An Alphabet Of My Life: V


Fortunately, I have been more of a witness to violence than a victim of it during my life, save for a few notable occasions when I was on the receiving end.

At school, fights were common. They seemed to start over nothing, and end quickly. If teachers did not step in fast enough, a larger boy usually overpowered a smaller one to gain victory. I was popular enough not to be picked on, and good enough at talking my way out of potentially violent siuations when the need arose.

In my teens, South London pubs could sometimes be violent places. Older men, sometimes criminals or gangsters, might suddenly start fighting. Those fights could be brutal, involving bottles, broken drinking glasses, and anything heavy that came to hand. I tried to leave when that happened, or at least keep out of the way. But one time a man hit me with a bar stool, which knocked me flat and made me see stars. When he realised that I was not one of the people he was fighting, he helped me up and apologised.

Some years later, I was involved in a violent street robbery, attacked by three men as I was about to deposit money in a bank. When I tried to hang on to the cash-bag, they kicked me in the head until I had to let go. Luckily, I was young and strong then, so suffered no long-lasting effects.

Being an EMT can be dangerous. More dangerous than you might ever expect it to be. Drunk people, plain nasty people, psychiatric patients, drug users hallucinating, all of those are likely to try to do you harm. I have been kicked in the face by a drunk, threatened with knives, a machete, and even a loaded shotgun. It was hard to believe when I joined the Ambulance Service, that such a large percentage of the public in London would consider me to be a valid target of their violent aggression.

But the real violence was what I witnessed in my job, not what happened to me personally. Stabbings, shootings, terrorist bombings. Faces slashed with knives or burned with acid, terrible beatings with blunt objects. Long bones broken, skulls fractured, noses and ears cut off. Murders by strangling, murders by drowning someone in a bath, toilet bowl, or wash-basin, and on one occasion, even a decapitation using a hand-axe. It is equally hard to believe how quickly I got used to such things, and was not fazed by them.

London can be a violent city. If you are somewhere at the wrong time, or involved with the people for whom violence is always their first option.

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.

An Alphabet Of Things I Don’t Like: V


I was brought up in a tough district of South London. It wasn’t long before I saw my first real fights, once I started at Secondary School. As an observer, I soon concluded that people who settled arguments with their fists usually did so because they did not have the intelligence or vocabulary to argue or debate their way out of a confrontation. Many of those same people were also natural bullies; emboldened by their physical size, or fighting ability. They enjoyed the reputation that came with inflicting injury on others.

Later on, I witnessed fighting in pubs, where alcohol played its part of course. This was also more dangerous, as pubs provided weapons like chairs or glasses to potentially do more damage.

In adult life, I worked for a long time as an EMT. Victims of violence became part of my everyday life as I attended to them, and on more than a few occasions, I was also attacked and injured by violent or drunk patients.

Sadly, it is nothing new. From the tavern brawls in Roman times, to the football hooligans of the 21st century, so many arguments have ended in violence. And it is not just men, believe me. Females can also resort to violence at times, and some are also physical bullies.

It would be nice to live in a world where random violence was no longer a fact of life. But I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

Ambulance stories (38)

Dubious colleagues.

You would be right to believe that the majority of people who choose to join the Ambulance Service do so for the right reasons. They generally have a desire to help people, and are rarely motivated by financial gain, or the search for a powerful career path. Some are attracted by the potential of job security; after all, people will always have accidents, or become ill. A small minority are thrilled by the prospect of driving around with flashing lights, and blaring sirens, although that excitement soon fades. The chance to wear a uniform, be official, and wander around looking important at scenes of disaster might well be a draw to some; in truth, I can recall quite a few like that.

For most, they see a worthwhile job, that can be interesting, varied, often amusing, and occasionally rewarding. It is generally well-regarded by others, and considered to be a laudable choice of occupation. If it gives you the possibility of driving around like a maniac sometimes, and being able to tell lots of grisly tales, then so much the better. However, there were a few, admittedly very few, who had other motives behind their desire to work in this field.

The most innocent, though still strangely annoying, were the equipment junkies. Those people that joined for the uniform, the light bars, and the sirens. They would collect models of ambulances, and even purchase their own (often very expensive) ambulance equipment, which they would keep in their own cars. Frequently, these private vehicles were just as comprehensively fitted out as a ‘real’ ambulance, and the proud owners would contrive to turn up at jobs, when they were not even on duty. They did this by means of another item of kit, an emergency channel scanner. Not strictly legal, though not technically illegal, this grey area of radio ownership enabled these individuals to keep tabs on anything that they deemed exciting, going on in a nearby area.

