Would you have?

My dad died in February 1979. I was 12, my brothers were 10 and 8 years old respectively. We had moved to our new home the week before to a small village ten miles from Brighton in Sussex and as a treat on the following Saturday we planned to have a day by the sea. We set off in the morning with dad driving, mum in the front seat and us three boys in the back. The car was an old Vauxhall Victor FC – a very square, early seventies saloon with PVC tan coloured, single bench style seats front and back. These were the days when Jimmy Saville was appearing on our TVs telling us to ‘Clunk- Click Every Trip’. Not possible when most cars didn’t have rear seat belts. Only front seats had them then, and nearly no one used them.
I recall jumping into the back of the car between my brothers and we set off. The lane from our house took us left and to a T-junction where we turned right. That’s the last bit of the actual journey I remember vividly. We were all so excited.
I must have fallen asleep on the journey because someone was trying to wake me up. I also thought that was strange as I didn’t normally sleep in the car, but now I was so unbelievably tired and I just wanted to get back to sleep. There was warm stuff running down my face but I didn’t care (sleep). I heard my brother ‘L’ screaming over and over (sleep). My mum wailing ‘my kids, my kids’ (please let me sleep now). An unknown woman leaning over me, talking to me, words I cannot remember.

Sometimes there are moments in life when time freezes and you get a chance to look about and see what is happening. This was one of those moments. I was slumped to one side. Mum was still in her seat but turned hard to her left, a man reaching in and trying to hold her still or get her out, I couldn’t tell. Behind her the place where ‘M’ my youngest brother should have been was now empty. ‘L’ sat to my right screaming and screaming while another man was leaning into the car over him. My dad in the driver’s seat, his head arched right back (no head rests then) his eyes closed. A lot of shouting somewhere. The revving of what sounded like a chainsaw very close. This strange woman talking to me. My face wet and warm, fluid trickling down my chin and onto my neck.
My right leg was bent under the seat, foot wedged and stuck. The whole leg hurt so bad. More words from this woman, something about an accident and her calling me Sweetie a lot. She was talking and talking when someone else gently pulled my foot from under the seat. The shattered ends of my broken femur grated against themselves and the world filled with searing white hot pain. I screamed and must have passed out.

Flashes of memory. In an ambulance. In a hospital. Being wheeled on a trolley down endless florescent lit corridors. My tongue hurting so much. My right thigh burning.

That night, after my clothes were cut of, my head wounds stitched up, front teeth pushed back into place, right leg splinted, I was taken to an intensive care unit. I later woke up in a darkened ward to the sounds of someone in a bed across from me struggling hard to breath and moaning whilst a team of nurses and doctors frantically worked on him. Another nurse realised I was awake and quickly jabbed a syringe into my left thigh and I blacked out again. My heart tells me the man in that bed was my dad.


The road to the coast was the A23. It’s a fairly straight road direct to Brighton from the village of Albourne. On the morning of Saturday 24th February 1979, a two guys who had been all night fishing and drinking got into their car and, a few miles out, the drunk and exhausted driver fell asleep behind the wheel. The car careered to the right, across the centre verge and into an on-coming Vauxhall Victor FC carrying a family of five on their way to the sea-side, a treat after having just moved to the area. The dad sustained serious head and internal injuries that he would die from later that night. He was thirty eight years old. His wife in the passenger seat suffered trauma to her chest that would cause a series of heart attacks, pleurisy of her lungs and a lifetime of health problems. The three boys in the rear survived the crash but the son sat immediately behind his dad suffered fractures of both of his femurs, the son in the middle had a fracture of the right femur, needed nineteen stitches to his forehead from flying glass and he bit right through his tongue. The youngest son behind his mum had a deep cut to his forehead that remained a bright pink scar for the rest of his life but, maybe because he was the smallest, he escaped any breaks or serious injuries. He had his ninth birthday two days later in a hospital ward, just a day after being told his dad had died in the crash. The nurses bought a cake to his bed, and he cried.


