Traditional British Democracy: 2023 Style

It will not be news to you that the coronation of Charles III is underway in London today. Tradition, pomp, ceremony, a celebration of British values. Telling us all what a wonderful country we are blessed to live in. A free country, a democracy.

But this might be news to you.

Only around 55% of Britsh people want a monarchy. There are active groups campaigning for a republic, and the abolition of the right of people to rule this country just because their ancestors did. One large group of anti-monarchists is called ‘Republic’. It is a vocal organisation that arranges peaceful protests against members of the royal family, and the whole concept of a monarchy.

However, today they are not going to be allowed to do that. Earlier this morning, the leader of Republic was arrested. Then police removed protest placards from hired trucks. Following that, they arrested more members near the trucks containing the placards.

Hard to believe, in this wonderful democratic country?

Here’s the proof, something you might not see on any TV news channel.

Victorian Characters: 1880-1900

Photographers of the time were keen to record the various characters on the streets of London and other towns and cities. They also took a lot of interest in the Police Force, which had only come into being in 1829, and hade been modernised in the Victorian era.

A Young girl living on the streets and begging to make a living.

A proud publican outside his London pub.

A family photographed in the Spitalfields area of East London.

A toy seller outside Greenwich Park.

Two boys described as ‘Street urchins’ in East London.

Victorian policewomen in uniform.

A man with a very fashionable forked beard. Photographed in Sussex.

A newly-qualified policeman shows off his equipment.

A man described as a ‘criminal type’ in East London.

A blind street musician with his dog.

A policeman directing traffic.

Two policeman making an arrest of an ‘undesirable’.

An Unpleasant Memory

Sometimes, I watch real-life documentaries about police work in England. As I worked for the police in London before I retired, the procedures interest me, and I like the ‘behind the scenes’ look at how cases are investigated and solved. (Or never solved) I was watching one last night, and it brought back a memory that I hadn’t thought about for some years.

In 1977, I was working as a depot supervisor for a large food company that sold sausages, pies, bacon, and cooked meats from fleets of vans around London. I was based at the Battersea Depot, and we had twelve vans covering west London, out as far as Heathrow Airport.

Because of the nature of the work, it was a very early start. I had to be at work by 4 am, and the vans would be loaded and on the road by 5:30. For the rest of the day, I had to phone in the orders to the factory, deal with routine paperwork, and occasionally drive out to take care of customer complaints about short loads or missed deliveries.

To compensate for the early start, everyone finished early, and the last van was usually back well before 3 pm. Because the drivers/salesmen were sometimes paid in cash by establishments like roadside cafes and restaurants, I had to sort out the banking before I could lock up and leave. The nearby branch of the bank we used was always closed before I could get to it, so we used the Night Safe facility. This was a large opening in the wall of the bank with a pull-down drawer sealing it. I just had to place the sealed leather bag containing the money into it and it dropped into a container out of reach.

Most days, there wasn’t much money involved, but on Fridays some customers paid for a full week’s deliveries, so there could be as much as five hundred pounds in cash in the bag. A fair sum back then. Friday was also a late finish for us as many vans came back to the depot during the day for extra products, with shops and supermarkets asking for more if they anticipated a busy weekend. It was our habit to meet in the local pub when it opened at 5:30 pm, and have a drink before going home.

One Friday, I told the others I would meet them at the pub after dropping off the cash bag. I drove the short distance to the bank, not wanting to walk around that part of south London carrying over four hundred pounds in an obvious night safe bag. I parked (illegally) on a yellow line on the corner of Battersea Park Road and Meath Street, right outside the bank. (I don’t think that bank is still there) There was solid rush hour traffic in both directions, and lots of people waiting at bus stops on both sides of the busy main road.

Walking to the Night Safe which was on the same main road, I could hear someone running fast behind me, and presumed they were running to catch a bus.

The impact of a big man barging into me knocked me straight over onto my side. Another man appeared, trying to grab the bag from my right hand. As I hung onto it, a third man appeared, and kicked me repeatedly in the head. Luckily, he was wearing trainers, or he might well have fractured my skull. The second man stamped on my arm repeatedly as I lay there, until I could no longer hold the bag. Then the first man grabbed it, and all three ran off, turning into Meath Street and heading north.

For some reason still unknown to me, I ran to my car and gave chase at speed. What I was going to do if I caught them I had no idea. But I was angry, and still only twenty-five years old. I soon drew level with them, despite their head start, but being in the car, I couldn’t follow them into the housing estate at the next junction. Only then did I realise that I was still holding a hat I had dragged off the head of one of them. It was wrapped around the gearstick.

They had all been of West Indian appearance, dressed in the ‘Rasta’ style; with casual clothing, and large floppy hats covering their hair. I had this oversized velvet cap, and was determined to keep it as evidence. I turned the car around and drove back to the bank. There were no mobile phones in those days, but many members of the public had seen this happening, and had phoned the police from call boxes or by asking shopkeepers along the road to ring 999.

There were four uniformed police officers there in two cars. I spoke to one of them about what had happened, and he took down the details. I handed him the hat and told him where I had last seen them, minutes earlier. He shook his head wearily. “They will be long gone, I’m afraid”.

Moments later, an unmarked car drove up at speed, and two plain clothes officers jumped out. One flashed a badge at me and said “Flying Squad”, we heard the call go out”. Under his jacket, he was wearing a shoulder holster containing a revolver. Seeing armed police was rare back then, but the Flying Squad from Scotland Yard was world-famous.

I was expecting the police to set off to try to find the suspects. I had given a pretty good description, hung onto the hat for evidence, and declined medical aid. Instead, the Flying Squad officer with the gun took me into the side street, and started to suggest that I was involved. “Where did you dump the bag? What’s the names of those blokes you used to set it up? Come on, you might as well own up. It has to be an inside job, how else would they know what time to be here?”