Their acquisitive desires even extended as far as smaller items, like torches. The Maglite Torch was not supplied by the Ambulance Service, as it was far too expensive. Nonetheless, many crew members would buy one, as their durability and reliability were legendary. The ‘junkies’ would buy them all; from a tiny key-ring size, up to the huge monster torch, almost the length of a man’s leg. They could not hope to find any practical application for this extensive set, they just had to have them. Other strange people would install lights in their own cars. These could not be used in the conventional way in private cars, but they just loved to know that they were there. If they came across an accident, usually by design, then they could light up the night sky, with a blaze of yellows and reds, asserting that they were just ‘warning of the hazard’. The same weirdos would often spend their holidays searching out foreign ambulance vehicles, which they would photograph, and look inside, to compare international equipment levels and standards. They would also buy patches, stickers, and badges, with which to adorn their casual clothing, the windscreens of their cars, and presumably, their bedroom walls.

It should be noted, that these were invariably men, mostly under 40 years  of age, and usually lived alone, or with their parents.

The next class of ‘undesirables’, were those obsessed with the ‘power’ attached to the job. This was a strange one, as there was no tangible power, so they invented it instead. Once kitted out in uniform, bearing an I.D. card, and officially working for an organisation that gave them access to people’s homes, scenes of crime, and terrible accidents, they became ‘different’. They would arrive at a scene, immediately taking charge of whatever situation presented itself, but not in a good way. They would order bystanders around, talk loudly, and in an overbearing fashion; generally acting in a pompous, and officious manner, guaranteed to be totally inappropriate. They would use phrases such as, ‘I am talking here’, or ‘Listen to me’, always delivered at full volume, whatever the circumstances. Directing traffic featured strongly on their list as well. In the midst of carnage at a bad accident, if you could not find them, to help you as they should be doing, you could be sure that they would be at the end of the street, arms flailing, ordering hapless drivers hither and thither. They never saw anything wrong in any of it. They wouldn’t, would they?

As well as the relative ‘innocence’ of the behaviour outlined above, there was another small group who took things a lot further. Harmless vagrants would be shouted at, then kicked with the toe of a boot, eventually being manhandled around, shaken, pushed, or worse.  There was usually little justification for this. They could just do it, and normally get away with it, and the targets were soft ones, and unsympathetic ones at that. You could easily imagine the type of person picked on, or bullied as a child, getting their own back on nameless individuals, courtesy of a uniform, an ambulance, and a reason to be there. Unconscious drunks were similarly easy victims, and frustrations could be vented with ease. Of course, the arrival of CCTV put a stop to a lot of these acts,  as the numerous cameras could now record anything that happened out in the street; though nobody can ever be sure what went on once the ‘patient’ was inside the vehicle.

The final category is the most worrying, and one that gave me cause to act, on more than one occasion. As I have mentioned before, that job lends itself to frequent proximity to people in a state of undress. In addition, there are numerous vulnerable individuals, of all ages, who unreservedly trust ambulance crews to do the right thing. One of the mantras of the Training School is that there is; ‘No sex in First Aid’. One can be forgiven for admiring an attractive person in any circumstances, but acting on that attraction is another matter entirely. My first experience was soon after qualifying. Working with someone that I thought I knew well, a married man of a similar age. We were called to some public toilets in Central London, where we found a young woman in a collapsed state. She was unconscious, probably from an overdose of Tuinal, a sedative drug that was very widely used at the time. We made all the usual observations, and loaded the girl onto the vehicle, to take her to a nearby casualty. I was driving, and my colleague remarked how pretty she was, and what a shame she led such a sad life, to find herself in this predicament. I did not really see that job in the same way; as anyone unconscious, with vomit all over their clothing, and their hair matted from lying in a toilet cubicle, seemed far from attractive to me.  As I was driving across one of the bridges to the hospital, he called out to me from the back, and it took me a while to realise what he was saying. It was, ‘look at these!’ I looked into the interior mirror, that gave a view into the rear of the vehicle, and saw that he had lifted up her top, and was looking at her exposed breasts. It may be one thing to see this accidentally, but it is another thing entirely, to deliberately disturb clothing, to achieve that result.

I pulled the vehicle into the kerb, and went into the rear. I told him in no uncertain terms to cover the girl immediately, and it was all I could do not to hit him. When we got to the hospital, as soon as we had handed over the patient, I told him that he must report sick, as I would no longer work with him. I then told him what I thought of him, and that if he did not go home, I would report his behaviour. This was easier said than done of course, as he would be able to fabricate many reasons why he had to interfere with clothing. There was the other dilemma of that job to consider as well; it would be my word against his, and no witnesses. He could see how angry I was, and agreed to go sick. I went in to see the station manager at the next opportunity, and told him that he could never crew me with this man again. When he wanted to know why, I replied simply; ‘ask him’. This man was, as I said, married, and had an eight year old daughter. I still can’t explain it, even today. I never knew the outcome of the chat he had with the manager, but he did transfer very quickly, to an area miles away, near the borders with Surrey. It was said that he was having travel problems, and needed to be nearer home.

