Saturday, 5 January 2008

Bobbies aren't always dazzlers

“Our Policemen are Wonderful.”

There was a time when that mantra was on everyone’s lips. Except mine.

My father was a policeman and came a little short in the wonderful line. He had been in the trenches with the Royal Scots at the age of 15 in World War One and the experience had scarred him. He was a drunk, a wife beater, a bully, but a total charmer to the world outside our house. He was as brave as a lion, always went on his own in areas where policemen went in twos for mutual protection, and was shot in the head by the IRA when he stormed a house in which they were besieged. I was still sewing his ripped trousers, the relics of fights, during most of his sixties.

During the war he was the driver in a dedicated unit set up to fight the black market. As a direct result, our house was so full of sides of bacon, eggs, legs of lamb and crates of whisky that I thought I was the son of a uniformed grocer.

Trench warfare had freed him of any moral sense. He would steal sweets from Woolworths under the noses of the shop girls. When he was on night duty he would come home with hauls of antiques he swore he had found in dustbins. If he was late for work he would steal a car from his local pub and report it stolen when he arrived at the police station. We used a carving knife at home, not knowing he had taken it from a house where a luckless man had used it to cut his throat.

He certainly did not subscribe to the wonderful policeman syndrome, and how much less he would have supported it now when our policemen will only go on a crime scene when it has been made safe. If one reports a theft or an act of hooliganism one might as well shout it down a wet sock for all the reaction. In this house we have a sophisticated burglar alarm system to which the police will not respond because it is not on their approved list. My cousin apprehended one of a legion of thieves who had stolen eight thousand pounds’ worth of garden statuary by brandishing a golf club at him. When the police arrived they threatened to arrest my cousin for possession of a weapon.

Their own use of deadly weapons has resulted in the deaths of a number of innocent people, for which none has been prosecuted. A Chief Constable retires and draws a handsome pension. He later takes another job as Chief Constable but goes to law to defend his right to keep the pension from his other job. Other senior policemen resign hurriedly to secure their pension against possible future disciplinary action.

An innocent Brazilian is shot by police gunmen. No successful prosecution follows. The Omagh massacre has found no culprit. The only man charged was released amid criticism of the police by the judge. A worrying number of people convicted of murder have later been pardoned because the evidence was faulty. A number of very senior policemen have taken hurried retirement rather than face an inquiry into their behaviour.

When I was reporting on the Richardson Crime Family in the Sixties, the evidence against them was assembled in a rural police station because so many members of the Metropolitan police were in their pockets.

Sir Ian Blair, The Teflon Commissioner, and Richard Brunstrom, the North Wales Chief Constable, dubbed the Mad Mullah by the Daily Mail, a list of whose eccentricities makes entertaining reading on the Association of British Drivers website. Which of the two, I wonder, has done most to make a mockery of the proposition that our policemen are wonderful?

Some years ago, Dr Howard Taylor, an historian at Nottingham University, published the results of a four-year study into policing in the Economic History Review. It showed that the police have been manipulating crime figures to appease politicians, protect their budgets and increase manpower for 140 years, since the days of Jack the Ripper.
Nevertheless, when the police force was denied a promised rise of salary I was on their side. Not because they deserved it, but because I believe government should honour its promises. Indeed I am less sure that it has been earned.

I have known glorious exceptions because I have been lucky enough to live most of my life in villages, and village policemen ARE universally wonderful. Sadly they are a dying breed. Today’s meritocratic Chief Constables would never approve the personal fiefs which village bobbies made of their patrol areas.

The supreme example was my much mourned friend Ken Williams who doubled being a police constable in Bala, North Wales, and Treaddur Bay, on Anglesey, with a career as a TV personality whose HTV wildlife programmes were some of the best I have ever seen.

When Anglesey Aluminium bought a great swathe of the island to build a smelter, the land included a country estate in Ken’s bailiwick, Penrhos, which was teeming with wildlife.