Thirty years later I was a sergeant in charge of a police custody suite in London. A smartly dressed, well-spoken, obviously professional young man stood before me having been stopped and arrested for drink-driving in the early hours of the morning. The legal limit is 35 micrograms of alcohol in the breath and the custody breathalyser put his in the high 70’s, so he was over double the legal limit to drive. Just as I was about to charge him and read him his rights and entitlements, he got very angry, banging his hands on the desk, telling me that we were wasting his and our time, that we should go out and catch some real criminals. He shouted into my face that we were all a joke because he had done nothing wrong.

No, I didn’t hit him.

Advertisements

‘Why us’? ‘Because we’re here lad. Nobody else. Just us’

On a recent post I stated that some writing is done for cathartic reasons. This is one of those posts and details my minor involvement in a house fire where there were some nasty injuries. Fire is an emotive subject – I have a dread of dealing with fire incidents – so feel free to skip this post if this affects you too.


I was a fairly new police officer when I got called to this job, and my colleague – who I will refer to as KS – was even newer than me. Fortunately, the thing about joining the police slightly older in life is that everyone assumes you are an experienced old-sweat. KS, though not as old as me, exuded confidence and ability. I always admired her and her ability to deal with everything with a beaming smile before and after the worst of jobs. Not on this occasion though. This one wiped the smile off both of our faces completely.


I was driving our patrol car and KS was in the driving seat. In the Met police that position is called an Operator (as in a Radio Operator). It was early into a night-shift – 1am maybe – and we were slowly mooching around one of our city’s housing estates, drifting left here, turning right there, looking for any suspicious activity, waiting for the radio to pipe up and dish out the next call for us to attend. We didn’t have to wait too long.

(radio): ‘Unit now please for an Immediate Response to reports of a house fire at…’


We were literally a few roads away. I threw the car right then left and entered a cul-de-sac. At the end was a house fully ablaze and we were the first responders on scene. Let me tell you, the building fires that are portrayed in the movies, where our hero dashes through brightly burning rooms with a handkerchief over his mouth, saving the damsel in distress, are as about far-fetched as the wildest sci-fi films. This house was bellowing, no spewing, columns thick black smoke from all the windows, filling the air. Outside the house was a lone female, frantically screaming back at the building, ‘MY BABY, MY BABY’


What on earth was I to do? I wasn’t trained for this. Nothing I had done in my new role or previous life had prepared me for this? I was supposed to catch the bad guys!


Her screaming, the flashing of our blue lights and the arrival of the fire brigade caused the neighbours to come out of their houses to investigate. There’s something about fire that gets people gravitating towards it. It is said if a woman is being attacked, she should not shout for help as no one is interested in getting involved in someone else’s fight. She should shout FIRE! With fire people will always run towards you, it’s a primal instinct to help.


In the chaos that ensued, I found myself with this frantic woman, guiding her towards a fire engine. She was wailing that her boy was in the house and I relayed that to the fire officers. As I sat in the back of the lorry cab with the distraught mother, from among the bedlam outside I heard shouts and a flurry of activity as a fireman, dressed in full-body protective breathing apparatus, ran from the smoke filled house and towards us and to a nearby waiting ambulance with the body of a small boy in his arms, his pale limbs flopping loosely as the fireman ran.


Once away from that hellish scene, I took the mother to the hospital to be treated, then to the Resus. Unit where they were treating her son. As I released her into the care of the nursing staff, I caught a brief sight of the young boy; thin, frail and stripped bare on a trolley. The skin on his entire body was bright red. His mother’s sudden wail of pain and despair will haunt me till the end of my days.


It transpired that her husband was night working and she had gone to bed, putting her six year old son in next to her. Medication she was on had sent her into a deep sleep, whilst in the living room directly below a cigarette had dropped onto her settee starting the fire. With her door closed, the bedroom above had heated up like an oven. The heat and smoke then woke her and in her confusion she panicked had gone looking for her son. The cloying smoke had driven her out of the house and her son, now unconscious, was found still lying in her bed in the searing heat.


Some months later I met with same fire brigade that had attended that horrendous fire. The young boy did survive but had 60% burns and severe internal injuries from breathing in the intense heat. The brigade had kept regular contact and had organised a fund raising event for the family. There is often a bizarre rivalry between the fire brigade and police, for reasons I have never fully fathomed, but I have nothing but admiration for them especially when they deal with these types of incidents. They were incredible.


