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Mike Pannett, Kris Hollington
YORKIE COMES TO TOWN
One year earlier, Sunday 28 November 1988.
I looked through the glass at Mum and Dad, waving me off from the small platform of our hometown station and then glanced down at the seat next to me. Someone had left behind a copy of The Sun newspaper. I pressed it against the window so Mum and Dad could see the front page. The headline read: Police Cadets in Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll Scandal and there was a photo of some young lady officers laughing as they showed their stocking-stops. Mum and Dad's expressions froze in shock. I grinned and gave them the thumbs-up as the train pulled away.
Dad was a scientist who worked with fibre optics and my brother and two sisters were all academics. My brother went on to become quartermaster of the Thames, responsible for all shipping on the river. I was the black sheep. Academia held no interest for me; I was the outdoors type (we lived deep in the Yorkshire countryside) and loved to talk to anyone and everyone about girls, motorbikes and York City FC.
After school I'd joined the Territorial Army (First Battalion, Yorkshire Volunteers, the barracks backed onto York City's home pitch and you could watch the Tuesday night footy for free). I specialised in Signals, which I loved, and was the runner up out of 180 men when we were tested for overall performance (I was pipped by the Sergeant Major's son, funny that). I then went from job to job (vacuum cleaner salesman to farm labourer) and worked selling car parts from a Ford garage (I can still remember some of the seven-figure serial numbers for different parts) before I decided I was going to join the police.
I applied to join North Yorkshire and sat the multi-choice exam. I was a bit worried about my performance until I noticed there was an intelligent university boy sitting to my immediate left and, well, I passed everything. Then I learned they wouldn't take me because I was short-sighted and wore glasses. I told them I could shoot a gnat's nut off at fifty paces but they weren't having it.
The only force that didn't mind (apart from Devon and Cornwall, way too far away from home) was London's Metropolitan Police, aka the Met. Apparently, after two years, you could transfer and any force would then take you, glasses or no.
When the Met accepted my application, I was 24-years-old, driving a van, delivering engine parts all over Yorkshire. I loved the scenery but it wasn't well paid and it certainly wasn't a challenge. If I wanted to move on, I had to leave all this behind for the big city.
* * *
I'd never been to London and so was quite nervous when I stepped out of the train at Kings Cross; I'd never seen so many people in one place. They were rushing around, like some emergency was taking place; I seemed to travel at half their speed. The first person to talk to me was a tall lady who was standing with a friend on the station concourse. She stopped me by placing a hand on my chest. She was attractive, in her 20s and was holding an unlit cigarette, which she waved at me hopefully.
"Got a light, luv?" she said.
"Yeah, sure," I replied, fishing out my lighter.
The young lady and her friend then propositioned me, for a price, an offer which, blushing, I politely declined. My next encounter was with an illegal minicab driver who offered to take me to Hendon for a fiver.
I opted instead for the tube, which was in its own way no less daunting. The Met had warned all us young recruits that pickpockets and street robbers were targeting naive students heading for the college, so I was on high alert as I descended into the bowels of London.
I'd only seen one black person before in my life, a friend of mine who was in the TA with me and whom everyone referred to as 'Black Ronnie.' We'd become quite matey after working together at a terrible job cleaning bricks (Ronnie went on to become an RAF navigator). Now there were loads of black people everywhere I looked and I couldn't help but stare, fascinated at everyone and everything.
There was standing room only on the crowded tube train. I smiled at the other people around me, like any Yorkshire lad would, and said: "Busy isn't it?" to a man I found myself a touch too close to. He gave me a tight-lipped smile in response and turned away. No one was making eye contact and no one was talking, which left me totally flummoxed. Why weren't people talking to one another? I stood in uncomfortable silence as the train rattled its way north and the crowds gradually thinned out until I stepped off, above ground, in Hendon.
I found my way to the college and then had no trouble locating the Peel Bar, marvelling at the dozens of people that were already there (the Met was on a recruitment drive and 170 people were in my group). Blokes outnumbered the ladies by at least five-to-one. I'd been expecting the place to be overwhelmed by Cockneys, but there were people from all over, even all the way from Wales and Scotland. I eventually made myself known to the administration and was presented with a key.
"Ninth floor," the woman told me, handing me an A4 paper with a long list of do's and don'ts. The ninth floor! I'd never been in a tower block before in my life.
