then again he might just have been talking to his wife. Whichever it was, he let Louie and I go on our way.

We got in the car and Louie rolled himself another cigarette. After that we went home.


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