There’s no moral to this story. No lesson I wish to impart. It’s simply a story I cannot talk about out loud without still getting choked up, even though it was years ago now. Maybe if anything it is understanding the importance of holding debriefs and counselling for the first responders after a traumatic event, something that was not offered to myself or KS, but something I always do now as a supervisor. No one at the time considered that I had a son roughly the same age as that poor boy. No one asked if I, or my colleague KS, was simply alright. After all that’s what we do isn’t it? That’s what we are paid for?


I’m in no way an expert on mental health, but through my many experiences I have come to recognise certain signs in people that others often miss. Behaviours, actions, reactions. Never underestimate mental traumas, however seemingly minor. They are hard to see, harder to recognise and near impossible to heal if ignored. If you recognise this could be you, speak to someone.


Or maybe write about it.

Stories

It is said that everyone has at least one novel in them. Each one of us has the ability or knowledge to write or create at least one book. Apparently.


Have you ever tried? When I waste hours in my commute and sleep-walk through my day at work, as I day-dream, snooze or experience the most fantastically vivid dreams when asleep, I will then say to myself ‘That would be a great book’. My own little master piece. My chance at giving Stephen King or Clare Macintosh a run for their money. Full of macabre twists or supernatural plots, thrillers to make the reader’s toes curl up, a page-turning paperback that cannot be put down.


Then I sit in front of a computer and turn into a vacant fool, my brain as empty as the blank screen that stares mockingly back at me. Where do I start? What is it even about? Do I write in the first person? Am I in the here-and-now or telling a past event? Where’s my cup of tea? Why am I suddenly hungry? What’s on Netflix right now? Oh, look, I always wanted to watch that! I’ll try that again later.


The next day; Screen. Blink. Tea. Netflix. Repeat.


There are a multitude of reasons why writers write; the transfer of knowledge and wisdom, to instruct and teach, the recording of ideas good and bad. The desire to be artistic, the absolute yearning to tell that story. A cathartic desire to off-load a head full of problems (a virtual/paper psychiatrist that listens to and absorbs everything but doesn’t question or challenge. A problem shared/halved and all that).


But I think there is a simpler reason people want to write a book – any book on any subject – and that is a secret, fundamental desire to leave a little of themselves behind for when they are gone. Leaving behind a tangible, tactile and highly personal set of words for others to read and be affected by, is an attempt to not be forgotten, an attempt at a little immortality. Why do you think the biggest words on the front cover of most books is often the author’s name and not the title? Yes, famous authors have a fan base that followers will read based purely on the author not the subject, but it’s also to appease the writer’s ego. We cherish books, share them, revere them. There is something sacred about a book and it is hard to throw one away, which is why charity shops are full of them. Bodies get buried or cremated but books with the author’s name in massive shiny font on the cover, get passed about from home to home, person to person, time to time. REMEMBER ME!


This is why most first-time writers are older I think. There are incredibly talented young writers but for many the enemy of creating the written work is time, in finding enough of the blasted, elusive stuff. But as the end of one’s life creeps closer and the days ahead number fewer than the days left behind, we start to wonder what we will leave behind that stops us being forgotten. A legacy. Whatever our belief or not in the existence of an afterlife, theist or atheist, I believe there’s a desire to cling to this world and make a difference to other human beings. In the 2016 re-boot of WestWorld, Anthony Hopkin’s character Dr Robert Ford quoted ‘Mozart and Chopin never died. They simply became music.’ I would argue that this is the same wish for writers becoming their words.


I have my own view on what will happen to me after I die. I’ll cover that in another blog at a later time, but I believe whatever our legacy or impact on this planet or our importance or significance now on planet earth, as human beings we are all just stories in the end.

Me Me Me

Before you, dear reader, go any further with this blog, I wish to lay out my stall.
Some of you will know me well, some professionally, some a little, some not at all.
I am not one for laying out to all and sundry who I am, warts and all (normally), but after my mum died in 2010 I realised I didn’t know anywhere nearly enough about her. Her past, her fears, her needs. Mum was guarded for reasons I will cover elsewhere, but I will strive to be different and write about anything I can that I feel is relevant to my story. For in the end all we are when we die are stories.
This non chronological jigsaw of a blog will be my story.