The room was cell-like, with a sink, which doubled as a urinal. There was an old fashioned chest of drawers. I opened the top draw. A bible was inside. I looked out through the thin, drafty window and saw the underground trains rattling by, the city lights and heard the unceasing ocean-like roar of traffic. The wind rattled the window; it felt as though the building was swaying with the weather. I lit a fag and sat down at the desk. Someone had carved a message into the surface: 'Good luck you're going to need it!' and I wondered what the hell I'd done.
* * *
We had twenty weeks of intensive training. I was fit thanks to the TA and had no fear of the physical tests. We needed to be in top physical condition and had to be able to run one-and-a-half-miles in under twelve minutes; a piece of cake, as were the trials involving sit-ups, push-ups, press-ups and standing jumps. But when it came to studying, I was terrified. I'd left school with no qualifications and succeeding at exams was to me, as likely as getting hit by a snowball in the Sahara. Fail two exams at Hendon and you were done.
But I was lucky. Two academics – Graham, a muscular rugby player from Durham, who came from a family of miners, and Mark, a good-looking, dark-haired posh boy from Surrey – were in my class and bunked on the same floor as me. They took me under their wing
"The trick is to avoid the bar at all costs," Mark said, "Until we've studied for at least three hours and had a run."
"Then we can have a quick pint," Graham said.
"Or three," I added hopefully.
"And then to bed."
Mark and Graham taught me how to study, and the use of cue cards as memory aids. We spent hours working each night and even questioned each other first thing in the morning (after Graham, an expert trumpet player, had woken us at the crack of dawn by playing First Call) when we were in our floor's three baths, all in a row, separated by thin partitions.
Our first exam was on a Monday morning with the result handed out that night in the classrooms (classes were eight hours a day, Monday to Friday). I was terrified and my hands were shaking by the time the results were delivered but was totally delighted when I realised I'd passed. I may not have been near the top like Graham and Mark (who once managed to score 100%) but this was enough to make me realise that I could learn just as well as the university types; it was all down to application and enthusiasm. I learned everything verbatim and can still recall every word of the Theft Act as it was when I learned it then. And because I was actually interested in the law, I started to do well, sometimes coming third, behind Graham and Mark.
Although they were academically gifted, Graham and Mark were a couple of years younger than me and didn't have much in the way of real-world experience, and were lacking in the common sense department, so I was able to teach them a bit about this. Together we formed a bond and stuck together, and took everything to do with our studies seriously – although we cut loose at weekends. We were being paid a salary and had no expenses, so we could afford to party and once even ended up in Stringfellows.
My 'common sense' sometimes got me into trouble, however. Our first ever role-play was on a London bus. The trainer asked for volunteers.
"Go on Yorkie," Mark said so, unable to resist a challenge, I stepped up. We were on the top deck. The instructor asked me to get him off the bus.
"Begin," he commanded.
"Excuse me sir," I said, "Would you mind stepping off the bus?"
He grabbed hold of the pole and refused to budge, despite my pleas.
"Come on sir, get yourself off the bus."
He still refused, and turned his back to me. I found myself uncharacteristically flustered. How should a copper go about this? Inspiration hit. I withdrew my truncheon and raised it above my head.
"IF YOU DON'T FU-!"
"STOP!" the trainer screamed. "Stop the role play! Good god man, if someone doesn't do what you want you can't whack them!"
I was still so naïve about how a police officer should act. We were of course expected to behave responsibly even when off duty. It slowly dawned that, as I would have the power to take away someone's liberty, I had to be professional at all times.
The instructors were enthusiastic and really cared about their work. The majority were still serving cops but a few had been injured on duty and had been forced to retreat to the classroom, a reminder of the dangers we would be facing once out in the 'real world' trying to arrest 'real criminals'.
There was lot of horseplay among us, some pushing and shoving, finding out the pecking order but people who were overly aggressive tended to disappear. Seven students were sacked after they got into a drunken brawl in a KFC (they became known as the Kentucky Seven) and I was surprised at how many people dropped out as time progressed. It was tough, however, you could be "back-classed" a month for failing an exam and if you failed again then you were out, no ifs or buts.