To say I was outraged is an understatement. I told the police officer just what I thought of him, using language that cannot be typed here.

Eventually, they let me go on my way, and a uniformed officer said “I will be in touch”. But he never did get in touch, and neither did anyone else. There were no arrests, no suspect questioned, (except me) and we never again heard anything about the incident. It was robbery with violence, and as far as I know was never even followed up.

My bruises soon faded, leaving me with an unpleasant memory of not only being a robbery victim, but then being accused of staging it myself.

That memory never faded.

Another view

With the current situation in America dominating the headlines, and most social media, it is almost impossible to find another view that is well-balanced, well researched, and written by someone who has personally experienced racism.

But here is one, and it is well-worth reading. If only for some sense of balance.

I am unable to reblog it, so only have that link to it.

When The Fates conspire…

I wrote yesterday about being covered in rashes and bites. On top of that, the hay fever season is especially bad this year, and I am streaming from the eyes and nose. Add to this a heavy summer cold and cough, and the recent spell of nice weather has become increasingly difficult to enjoy.

So, to cheer us up, and for a change on a Saturday evening, we decided to go to the nearby Thai restaurant, where we always enjoy good food, and a pleasant night out. We had to book an early reservation, as they were unusually busy. It is within walking distance, and this is one of the added attractions, not having to drive there. However, the uncomfortable humid weather brought heavy skies, and the promise of rain. By the time we had to leave, at 6.15 pm, Julie decided not to risk any thunderstorms, and said she would drive us there in her car. Light rain on the way confirmed her fears, and by the time we arrived, it was raining a lot heavier.

The food was excellent, the staff as friendly as ever, and we were glad to have made the effort to get out of the house, and enjoy the change. By 8.40 pm, we were back at home relaxing, and watching a film on TV. At around 10.30, we were startled by the doorbell ringing. Beetley is a very quiet place, dark and sleepy by this time. Someone calling at that hour is not only unusual, it is almost unheard of. I went out, and saw two people with torches on the driveway. As I got closer, I realised that they were police officers. One of them shone his torch across the road outside. “Could that be your car?” He asked. I was shocked to see Julie’s car up against the wall of the house opposite. I replied, “Hang on, I will go and get my wife.”

We went over to the house of the neighbour across the road. Our car had rolled off the driveway, sedately crossed the street, then continued across his front lawn, before falling into the gap by his side entrance. The back of the car was hard against his brickwork, and the rear wheels suspended in space, jammed by some half-logs that surround his grass. It was too dark to do anything about it, and the police made some cursory checks before leaving, happy to conclude that it was no more than a simple vehicular mishap. Our neighbour wasn’t even at home. He had checked his security cameras remotely, seen a car against his back gate, and presumed that a burglary was in progress. He had called the police from where he was, almost 100 miles away, and they had responded expecting to find suspects at the scene.

This morning, we can see it all in better light. The wheels are stuck fast, his newly-landscaped lawn and log border have been slightly disturbed, and there is some damage to the rear of Julie’s car, as well as to the underside. The insurance company are recovering the vehicle to be repaired locally. They will supply a replacement car for one week too. When our neighbour arrives back today, we will give him the details, so that he can claim for repairs to his property. No harm done, nobody injured, more inconvenience and embarrassment than drama. Things that can be fixed, and only a small amount to pay.

If only we had stayed at home…

Ambulance Stories (44)

The National Dispute

By the autumn of 1989, relations between the Trades Unions and the Thatcher government were at an all-time low. The Tories were determined to use their large majority in Parliament to crush the unions, and remove any power that they once had. Empowered by the guarantee of government support, managers in Ambulance Services all over the UK were standing firm against any requests for pay rises, or better conditions for staff. In London, the managers were going one better, introducing changes in working practices, with little or no consultation. It was all getting very serious, and we could see that it would soon come to a head.

One of the new demands was that we move from our normal place of work, if our crew-mate was off sick, or on holiday. This might seem reasonable, but the previous arrangement had relied on overtime being offered to staff on days off, ensuring a full complement of emergency ambulances was available in all areas of London. If one of us moved to another base, up to ten miles away, we would operate from there, leaving our normal station undermanned by at least one vehicle. This not only left the remaining staff with a greater workload, it also meant that the local population did not have the guaranteed vehicles available to them, in the event of an emergency. The decision on who moved, and where to, was left to Control Room staff, often with no operational experience.

Protracted pay negotiations had got nowhere, and there was already a limited work-to-rule in place. This simply meant that we did the job properly, by the rule book. We took vehicles to be re-fuelled, refused to operate without adequate supplies of oxygen, or with faulty equipment, and carried out all the necessary checks, before commencing duty. Any defects with the vehicles, normally tolerated for the shift, would result in that vehicle not being used. All of these were safety rules, and for the benefit of the patients. They were routinely flouted at other times, just so the workload could be managed, and always at the suggestion of the managers, who used guilt and custom as leverage. Another rule, also ignored normally, was that no Ambulance should be operated, under any circumstances, by one person. There was limited rearward visibility, and also the chance that you would be flagged down to attend an incident, when you were alone, and unable to properly assist. Working to rule meant that we refused to operate vehicles on our own, so could not travel to other bases in them. We could not use our own transport, if we had any, as this would have necessitated insuring our own cars for business use. Public transport was not really an option either, due to the location of some bases, and the long journey times involved.