10th October 1941

After my mother died, I found a series of handwritten letters from her father to her mother. He was overseas in the war, and she was home and expecting a baby (my mum) imminently. I am publishing his letters. At this point they did not know they were to have a daughter.

10 October 1941 To My son, Tony

Some time ago, I think it was just over five years, I had a friend who was writing a series of letters to his son who had been adopted by friends on the death of the boy’s mother. The object of these letters was to give the boy an understanding, when he grew up, of what kind of man his father had been. My friend, after he had left the boy in his friend’s care had promised to become ‘Uncle Freddie’, that the boy would not miss his having a mother and father, as such time as he’d reached man’s estate and was able to judge when people’s own actions with a more or less unbiased view.

I thought it rather a good idea, provided that the boy was not told anything about having been adopted until such time as he really needed to know who and what his father was.

Since that time, I have been married and am soon going to be a father, whether of a son or daughter I don’t yet know. I propose to adopt my friend’s idea, and write a series of letter to my son or daughter, that I may be understood when my child grows old enough to need to know something of his, or her, father at the time of his birth.

I don’t know what impression I will make. That really doesn’t matter, for I don’t intend the child shall read these letters until after he or she has been earning a living for at least two years, during which time he or she will have met enough people to understand some of the vicissitudes of life, and the motives and reasons for many of what would seem, to a schoolboy, unreasonable actions. I will write what I am therefore thinking in the way that I think it, without trying to make it good English. I want my letters to paint a picture of me, my thoughts, my arguments (my friends say I argue too much), and not write to make a perfect example of the way every good schoolboy should write.

But I can hear the tea-cups downstairs, so must feed the inner man before writing my first letter. Not that there is really anything attractive downstairs. Just bread and butter, and possibly jam or marmalade, and some tea to be drunk from a china cup, but no saucer, no table cloth nor any of those things that could make this place a home from home. But then the Army will never be that – not even to the staff of an Officer’s Mess. It could be, it was once, but then we had civilians with us and women at that. Now we have only army personnel, and the unbred side of the men will always show itself first;- I think it is impossible to make a man behave properly at a table if there is no women present as a rule (unless of course the men are officers and gentlemen!) (That was sarcastic, in case it was too subtle).

Well – to Tea.

I was wrong. – instead of jam or marmalade we had a little cheese, and of course the ‘Butter’ was Margarine. We have seen no butter now for so long that we talk of butter when we mean margarine and don’t expect anything else to be understood.

Don’t think from the way I write that there is anything wrong with the food here – far from it. Nowadays to have Jam, Marmalade or Cheese is quite a luxury to civilians, and in one meal we have as much of one of these as a civilian has for a whole week. And as we are in the Officer’s Mess we see to it that we feed a little better that the men who eat in the Company Cookhouses. We realise these things but, like the Officers, whose desires we have to try to meet, always compare with peace-time, when things which are now very scarce or unobtainable were plentiful.

I must really start my first letter or this will be nothing but a rambling criticism of life in general.

Mum. The end story first

My mother was diagnosed in December 2009 with bowel cancer. A series of various illnesses and conditions throughout her life had set her back, but she always soldiered on, shrugging off pain and debilitating set-backs with humour, resolve and an old-fashioned spirit that begat from the World War 2 era and which her generation subsequently become famous for.

Throughout my life’s events – which I intend to detail in further posts – I had seen my mum grit her teeth and work through slipped discs in her lower back, a car crash that nearly killed her (us), broken ribs, chest problems, thrombosis in the lung, a hip so rotten it would have destroyed a weaker person, and a list of lesser ailments that in hindsight were quite serious but often paled into insignificance to the bigger problems. She was able to hide her pain with laughter and distraction.

The cancer was different. By different I don’t mean in the obvious way, the dreaded Big C ‘Oh my God! I’m going to die’ way. The cancer started to eat away inside her long before she was diagnosed with any of the outward symptoms, and it caused her to do something which she had never done with me before. She started to talk about her past.