We were given many physical tests, from jumping off the high board in the Olympic-sized pool, to boxing tournaments with rival classes. I enjoyed all the physical stuff and was quite loud, bolshy and earned a reputation as the toughest trainee in the college. I found out I wasn't quite the toughest during a boxing tournament held towards the end of the academic year when, after donning gloves along with head and mouthguards I turned around to see the biggest, nastiest bloke I'd ever encountered in my short life. He gave me a murderous look as he pounded his gloves together. He was a former bouncer (and turned out to be one of those aggressive students who were weeded out before graduation). He smacked me in the head for two minutes and fifty seconds while Graham and Mark yelled at me to run for my life. I tried, and ran around and around the ring, forcing him to chase me, pounding my head, for so long that he grew really tired and finally, seeing a moment where he let his guard down, I snuck in a punch, causing him to slip in his own sweat and he hit the canvas like a lead weight. I leapt in the air claiming victory to the triumphant roar of my colleagues.
Our graduation celebrations were held at the Heathrow Park Hotel, with Commissioner Paul Condon and his wife in attendance. Lots of newly-graduated coppers were doing spots on stage – Graham played his trumpet, for example. As 'Yorkie' I was known for being a bit of a clown, so, after a bit of chanting from friends (and a lot of alcohol), in a hired white tuxedo, I climbed onstage and did an impression of a mating pig – and was quickly pulled off. Commissioner Condon's wife was not enjoying my act and this impression almost cost me my career. Mark, on the other hand, was presented with the Baton of Honour, the prize awarded to the most outstanding student. We were so hung over that along with Mark and Graham, I missed the bus booked to take us all back to Hendon for the passing out parade. We spent a fortune on a taxi and arrived with a minute to spare, luckily our colleagues saved us by polishing our shoes so we ran out, heads still spinning, to salute Sir Paul in the nick of time.
I was 24 and couldn't be prouder that I'd been accepted into the Met. When I put the uniform on it felt like a protective shield (this belief would be corrected in due course). Then it was to the noticeboard to see where we'd been posted. We'd all heard horror stories about policing central London, as well as rough areas like Tottenham, Brixton and Kilburn. As the crowds of cops craned over one other to get a look at the noticeboard, I noticed some blokes laughing at one of their mates who'd been posted to Brixton. I was hoping for something leafy in north London, Enfield or Barnet, easier to get home to Yorkshire on the weekends. But no.
I was heading south of the river.CHAPTER 2
FROM HENDON TO HELL
Battersea (the area from Nine Elms to Wandsworth west to east and from the Thames to Clapham Common north to south) was top of the crime table for all the wrong reasons. Street robberies, drug dealing and car thefts were off the scale. Apart from this, all anyone would tell me was it was a really bad patch to end up.
I had a week off after Hendon and spent it in a state of mixed emotion – between wanting to get stuck in and high anxiety about what I'd got myself into. I still had very little practical experience of life in London, let alone working as a police officer in one of its most challenging boroughs.
My home was a police section house, essentially a boarding house for police officers. The ladies who ran it were like surrogate mothers and took good care of us by preparing slap-up dinners.
When I arrived at the station for my first day – a huge Victorian brick building just over Battersea Bridge, overlooking the park – I spotted a photo-shoot taking place in the multi-storey carpark just opposite. Nothing wrong with that I suppose, except that the woman being photographed was naked. Not entirely sure whether any decency laws were being broken, I decided better not be late on my first day and, after a brief gander, carried on to the station.
I was joining with four other probationers including – to my delight – Mark. After we picked up our uniform, handcuffs and truncheon, we went to the canteen. We had to watch where we sat. There was an Old Sweats table that was strictly off-limits. Woe-betide any probationer foolish enough to even think of sitting there. You didn't speak to the Old Sweats until spoken to.
Area Car Drivers, the guys who drove the fast cars, responding to crimes-in-progress, were Gods to us. Even constables who'd finished their probation wouldn't get anywhere near their table, let alone be able to strike up a conversation with them or be trusted enough to listen in on their conversations.
It was busy and everybody stared at us through untrusting eyes. Nobody wanted to talk to us in case one of us was a mole put in by Complaints. This was a tough area and things hadn't always been done by the book, so to speak.
Plus, Battersea nick had just been through the horror of the Clapham Rail disaster. A packed passenger train had crashed into the rear of another train stopped at a signal, and then an empty train, travelling in the other direction, smashed into the debris lying across the tracks. Thirty-five people died and nearly five hundred were injured, so the mood was sombre.
We'd only just sat down with our teas when someone yelled: "Dave's called for urgent assistance, Winstanley!" and everyone charged out of the station.
It was scary to see it for real. Paul, a PC with 25 years' service, and our guide, along with Chris, a sergeant with 20 years' service, stopped us from following.
"Training school's all very well," Paul, a gruff, tough, dark-haired man, said, "But reality is a bit bloody different. Come on, we'll give you the guided tour."