In an atmosphere of antipathy, an attitude of non-cooperation developed, and this was made worse, by the belligerent attitude shown by some managers. Despite the problems over pay and conditions, and the many factors affecting our working lives, it was the issue of moving bases, which was to become the spark that ignited one of the longest, and most acrimonious disputes, in the history of the National Health Service. As the Union Shop Steward at my Ambulance Station, it also fell to me, to become the instigator of this whole dispute, as it just so happened, that on that day, I had nobody to work with. On that morning in September, I had no idea that the outcome of my decision would result in a bitter six-month dispute, that would see us through a harsh winter, with no pay; staff losing their houses, marriages breaking up, and deep resentments being formed. It would never be the same afterwards, and the long-lasting effects would stay with me, through a further twelve years of service.

When Control asked if I was fully crewed that day, I replied no, and asked them to find someone on overtime, to work with me on that shift. After a few minutes had passed, they called back, and instructed me to take the ambulance, and to report to Chiswick Ambulance Station, to work with someone there, who was also single-crewed. I refused, advising them that I was unable to use the vehicle on my own, by their own rules. I then telephoned the person at Chiswick, telling him to expect a call, instructing him to drive over to work with me, as I anticipated that this would be the next step. Sure enough, that was what happened, and he also refused to move, citing the same rules. They called me back, someone more senior this time, and gave me a ‘direct order’ to do as they asked. I refused once more, and I was told that I would be suspended from duty, pending disciplinary action. Ten minutes later, the same scenario was played out with the man at Chiswick, and within an hour of starting work, we were both suspended, and potentially unpaid, unless we relented, and agreed to move.

I advised the other crew members on my station, and at Chiswick, and they all withdrew their labour, in support of both of us, demanding that the suspension be withdrawn, and the threats rescinded. I then contacted the next nearest base, at St john’s wood, and told them what was happening. They in turn, contacted Camden, Willesden, and Park Royal, and before long, almost the whole of West London was ‘on strike’, until we were reinstated. This soon got through to the full-time union officials, and the local media. I gave an interview to the local TV news programme outside the Ambulance Station, explaining the reasons for the action, and it was shown at lunchtime, and again that night. By now, we were occupying the bases, and the unions were running scared, fearful of having their funds sequestered, as this was unofficial action. They tried to get me to return to work, pending negotiations, but they were overtaken by events, as the dispute spread all over Greater London, the staff angry and frustrated by management attitudes, and frightened unions.

During the rest of that day, we had local meetings, and agreed that we were not on strike, and that we were still prepared to answer emergency calls, based on the terms and conditions that preceded the current dispute. However, the managers had seen their chance to break us, and refused to pass calls to the individual bases, telling the media that we were on strike. They began to use the Police, and called in volunteers from the Red Cross, and St John Ambulance, to respond to calls. They also used private ambulance companies for non-emergency work, and tried to portray themselves as the unfortunate victims of union agitators. Some operational managers took vehicles from Headquarters, and attended calls. We put up posters and banners, advising the public that we were still working, even though we were not being paid, and we gave them direct phone numbers, so they could ring in straight to us. We also told the Police and the local hospitals the same thing, and by the time night duty arrived, we were answering calls at our own instigation.

Some staff were still working normally, refusing to cooperate with their colleagues. Some had political, or religious reasons, some were scared of not being paid, and others just disliked some of us who were seen to be on strike. They had to be moved, so that they all worked in the same area. They were in no danger from us, we just lost respect for them, and they were never fully accepted again afterwards. They were surprisingly few in number, with the dispute, as we began to call it (as we were not on strike) gaining overwhelming support from the vast majority of staff. The whole thing escalated, and began to go national. Staff in all parts of the UK were joining in, and soon the unions could no longer ignore the overwhelming feelings of their members. In most of the major cities, solidarity was total, and we all still made our best efforts to provide cover for emergencies. Some bases actually attended more calls during some parts of the dispute, than they had when working normally.

This soon became front page news, and the first item on all the TV news stations. Government ministers were interviewed, union officials gave our side of the argument, and cameras appeared outside casualty departments, and the larger ambulance stations around the country. To the surprise of our management, the Government, and to some extent, those involved on the ground, the general view was sympathetic. Members of the public supported us overwhelmingly, and ninety percent of media reports were also very favourable. We were seen as the maligned carers, the professionals who put up with low pay, little recognition, and carried on uncomplainingly. For us to be in dispute, something bad must really be happening. The public believed in us, the hospitals believed in us, even the Police believed in us. It was left to our own management, and Tory politicians, to spread untruths about our motives, and to paint a picture of us as ungrateful strikers, callously disregarding the unfortunate sick and injured. Everyone wanted us to be paid more, and to receive decent conditions too. Opinion polls suggested massive support, and there were suggestions for a plan to pay more taxes, or higher National Insurance, to fund the changes, and to put an end to the dispute. The managers were on the back foot, and the government under pressure. They reacted spitefully, as you might expect.

Our occupation of the bases was declared unlawful, and they tried to get us evicted for tresspassing, but could find nobody willing to enforce this. They then technically sacked us all, withdrawing our right to use the ambulances, and the equipment owned by the services involved. They reported us to the Police, for ‘stealing’ ambulances that we were using to respond to calls. Again, the Police refused to enforce this, not wanting any part of a dispute that had caught the imagination of the public, who had soon realised that we were not actually striking. The attitude of all the staff was indeed admirable. Everyone continued to turn up for work, and to man all the shifts, even the most unsocial ones. Those on days off turned up anyway, to help with the occupation of the buildings, talking to the public, and answering the telephones. As the weather got colder, we had braziers burning to keep warm, and people turned up unannounced, with wood for the fires, and gifts and food for the staff. People also began to give us money. At first, we declined, feeling uncomfortable about this. We did get some hardship pay from the unions, but it was only a small amount, nowhere near enough to survive on. The donations were used to buy badges, stickers, and information leaflets, all handed out to the public, to advise them of our reasons for the dispute, and to ask them to wear the badges and stickers, to show support.