Throughout my childhood mum had often referred to certain things that she was happy for us to know. She had lost her dad in the war. Her mother had died of TB. She was bought up by her Gran who was the most wonderful, sweetest and kindest person in the world. She met my Dad, married and had her three boys (of which I’m the eldest). She loved my dad with all of her heart and, after he died, never found true love again. She died single but not alone. I was there with my brother L.

Her story has influenced my life in many ways, but the more I learn about her life the more I realise that her story could be made into a fantastic book, especially as I would not have to deviate from the truth. My mother passed away with no other family than her two surviving sons and our families who loved her as their Gran. I’m determined that her story was greater than that. She deserves to be remembered for her incredible resolve. She does not deserve to be forgotten as the last of her family line. If I can, I will work on a novel that will be based on an incredible story of positivity over adversity.

Lots of cream. Lots of sugar.

I recall a story by the illusionist (mentalist?) Derren Brown. I don’t know if it’s true or anecdotal but it explores the psychological mind set we place ourselves in, in order to achieve or deal with stressful situations.

The story (summarised) recalls how one night he was the victim of an attempted robbery. An unknown young miscreant approached him on a dark street and, threatening Mr Brown presumably armed with a knife or similar weapon, demanded his wallet and phone etc. Brown, being the expert showman in all things to do with mind fuckery, paused and said to the would-be robber ‘But the wall outside my house isn’t four feet high?’

According to Brown this caused this young attacker – who at this point has built himself into a highly focused state of ‘fight or flight’ anxiety in order to effect the crime – to pause and to try to work out what the hell had just been said to him. This acted like a virtual slap around the face and caused the baddie to have an ‘emotional dump’, burst into tears and to run away empty handed.

The scenario above isn’t at all surprising if you deal with aggression and conflict on a regular basis. As a police officer I have been routinely placed in such situations of threats and violence, not always by the criminals I have had to arrest and process. It’s actually very common for the victims to turn on the helpers, become threatening and even violent to the first responders who are there to help and take control of incidents. Incidents that to the victim are often surreal, very frightening and completely disconcerting.

Most decent people in society live and work to a set of assumptions and expectations. Routines around work, social norms with friends and colleagues, expectations of behaviour from strangers and a trust in a governmental system that is supposed to magically attend and solve all things bad with a click of the fingers. When these norms suddenly go awry, good people can be mentally shunted into being the aggressor – the polar opposite of Mr Brown’s foe above. It’s fight-or-flight in reverse if you like. Good, calm intelligent people when confronted with trauma can have an emotional overload causing a fight/aggression/confrontation response.

By using the term Good People I refer to the 85% of society that don’t think getting arrested is an occupational hazard.

As a new police officer assigned to patrol busy weekend night club and bar areas, a common tactic we were taught when attending to victims of confrontation was to distance them from the immediate situation. On arrival at some dispute or fight in the street – say two pissed up people next to a road side kebab wagon about to get into a fist-fight over whether it’s better to have cheese or gravy on chips, or an argument between a couple because of she saw/he saw etc, the first police tactic would be to get the parties to step away from their counterpart and have them turn their back on each other, speaking directly to the officer unlucky enough to get called there. This sudden loss of visual presence to their nemesis, along with a re-focus of who to vent to, has a near instant de-escalation reaction. Plus the presence of a police officer (who let’s face it most people don’t experience and get nervous when they even see one) who is sternly telling you to come here and tell them what happened, jolts people into feeling uncomfortable and even childlike. When was the last time a grown-up told you off and asked you to explain what you were doing? School? Parents ? This is less of a mental slap and more of a nudge but it often works. Distraction is a powerful tool to calm, diffuse and displace anxiety.

I inadvertently had a Derren Brown moment myself a few years back. My moment came way before his and I have to say I owe my well-being and the positive outcome to the actors John Travolta and Harvey Keitel of Pulp Fiction movie fame. I hasten to add they weren’t actually there, but they allowed me to have my ‘four feet high wall’ moment first. Eat that Brown! I’ll explain;

I commute to work on a coach service between my home city and London. As a shift worker my commute brings me in contact with other professional commuters, theatre goers, revellers, students and idiots. Lots of idiots as it turns out. At the end of a particularly erratic and stressful day policing the nation’s capital (ergo a normal day) I was sat on my coach at the Marble Arch stop having already boarded earlier. I was ensconced into my seat, phone or book to hand, minding my own business. I rarely ‘stand out’ as a police officer on my commute because when conflict does arise people get emboldened if they know a copper is about and things usually quickly escalate for the worse.

