Photo by Naughty James
There are around 128,000 trained police officers in the UK. Subtract from this figure specially skilled officers like the Armed Response Unit and the Mounted Police, all the Senior Constables and Superintendents, and all those who predominantly work in offices, police stations and call centres. Then divide that figure by three to account for the rotated eight-hour shifts (2 AM–10 AM, 10 AM–6 PM and 6 PM–2 PM) that every copper works, and you’re left with 20,000 officers to patrol the streets at any one time. Then factor in that even when they’re on a shift, they work about as hard as everyone else who does the same job every day. Still, be that as it may, the good old “bobby on the beat” is still the backbone of UK policing, having to deal with the public at a ratio of 1:3022 at any given time. We’re not sure whether that fact scares or comforts us. Extremely early one morning last month, we arranged to meet with one of those 20,000 officers at 2 AM to patrol the Smithfields Market area in Farringdon. This is what happened, as they say on Top Gear. 2:00: Smithfields is a fucking bloodbath. Every morning for the past 600 years, flesh, fat, guts, organs, bones and sinew have been exchanged for money in this very spot. Today it’s one of the last functioning bastions of “olde” London, but it’s dying a slow death. Smithfields is inconveniently located and space here is limited. Many traders have lost their lucrative supermarket contracts, a situation made worse by Ken Livingstone’s “bastard congestion charge,” as one guy bitterly put it to us. The upshot for those without second jobs is that the market now only trades in the early hours, keeping some of the most venerable restaurants in the Southwest in a constant supply of juicy steaks, chops and cutlets. 2:01: I’m late. My cab driver barely speaks his own language and doesn’t know how to get there. I’m frantically going through his A-Z and spelling out the name of the place I need to be, but quickly see the futility in this, since spelling out the name of some place I’d never heard of wouldn’t help me find it any faster either. 2:37: I don’t feel good about showing up this late. “I was here at two!” says our man, but in an unmistakably avuncular voice that lets me know that even though I’d fucked up he wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it. Lucky me. 2:41: We settle in at the kind of all night café where people go before they either kill themselves or their ex-wives. I plump for a 50p cuppa and a foetid bacon sarnie smothered in some kind of Turkish mayo. Oh yeah, questions. 2:44: PC Bob Blakemore tells me that he wasn’t the most academic kid, so not once all night do I mention the fact that I have a PhD. He says he “got into trouble a lot” when he was younger. Not with the law, he assures me, but more in a “boisterous way, really”. Maybe this just means he never got caught, what with the 1:3022 ratio and all. But because I was late I decide not to be a dick and instead politely ask him more about his background. Turns out Bob decided to join the army as a way of “focussing his ambitions”. I’m not sure that makes sense but then he explains that “back in the 70s, a lad like me wasn’t likely to experience much of the world,” and I think I see what he means. 3:09: We leave the suicide café and Bob continues to fill me in. He was lucky enough to get posted to Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and doubly blessed when the very same job took him to revolutionary Iran for a while. There’s nothing like being violently hated to bring people together, and he tells me about the “great sense of camaraderie” that developed amongst his colleagues. I refrain from making a gay joke because they’re childish. 3:16: Walking by a minicab office somehow brings the conversation to the subject of terrorism. Given his background working in war zones, it’s no wonder that patrolling the City of London at a time where Al Qaeda is threatening to blow up anyone who laughs at Danish cartoons doesn’t faze him. He doesn’t find the Mohammedans nearly as intimidating as the IRA bombers, who were more ruthless in their choice of timing and target. 3:27: Huge articulated fridges come and go, convoys of death travelling to meat-Mecca from slaughterhouses around the country. Parking up in specially designed bays, they’re unloaded with clockwork precision to the song of “alright geezer, fackin Henry, ya reckon he’s off?” “Nar, French cant! Ain’t got tha va va voom.” “HAHAHAHA.”
“Alright Bob,” “Alright Bob,” “Alright Bob.” Everybody here knows Bob.
As we weave through a maze of animal carcasses, Bob explains that policing is, and should be, about communication not confrontation, and that you have to talk to people on their level. “This is old London here. These lads have worked here all their lives. Their fathers worked here before them and their fathers before that. If I come in and politely say I have a problem with something, they won’t respect it. But if I come in and say, “Look, don’t take the piss”, they’ll respond normally because it’s a language they recognise.”
“He’s a good fella,” says one of the regular traders. “We tried to bribe him but he’s straight, ya know where you stand. Cross the line and ya get nicked…that’s it.”
We run into a market trader who Bob knows from around here. He looks agitated, but I figure cops must have that effect on most people. It’s tantamount to being a really fit girl. Turns out some opportunistic thief (“they’re all like that,” says Bob) has stolen a whole tonne of meat. I mention something about Thomas Malthus’ “law of diminishing returns” but then remember what Bob said about talking to people on their level. I laugh to myself.
Lunch time for cops. A persistent feeling of nausea prevents us from ordering anything.
On Tuesday, May 16, Peter Smyth of the Metropolitan Police Constables Board led a mutinous “no confidence” vote against Commissioner Sir Ian Blair. The vote was sparked by several high profile Met fuck-ups, namely the wrongful arrest of David Mery under new terrorism laws; the ill-fated shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell tube; and Blair’s comment that the Soham murders had become the UK’s largest news story because it happened in August, “not a busy time for political news.” These have all had serious knock-on effects for cops.
Bob is one of the 77 percent of police officers who are opposed to carrying guns. “These things are better handled with special units. I have silent support (a nearby waiting to spring into action), so we don’t need guns.” The concern for Bob is that politically correct policing has overshot its original aims. Reactions to the increased threat of terrorism, embarrassing prison releases, and clownish immigration policies have left our police force at the sharp end of a shitty stick. One of the biggest problems is that police protocol is being dictated by the government and this pisses them off. “The amount of paperwork I now have is taking more time than ever,” says Bob. “We’re basically just collecting data for the Home Office. The forms are now so long that it’s quicker to apply for a mortgage on the Taj Mahal.”
Bob wakes a homeless guy asleep on an old meat pallet, gives him a fag and promises him a sausage sandwich if he gets himself together by the time we return. The man agrees and scrambles for a lighter he doesn’t have. A routine street-check done by a copper like Bob takes a bewildering 45 minutes. “It’s a joke,” he says.
I’m flagging, but thankfully policing the beat is thirsty work. The Cock Tavern, which has “been here as long as the traders”, opens at 2 AM. It serves market-types and strung-out clubbers who’ve drifted here from places like Fabric and Turnmills. Bob declines an invitation for a cold beer. We exchange back-slapping appreciation for each other’s work.
“Fancy a game of cops and robbers, Bob?”
Clip rahnd the facking ear.
See "Riding in Cars With Boys" to read how our New York office had a lot more of an eventful time with the police than we did here.