Staff began to attend busy areas with these; outside main railway and tube stations, at major junctions, like Oxford Circus, and also busy street markets, in our case, Portobello Road. We took banners, and boxes of badges, and we were soon overwhelmed by cash donations. From old ladies emptying their purses, to local celebrities giving wads of notes, the money started to flow in. By December, at least in London, we were receiving sufficient donations to almost pay staff the same wage they got when working normally. This stiffened our resolve, and made the earlier hardships seem worthwhile. With this continued level of support, we felt sure that we could win.

Without us ever imagining it, we were taking part in the most popular dispute in union history. We felt that we owed it to the public to continue, and we owed it to ourselves too.

Day to day, life was still hard. Staff divided into three groups. One would work on the ambulances, answering those calls we got through. Another would occupy the base, picketing outside, keeping the braziers burning, and putting on a brave face for the public. The third group would go and stand somewhere, advertising the dispute, receiving money from donations, and distributing badges. We had caps made as well, with our slogans on them, and often family members would assist too, standing with their husbands and wives, or mums and dads, showing solidarity with our cause. Each week, the donations would be divided, those with bigger families, or larger mortgages, getting the biggest shares. The meetings continued, locked in stalemate. The media kept the story alive, but also reported the tragedies that had happened, hinting that they might not have happened, if we were working normally. Army ambulances were brought in; unsuitable vehicles, doing an unfamiliar job, escorted by Police cars, as they did not know the areas. The managers, and more importantly, the government ministers, refused to budge on anything unless we first returned to normal duties. We endured a very cold, and miserable Christmas, with little hope held out, for a resolution in 1990.

Amazingly, public support never wavered. The donations kept coming, and the kind words too. We started the new year in an atmosphere of grim determination, on both sides. By now, former colleagues in supervisory roles had become bitter enemies. We no longer spoke to any managers, or control room staff. There was no local negotiation, of any kind, and all meetings were being held by union officials, with NHS management, and government ministers. We had become detached from the process, trying to deal with daily survival. I developed a deep personal hatred for some individuals, and for the voluntary workers, who were taking holiday time, to do our jobs when we were in dispute. For me, that never diminished, and remains with me, to this day. On the other hand, we formed bonds and friendships as well, with hospital staff, some police officers, and colleagues, that are unbroken as I write. Over 200.000 people attended a rally of support in Central London, and large events like this were seen all over the UK.

By the end of February, the unions were beginning to buckle. The management was willing to concede some points, but pay increases were a national issue, controlled by the government, and that was intransigent. Leading union officials began to hint at a possible solution, and this was accelerated by renewed media interest. The staff wanted none of it. We wanted to hold out, for all the reasons we had started on this five-month dispute, and could see no point going back to working normally, unless we got all our demands. The volunteers doing our job were running out of time, and would have to go back to their normal jobs. The cost of paying the police and army to carry on  was prohibitive. The total costs of the dispute already far exceeded what it would have cost to settle in the first place, but they would not back down. After meetings at the end of the month, the NUPE union leader, Roger Poole, announced that an agreement had been reached, and that we would return to work in March, six months after we began the work to rule. He didn’t think to ask us what we thought. He famously announced on TV, that he had ‘driven a coach and horses through Tory pay policy’.  And he wasn’t even embarrassed. What he failed to add, was that he had agreed, on our behalf, to accept the derisory pay increase that we had been offered originally, and that he had also agreed to the changes in conditions and practices that had brought us to this in the first place.

Some staff, me included, wanted to ignore the unions, and carry on. But there was no widespread support for this, and that was understandable. Some staff had suffered marriage break-ups, others had seen their homes repossessed. Many had just left, or resigned soon after, broken and disillusioned. All of us had endured six months with no pay, dependent on public goodwill from donations, and sticking through a harsh winter, with no end in sight. We went back to work in March, as if nothing had happened; though some people were shunned, others transferred by request, and some managers moved around. Our relationship with the unions was never to be the same again. I left the NHS union, COHSE, and joined TGWU, as a small personal protest. I had also stopped being the union rep for our base, as I had simply had enough at the time, though I did do it again, later on. We had lost, and it wasn’t a good feeling.

Or had we?

Within a short space of time, most of the old management was gone. Pushed out, retired early, or plonked behind obscure desks. Our public profile was raised beyond recognition, and training was brought into the 20th Century, with new skills, new equipment, and modern vehicles. Paramedics and Technicians were beginning to be portrayed in TV programmes, as an essential part of the emergency services, and as having a vital role in the NHS. They were filmed in documentaries, the often thankless job shown for all to see, actually as it happened. Other branches were introduced, rapid-response vehicles, motorcycles, and even a helicopter. (Actually run by the London Hospital) By the year 2000, ten years after the dispute ended, the job was being paid at a fair rate, and finally given the respect it was always due.

I don’t believe that this would ever have happened, without those six months of hardship, between 1989-1990. I am proud to have been a part of it, and always will be.

What’s wrong with The Police?

I have been around for a while. Long enough to have seen policing go through various incarnations. Police have been trusted, then unpopular, then hated, then reviled, and gone full circle to being popular once again. I have had, and still do have, relatives in the job, and my last period of employment prior to retiring, was as a civilian employee of the Metropolitan Police. To a fair degree, I speak from both contact, and experience.

Almost everything we understood about the Police has changed. We used to think we could rely on them for immediate assistance, if something terrible was to befall us. This is no longer guaranteed. Police stations are closing in their hundreds, and others have adopted the same opening hours as local gift shops. Officers on the street, always a reassuring presence, are being replaced by Community Support Officers. Well-intentioned they might be, but they do not have the same powers, the level of acceptance, or enjoy the traditional respect afforded to the old ‘Beat Bobby’.