Enter today’s idiot. I cannot tell you how it started but an argument erupted between the driver and a boarding passenger: a thick-set male in his late thirties who clearly, from the outset was the sort who thought he could do what he wanted using the shouty-tactic. The driver was having none of it and a stand-off ensued: said driver telling him to exit the coach and Mr Idiot refusing and arguing a pointless case. Said Coach Driver then threatening to call the police. Idiot man telling him to fucking go on and do so.

Like a majority of people, one of the things I am keen to do at the end of any shift is get home as fast and as effortlessly as I can. Idiot man was holding up this process. At the point the police were threatened I had already braced myself for the oncoming battle, had my warrant card in my hand ready, and stood up with as much weariness and huffing as I could muster telling Idiot Man there was no need to call the police as I am one! Kerpow! Take That.

Not.

Now said aggression/stand-off with Idiot Man was solely directed at me, with a coach full of passengers watching us in a real life episode of Stop. Police. Action. I’m sure I heard someone starting to eat popcorn in the new pin-drop silence that had suddenly descended.

Me: I’m a police officer. You’ve been asked to leave this coach by the driver. Please leave.
Idiot: What the fuck has this got to do with you?
Me: You are causing disorder. The driver has asked you to leave. I’m asking you to leave.
Idiot: This is none of your business.
Me: I’m making it my business. I want to go home, you’re holding up the coach.

At this point he is facing me off and fairly close to me too, on said busy and confined coach. I can see he is eyeing up the area around me and contemplating how this will go if this gets physical. I’m considering the same. I have none of my police equipment on me, no radio and no back up. It’s one-on-one with a lot of innocent people in close proximity and I can see he is getting mentally focused on an increasingly aggressive thought process. This is where Vincent Vegas (Travolta) and Mr Wolf (Keigel) come to my rescue. My back up if you like.

If you have seen Pulp Fiction there’s a moment between Vincent and Mr Wolf in Jimmie’s kitchen. Vincent and Jules are being instructed by Mr Wolf to clean up the splattered brains of a young Marvin who had his head blown off in a car. There’s a stand-off where Vincent asks Mr Wolf to say Please. Following a stiff rebuke, Wolf says to Vincent:

‘So, pretty please, with sugar on top, clean the fucking car’. It works. Vincent feels vindicated, turns around muttering to himself and does exactly what he was told to do in the first place.

Back to my very own Jimmie’s kitchen;

Idiot: What are you going to do? You’re on your own.
Me: True, but with one phone call I’ll have my lot round here in a flash and you’ll spend tonight in a police cell. (Que my Mr Wolf moment); So pretty please, with sugar on top, leave the coach.

I intentionally left out the ‘effs and jeffs’ (I was trying to maintain an air of authority) but the effect worked. He actually blinked twice and said ‘What? Pretty please? You’re pathetic’. He then visibly deflated, turned around and got off the coach. I’ve never seen a set of bus doors close quicker to a chorus of ‘well done’ and ‘good work’ from my adoring crowd, and I got a hand shake from the driver as I later alighted at my stop.

Mr Idiot was expecting threats, intimidation, an escalation of testosterone fuelled bravado. I delivered a quiet but confusing mental slap that caused an emotional shunt. He didn’t know where to go next, so he left. Result. That’s-a-Bingo! (different Tarantino film).

If you ever find yourself in a confrontational situation that you cannot physically control, then mentally attack it. Rage is viewed through tunnel vision. Try derailing that rage train with a calm, controlled but utterly ridiculous reply. Don’t worry about feeling stupid. It’s better than feeling a thump to the nose or a knife in the ribs. Don’t apply reason until you see the emotional shift in your assailant. It’s a tactic I’ve utilised over countless encounters, confrontations and through many difficult arrests. I mostly left the situation with them shaking hands and thanking me.

It won’t always work but it often does, and at the very least may give you the opportunity to get away from a scary situation quickly, unharmed and with something to laugh about at a later time.