He lay in wait for the managing director of the new project until he caught him speeding. The M.D. asked, as they do, if there was anything he could do to prevent the mark on his licence. Ken said there was, and told him about a plan he had to turn the Penrhos Estate into a wildlife reserve. The M.D. suggested he draw up a plan, no doubt hoping that it would be the last he would hear of the idea.

Ken stayed up all that night drawing it, and presented it to the startled manager before he left for work the next morning.

The M.D. sent it to his bosses, with the result that Ken, who had the tongue of angels, was called to London and so bedazzled the company’s parent Board that they gave him the estate. It is now the most successful wild life centre in Britain and respected throughout the conservation world.

Ken retired after marrying a millionairess and becoming the only serving PC in Wales to have a holiday home staffed with servants in Mombasa.
When they were married I said, “I suppose you will leave the police now you have married into money?”

“And lose my full pension?” he said. “Not on your life.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

You could have given my old man leprosy, just so long as it was free. When I was a toddler there was an outbreak of psittacosis, the parrot disease, and birds were being given away on every corner. So far as I know, my old man was the only person to have accepted one. And since he was on point duty directing traffic at the time, his action should attract extra marks.
When he was offered this great white bird with a beak like Fagin, he immediately deserted his post and marched home with it on his wrist.
We were living with my granny at the time, whose hatred of him reached white heat when he appeared in our lobby with his trophy.

He placed it on the back of the sofa, instructed my mother to feed it and returned to duty.

My granny’s cat had been watching the new arrival with great interest. No sooner had the front door closed on my father than it pounced, and what had once been an imposing bird became a cloud of feathers, fluttering onto the lino.

My mother was terrified of my father.

“What are we going to do? He’ll be furious,” she moaned.

My granny, who could have given Machiavelli three blacks and still beaten him off the table, said: “We’ll tell him it died and we were so afraid of that disease that’s going round we buried it in the back yard.”

Worked like a charm.

“Psittacosis!“ exclaimed my father.

Before he could be stopped, he took all the furniture into the back yard, even the leather bound cover of the Radio Times which was our only concession to gracious living, piled it in a heap and burned it.

At the time I spent most of my days comfortably contemplating the world from a dresser drawer which served as a cot. Though nearly two years old, it had not occurred to me to speak. There were two reasons for this. I could not think of anything witty to say and I was waiting until I encountered a grown up who spoke recognisible English. “Who’s a booful baby, then?” and ticking noises seemed the extent of the vocabulary of the people who bent over me.

However, the last hours had been full of incident and I felt they deserved comment. I spoke for the first time.

“Naughty pussy,“ I said with admirable clarity, “naughty pussy ate the parrot.”

Within two weeks my father had found us a council house and he never spoke another word to my granny to the day she died.

Me? I had seen the power of the spoken word. I could not wait to become a broadcaster.


Mr Ivor White, a road sweeper, found an unwanted extra at the bottom of his rubbish cart... an overweight policeman.
The episode started when two drunken holiday makers stopped Mr White to ask the way to St David’s station in Exeter, Devon. As he gave directions a police car drew up. The driver thought the men were causing trouble and got out of the car.
Mr White said; “We were in a very narrow part of the street. A bus went past. The two men moved to avoid it and the copper was accidentally knocked backwards into the barrow.
“He was a rather chubby chap and he got jammed in with his legs waving. The men, both Welsh, disappeared and try as I might I could not get the policeman out.”
A burly passerby gave a hand, but even with Mr White pulling the policeman’s legs and the helper hauling his arm pits, he was still stuck fast. By then his knees were touching his chin and he was “absolutely helpless” Mr White said.
“Then two youngsters said they could get him out. They lit a match setting fire to the rubbish underneath and promptly ran off. This did the trick. Somehow the policeman got hold of the side of the cart and heaved himself out.
“I have never seen anyone move so fast.”

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