In most areas, the Police have become another arm of bureaucracy. With civilian overseers, one hand tied behind their back by PACE, CCTV, and a system where everything is weighted in favour of the offender. Answering to Council Committees, Review Boards, and Government Investigative Panels, they have had the ability to do the job almost surgically removed. Funding cuts have been targeted at the wrong end of policing too. Patrols, immediate response, and attendance at burglaries, deceptions, and even less serious robberies, have all been shelved. At the same time, money is spent on Civilian Crime Commissioners, new management structures, helicopters, armed units, and increased computerisation.  Self-reporting via the Internet, crime numbers given for insurance claim forms, and non-emergency advice numbers, all represent the new style of policing emerging in the UK. Try explaining this to an old pensioner, duped out of their life savings by a doorstep conman, or a young single mum, who has lost everything when her handbag was snatched.

It may well be that the crimes are just not possible to solve. Bringing someone to the Courts for the offence, does not return the valuables, or allay the fears at night. That is hardly the point. People need to see someone, to feel that they matter, and that someone in authority is concerned about them. They hope to stop these things happening to others, and justifiably believe that they have a right to some kind of investigation, however basic. It is worth noting that they also contribute to policing by paying Council Tax, so if there is to be no resolution for the crimes they have suffered as victims, then why should they be expected to carry on paying?

The sad fact is, that the Police are alienating the very sections of society that traditionally supported them, at the times when they were least popular. Corrupt detectives, bribed by gangsters, heavy-handed officers, attacking pickets or rioters, even cases of tragic deaths in custody, none of this mattered to most people, the so-called ‘silent majority’.  They accepted these things as the necessary evils of policing, and decided that there were acceptable levels of collateral damage to be expected, to ensure reliable protection. It is those same people who are now marginalised, let down and betrayed by the system they upheld. They now install extra security locks, home CCTV systems, and keep baseball bats next to their beds. It has dawned on them, that the heyday of ‘good’ policing is over, and they have to take back responsibility for their own safety.

This is not the fault of individual officers, far from it. Given the opportunity, I suspect that they would like nothing more than the chance to chase down a robber, grab a burglar in the act, or take on a group of anti-social vandals. Unfortunately, they are joining a Police Service very different from the one they saw on TV as youngsters. The CPS decide not to prosecute offenders caught red-handed, even admitting their crimes, as they decide that the process is too expensive, or too consuming of Police resources. Forget the victim, forget the efforts of the Officers, they will just have to accept it, no repercussions allowed. Political correctness, and the rights of the criminal have become the creed of today’s Justice System. Light sentences, because of overcrowded prisons, Community Service, and Electronic Tagging, have replaced many custodial punishments, often for very serious crimes. This has left the criminal with a distinct advantage, for the first time that I can ever recall.

Given all this, is it any wonder that Police Officers are now rejecting the system, and using it to their own ends? Recent cases of officers claiming huge amounts for minor injuries incurred during working hours, have been widely publicised. There is a lot more happening though. Serving officers are selling information to the newspapers, and other media. This is not just for the money, as the sums involved bear no relation to the salaries and pensions of some of the senior officers involved. No, this is also driven by frustration, bitterness, and anger. In other cases, officers from ethnic minorities have joined various forces, only to almost immediately claim racial prejudice against them, and sue for huge sums. The very motives for joining the job are changing, as it is becoming perceived as a ‘cash cow’. To avoid more bad publicity, and fearing the playing of the so-called ‘race card’, these police authorities pay huge sums, to make the problem go away. Even those officers not considering legal action, in one form or another, are bombarded by images of a society consumed by litigation, usually successful. Their plans become a fail safe; ‘if X happens, I can always sue’, is a seed planted in their minds.

Other police officers are looking to get away from traditional policing on the streets. Why get into fights, chases, and riot situations, when they can transfer to the increasing number of office jobs, free of the rigours of shift work? They no longer need to worry about wrongful arrest, deaths in custody, being sued by criminals, or dealing with the gripes of victims. They can sit at a computer all day, pumping out intelligence briefings, crime figures, overtime cost calculations, and advising staff of Court appearances. They might even be assigned to a Crime Reduction Unit, where they can inform homeowners how not to call the Police anymore. Despite numerous reports and Inquiries, telling police forces to get officers back on the street, away from administration roles, and to better interact with the public, it is just not happening. At any given time, there are probably less than 40% of police officers employed, actually out on the streets policing. There may well be a need for the roles behind the scenes, but that should be secondary, and not at the cost of public disgust in the system.

Dixon of Dock Green will be turning in his grave.

Evening all.

Ambulance stories (36)

The 38 stone woman.

In these days of political correctness, we now have a new name for an old medical condition, Bariatrics. This has become a whole field of treatment, and a speciality, attracting large budgets, and a great deal of attention from the media. It is very much the latest craze in medicine, and encompasses  a range of surgical, medical, and psychological treatment options.

For those who have never heard of this, and for others less politically concerned, this is the term for people who are grossly obese; in other words, immensely fat. TV programmes regularly follow the progress of such individuals. We see their surgery, their follow-ups, and every detail of their personal care procedures. They have become the new darlings of reality TV, the superstars of a population who are dangerously on the way to joining them. They are the ultimate consumers, in this case, of food. Those who choose to watch are spared nothing. The grossly swollen limbs, useless joints, and ulcerated rolls of flesh, are paraded for the morbid delight of the viewer, apparently in the name of Science. They are always shown continuously eating, and the food is always ‘bad’ food; pizza, cakes, chips, crisps, and burgers. We are authoratively informed that this condition is a result of social problems; traumatic background stories abound, and we are encouraged to show real concern for the plight of these human pachyderms.

Well, I am here to tell you, from experience, that this is nothing new. The term Bariatrics was coined as long ago as 1965, and forecast the problems we are experiencing today, as this condition becomes increasingly commonplace, and strangely acceptable. When I was young, I was never far from chubby myself. There were a few ‘large’ people about, and one or two who might have weighed close to 20 stones. (280 pounds). By the time I was operational in the Ambulance Service, around 1980, I had still never seen anyone much bigger than that. There was a reason for this; they were ashamed. They stayed at home, and never ventured out, usually because they were unable to do so anyway. No tabloid newspapers, trash magazines, or TV medical programmes sought them out, because their condition was rightly regarded as self-inflicted. They chose not to work, and to sit at home, supported by others, so that they could stuff their faces all day and night, and not have to face any responsibility.

I well remember the first time I saw one of these people, and how quickly I realised that there were hundreds of them; tucked away in small flats, trapped in beds, or on sofas, eating and eating. They were unknown to those outside ‘the system’ that had to deal with them. District Nurses, Home-Helps, Doctors, and Ambulance Crews, all of these were keepers of the great secret. There was even a handy acronym, used as a shorthand; F.L.U.B. This stood for; Fat Lazy Useless Bastard. If this sounds unacceptably cruel, well so be it. They had to be washed by others, so they never dressed, outside of scanty nightwear. They would use a bucket or commode chair as a toilet, as they could not fit on a conventional lavatory. And, for some reason that I never investigated, they were predominantly women, between 25 and 50 years of age. They were also all from poor working class backgrounds too. I never met any woman in a house worth over £100,000, who weighed more than 14 stones. ( 190 pounds) One thing was a common denominator, that they were all completely in denial. I never encountered one, not ever, who admitted that they ate too much. Surrounded by discarded fast food containers, empty pizza boxes, and plastic cake wrappers, they would assert that they hardly ever took a bite of anything.

I had a job to do, and had to consider that the causes were perhaps socially-derived, and the condition should be treated like any other. However, I came from a much poorer part of London, as did my friends and family, and we had not gone down the route of comfort eating, until we were trapped in our own accommodation. We had lived our life, gone to work, and tried our best to make a go of things. After a very short time, I became increasingly frustrated and annoyed with these hugely fat people, as did all my colleagues. But we never let on. Not until now, anyway.

One afternoon, we were called to a basement flat in Westbourne Park, West London. We were told that a female required assistance, and that we should enter through the window, as she could not open the door. We were assured that the bottom sash would be open, affording easy access. On arrival, we entered as directed, calling as we did so. The atmosphere in the room was eye-wateringly fetid, as the smell of urine, and resulting ammonia, were at the highest levels that I had experienced. On a large bed across from the window, was a massive lady, dressed in a floral nightdress that barely covered her. She completely overwhelmed the king-sized bed she was on, and she was calling ‘help’, in a tinny voice. I went around the side, to be able to see her face. Her neck and facial features were so disfigured by fat, her eyes, nose, and mouth appeared to be stuck on. The converging double chins had become one, as large as a ship’s lifebelt; and she could not see over it, if she lay flat.

She explained that she wanted help to turn over, as she had been on one side for over a week. She told us that a kind neighbour helped out, by getting her benefits from the Post Office, buying her food, and leaving her meals to eat on a side table. She also occasionally helped her to wash, and emptied the commode, which the caller had been unable to use, for over a week. The results of this particular problem were more than evident around the bed. The neighbour received a small payment for this, and other duties, but she had not been able to help her turn, so had finally suggested that an ambulance be called. Despite suffering with Diabetes, and having seriously high blood pressure, the lady had declined the attendance of a District Nurse for over two years; and her weight had made it impossible for her to go to the clinics at hospital as well. A brief examination confirmed my worst fears. In addition to unstable Diabetes, she had infected ulcers on her legs and feet, and an open pressure sore on her buttock, large enough to insert my entire hand, if I had chosen to do so. I also suspected a slight stroke, as she had obvious weakness on one side, as well as slurred speech. We would have no alternative, she had to be taken to hospital.

What followed, was an operation that would have done credit to a military unit. I first requested two additional ambulances, which would give us six strong staff to carry her. There was no chance of getting her out via the narrow staircase from the basement, so it would be through the window, which would need to be completely removed. The Council were called, and asked to attend as a matter of urgency. With all the vehicles in the small street, and a lot of attention generated by the comings and goings, the road would have to be closed, so the Police were also called. In the meantime, we set up an intravenous drip on the lady, as she was dehydrated. We also gave her oxygen, though the elastic strap of the mask would not fit around her face, so it was taped to her head. We also attempted to bandage some of the open sores, to help when we moved her out; and luckily, we got the two extra vehicles in good time, with only a fifteen minute wait.

Our troubles were far from over. The mattress had been so compressed by years of her weight, that it was now no thicker than a waffle. We tried to get our carrying sheet underneath her, but even six of us had great difficulty turning her from side to side, so we could get the canvas carrier under her body. After a lot of pushing and shoving, and no end of discomfort to the patient, our worst fears were confirmed; the large canvas carrier was far too small to accommodate her, and would not be safe to use.  We had no alternative but to ask the Fire Brigade to attend, and use one of their industrial size tarpaulins. By now, the lady was becoming agitated, and breathless. Her pulse was racing, and her blood pressure was rising to dangerous levels. The fire engine arrived, and we now had five more strong pairs of hands. We were to need them all.

I used the short delay to obtain some details. The lady, who looked about 60 years old, told me that she was actually 38. I asked her if she knew how much she weighed, and she told me that two years earlier, weighed on special equipment, she had topped 36 stones. (504 pounds) I considered it a conservative estimate, that this would have increased by one stone per year, so judged her to be around 38 stones that day. One stone for each year of her life. She told me that she had stopped going out approximately fifteen years earlier, when her size became embarrassing. At the same time, her boyfriend had left her, and she had become depressed. At no time did she admit to overeating, and remained adamant that it was Diabetes, and an unknown glandular irregularity, that had caused her to grow fat. I explained that it was going to be difficult to extricate her from the flat, and asked her to have patience, and to try to remain as calm as she could.

The Fire crew brought a large canvas tarpaulin, and we decided to tie two of our carrying canvases together, and place one inside the other. With the extra help, we were able to get her slid onto the contraption a lot easier than before; but it meant that she had to lie flat on her back, and this was going to make it difficult for her to breathe properly, as the huge roll of fat around her neck would move upwards as we lifted, effectively suffocating her. One person was designated to keep hold of her chin, to stop this happening. It wasn’t going to be easy. We did the lift off the bed, and over onto the floor, near the window. The council workers had not arrived, so the whole frame had been removed with a crowbar, and carried out into the street. We split the team in half, and some went outside the window, into the small front basement entrance, ready to stabilise the patient, as we lifted her through. This failed to work on the first try, and they all had to come back. We then managed to all get a hold on the tarpaulin, and had to step over the low window ledge as we went through.

We still had the worst part to come, and the lady’s condition was not improving. We had a rest, mainly to calm her down, and to change the oxygen cylinder. It was obvious that we were not going to be able to haul her from basement level, up and over the railings onto the pavement. We had to attempt the narrow staircase, and a final lift over, once we got to the gate at the top. This did mean that we would have to divide the team, as well as bringing in the two Policemen who had been closing off the road. With six on each side, and one trying to hold the chin, we finally managed to get over the fencing, and put the lady down onto the pavement near the ambulance. The effort had been enormous, and it had also taken its toll on the patient, who was now semi-conscious.

She had to be taken to hospital as a matter of urgency, but it was pointless to attempt placing her on the trolley bed, as it was too narrow; so we took out the bed, and left it outside the house. As the Police were awaiting the Council workers, to secure the window, they would look after it for us. With the lady as comfortable as possible on the Ambulance floor, we informed the hospital of our imminent arrival, and set off. The Fire Brigade crew had to go on to another job, but the other ambulances accompanied us, and porters assisted at the hospital entrance. They had to bring a full-size bed down from a ward, as an examination trolley would not suffice. After almost two hours, we handed over the patient, and returned to collect our trolley bed, completely exhausted.

Three ambulances, a fire engine, a police car, and a total of 13 emergency workers; all this to take one woman from her bed, into the care of a hospital.

She died later that night, without regaining consciousness.

Ambulance stories (22)

The Hammersmith Swordsman

In the early 1980’s, female circumcision was not something that I was well acquainted with. In truth, I don’t recall that I had heard of it at that time, though in recent years, it has received a lot of attention in the media. For those of you who are not that intimate with this practice, I will give a very basic version of what is involved. A young girl, sometimes only a baby, has parts of the outer lips of her vagina cut off, usually including her clitoris. The resulting wound is then stitched together, in a somewhat rudimentary fashion, with a small opening left, to allow the flow of bodily fluids. On her wedding night, her husband then cuts the sutures prior to having sex, thus ‘guaranteeing’ that he has wed a virgin. I think this is the process in a nutshell, please forgive me for not going into greater detail, a lot more information is available on the Internet.

This practice is most common in countries in north-east Africa, such as Sudan, Somalia, and others in the Horn of Africa, though it is carried out elsewhere, especially in western nations with a large immigrant population from those places mentioned. As well as the ‘proof’ of virginity, the removal of the clitoris is thought to stop any possibility of infidelity, by removing any pleasure that could be gained. To the cultures that continue to see it as normal, it has both traditional, and religious associations. In other countries, it is considered to be archaic, and barbaric. (And rightly so, in my personal opinion).

Late one evening, we were called to a flat, inside a large house, in the Hammersmith area of West London. A midwife, on a routine call to a pregnant female, was being denied access to the patient, and was concerned for her safety. The Social Services had become involved, and after a long drawn out attendance at the address, they had decided to involve the Police as well. As pregnancy had been mentioned, the Police summoned an ambulance, in case it should be needed. The flat was at the top of the building, and the social workers and Police were trying to gain access, by shouting through the door, and repeated loud knocking. After this had gone on for a few minutes, the door was suddenly wrenched open. To the surprise of all of us assembled in the stairwell, a tall, thin, somewhat elderly man appeared. He was wide-eyed, and dressed only in thin cotton trousers; he was bare-chested and barefoot also. His hair was unkempt and wild, and he sported a straggly beard. But what really got our attention, was the fact that he was wielding a huge sword. This was not an ornamental weapon, of the sort that might have been mounted above a fireplace, but a very real,  traditional item, that looked as if it had once seen action. The blade was a good three feet in length, and the long handle, complete with wrist guard, was taped with cord. Moreover, he was brandishing it in the manner of someone who knew how to use it, and was prepared to do so.

We all made a hurried retreat to the lower floor, including the few Policemen present, who were only armed with truncheons. The man held his position at the head of the stairs, screaming at us in a foreign language, and waving the sword from side to side, with menacing strokes. The wide blade looked more than capable of taking off a limb, perhaps even severing a head, so nobody was taking any chances, and Police reinforcements were summoned, as a matter of urgency. They arrived after some delay, equipped with riot gear, helmets, and shields, though none had firearms of any kind. After a brief, further attempt to reason with the crazed man, the Police eventually charged him, using the shields to protect themselves from the swinging blows of his sword, and manged to pin him down on the stairs, and disarm him. This was done with considerable courage, as none of them had more than a shield, and a riot baton to hand. Once he had been handcuffed and secured, he was removed to a Police van, and we were all able to enter the flat.

We found a young female of African origin, aged about 18. She was on the floor, in some distress, with a high fever, and blood issuing from between her legs. On examination by the midwife, it soon became clear that she had a bad infection inside her vagina, which was still stitched up, in the fashion previously described. It seems that once pregnancy had been confirmed, she had been re-stitched, by someone from her own community, to await full term of her labour, and to make sure that she did not have sex with anyone else. The wound between her legs was very distressing to behold, grossly swollen, with thick cord sutures cutting into her flesh, some bleeding apparent, and a noxious odour issuing from the whole area. We got her down to the ambulance on a stretcher, and with the help of the midwife, the stitches were cut, to relieve pressure, and the young lady taken to a local hospital for further treatment. She was six months pregnant at the time, but was so thin, it was barely noticeable.

We found out later, that the elderly man with the sword was her husband, and she was only one of a few wives he had. His reason for taking this action, was that he did not want any westerners, especially men, to examine his wife. This was my first close encounter with both female circumcision, and an angry swordsman. Thankfully, it was also my last.

Ambulance stories (14)

Is he dead?

Depending on where you work, a job in the London Ambulance Service will put you into contact with violent crime, and scenes of such crime; this may involve serious assault, rape, and murder. In a city of such size and diversity, crimes like these are sadly more common than you may suspect. Many are never reported in the media, as the culprit is quickly found, admits guilt, and only a cursory trial is deemed necessary. Despite living all my life in London, even I was surprised how frequently people are murdered, and how often I would come into contact with this crime during my time as an ambulanceman.

Unlike other incidents, people killed as a result of a crime, whether obvious, or suspected, are not removed by ambulance crews. The scene of the death will be secured by the Police, the local area canvassed for potential witnesses, and the CID will be handed the case, to begin their investigations. We have all seen this well represented on TV, and in films, to the extent that most viewers could probably carry out a reasonable investigation themselves, given adequate access, and resources.

What is rarely portrayed, is the initial arrival by uniformed Police Officers, and the first actions taken, on the discovery of a dead person. I am writing here about the mid 1980’s, and at this time, an ambulance was routinely called to the scene of a violent death. For the first Police Officers on scene, actual death had to be formally established, irrespective of the extent of the injury, and what commonsense may have indicated. Once the ambulance crew confirm that they can do nothing for the deceased, then an on-call doctor is summoned, to officially decree the same, by reason of their qualification to do so.

Late one evening, we were called by Police to a flat in the Westbourne Park area of West London. The call was given over the radio, as ‘male stabbed, query fatal.’ As the call had originated from Scotland Yard, we could assume that the diagnosis would be reasonably accurate, depending on the experience of the officers on scene. On arrival, we were met by a P.C., who asked if just one of us could accompany him to the flat. This was not unusual, as it reduced contamination of the scene. As I was the attendant (not driving) for that shift, I grabbed the first aid bag, and walked up the steps to the ground floor flat, which was part of a conversion of a much larger house, into numerous small flats. Another policeman waited in the doorway. I knew him well, and he nodded to me, muttering ‘it’s not too good in there.’

I walked into the entrance to the flat, and looked around the door. What had once been a large drawing-room, now served as living room and kitchen combined. At the rear, two doors led off this area, one presumably led to a bedroom, and the other to a bathroom and toilet. The decor was a matter of taste, best described as ‘early 70’s garish.’ The floor was covered in vinyl flooring, and a faded rug outlined the space differential between kitchen, and living area. It had been a very long time since any of the interior had seen a coat of paint, and cleaning was obviously not a priority of the tenant either. To my left, stretched out on the floor, was the naked body of a man. He looked to be aged about 40, and the whole area around him was completely covered in a thick pool of blood, extending to the edges of my boots. A six foot man, weighing about 12 stones, will have approximately 12 pints of blood in his circulation. If you can imagine getting 12 milk bottles, each holding a pint, and pouring them around your living room floor, you will have some idea of the extent of this blood loss.

The complete chalk-white colour of the body indicated that life was well and truly extinct. People who die in such situations are whiter than you can imagine. However, to play my part in this farcical scene, I had to touch the man, and confirm that there was no pulse, and no possibility of resuscitation. I walked through the blood, the few paces necessary to get close enough to do so. On examination, I could see that his throat had been cut, with some force, and a large spray pattern of blood up the nearby wall, confirmed this as the probable fatal injury. His nose had also been completely cut off, sliced away, leaving a strange appearance to his face. As his trachea was visible through the wound in his neck, and his body was stone cold, and pulse-less, I concluded that we could do nothing more. From the doorway, the first policeman asked, ‘is he dead?’ There was no irony implied, and none taken; we all knew the ropes.

I had to give statements of course, though I never had to attend court, as the murderer had actually been in the flat, and it was him that had originally called 999. I bitterly regretted the loss of my most comfortable boots, which had to be surrendered for forensic examination, and despite promises received, were never returned to me. We left the scene shortly afterwards, and would have not known any more about this job, if I had not bumped into one of the officers later that year.

It seems that the resident of the flat, the dead man, had made the acquaintance of his killer in a nearby pub, and invited him home for drinks. After a few glasses, the older man had disappeared into the bedroom, returning completely undressed, and made sexual advances to the other. In his defence, the killer stated that he had not expected this to happen, and tried to leave, the other man preventing him from doing so. In the struggle that ensued, he had grabbed a large kitchen knife, and in his words, ‘just waved it about.’ During this ‘waving’, he managed to completely slice off the man’s nose, and then cut so deeply into his neck, that he partially detached his head from his neck. He pleaded to manslaughter, with mitigation for self-defence.

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.