Years later, I was working with another ‘family man’, also well-known to me. I had been to his house, and met his wife, and teenage son. One day, we attended the nearby home of a severely disabled young woman. She spent her life in a wheelchair, suffering from a disease that made her bones the texture of sponge. We had to take her to a specialist bone hospital in Middlesex on a regular basis, where her unusual condition was monitored. Although she was almost 21 years old, she was very naive, and had little life experience. She was less than four feet tall, and had little adult physical development, all a direct result of the syndrome that affected her. I was in the back for this journey, and during the long trip, she secretly confided to me, that the ‘man driving’, was her boyfriend. She told me that he would come to her flat late at night, or sometimes early on Sundays, and they would make love, and he would tell her that he loved her. I initially dismissed this as fantasy. After all, I knew him well, and he was not a man to do such a thing, surely. I let her ramble on, without comment, and we dropped her off, as arranged. As the treatment was to take a long time, we left, assigning the return trip to the local Ambulance Service in that area.

The return journey was long, plagued by rush-hour traffic. After a while, I broached the subject of what she had told me. My colleague looked embarrassed, and laughed. I asked why she would say such a thing, about a married man with children, who would surely never abuse his position in this way, seeking some bizarre sexual gratification. Not only that, his job, long held, could be at risk, if the story became public knowledge. It may not have been illegal,  but it was certainly unethical. After a while, he suddenly said, ‘there’s nothing wrong with it, she is over eighteen, and it makes her feel good.’, I was amazed at his admission. I had known this man for more than seven years, and would never have suspected that he was systematically abusing his position in this fashion. I could see no point in anger. I just told him that he had to stop, and that if he did not, then I would tell his wife. He did not argue, and in this lack of argument, I saw realisation of his guilt. On this occasion, I am pleased to say that the girl in question moved on, and found love at the hospital, with a man who had a similar affliction. She later married, and to the best of my knowledge, is still happy.

My colleague also moved on, no doubt uncomfortable with the knowledge that others were aware of his transgression. He moved to work abroad, and I have never heard of him since.

The last episode I recount here, was something much more disturbing, and it eventually came to the attention of the authorities, I am pleased to say. One of my colleagues at a nearby station, was rumoured to be involved in something disturbing. I had occasion to work with him many times, and had seen no evidence of this. However, I was unduly diligent, so perhaps he was forewarned. He certainly fitted the bill, with an oily personality, and unctuous demeanour. He was unduly nice to patients,especially if they were disabled, or had learning difficulties. He also befriended their mothers, or carers, and went out of his way to be helpful, even outside of work. He would give up his spare time to run people around in his car, and was even known for this locally, where he was praised for his activities, by local associations. I was never happy to work alongside him, and watched him like a hawk. He was prone to ‘cuddles’ with patients, and excessive familiarity, none of which was deemed inappropriate at the time.

Some years later, a mother asked management why he was taking photos of her disabled daughter. He had told the young girl that he would enter the photos into a national competition, and that the family might get money for them. At first, the mother even agreed, believing that a Paramedic would be the last person to mistrust. Later, her daughter told her that he had also taken photos of her when her mother was absent. These had started normally enough, until he asked her to pose in underwear, telling the girl that these photos would be required for ‘elimination’ reasons. When he asked the girl to remove her bra, she did so, despite her reservations, but later felt bad about it, and told her Mother. She reported the actions to the Ambulance Service, who immediately told the Police. The man’s home was searched, discovering thousands of inappropriate photos, of dozens of young disabled women, in various states of undress, always in provocative poses. As he had not actually molested them, he was spared prison, but found guilty of minor sexual offences. He was also immediately dismissed from the London Ambulance Service, for gross misconduct.

The sad tailpiece to this story, is that the same man was able to find employment as an Ambulanceman almost immediately, in the private sector. Despite no reference, they had no knowledge of his previous activities, and being short-staffed, they were happy to employ him.

As I said at the beginning, this is not the usual behaviour of Ambulance Staff. Almost all are reliable, normal, and well-motivated; especially in today’s climate of background checks, and better vetting. You need have little fear that your loved ones will come across such people, in their times of need.

For me, it is an interesting recollection of a former time, when all was not as it might have seemed.

Ambulance stories (37)

Useful Ambulance equipment.

Not everyone who you meet when working on an Ambulance is nice. Many are actually horrible. Some are rude, or abusive, and on more occasions than you might imagine, they are physically violent towards the crew.

Luckily, Ambulances contain lots of useful equipment that can be adapted as defensive weapons, when the need arises. On more than one occasion, I have had cause to resort to using supposedly life-saving kit, in order to save my own life. The following examples may shock you, so I feel the need to assure you that my actions were not only necessary, they were essential to save me from injury, or much worse.

Early defibrillatorsThese were on a trial, and were part of a joint venture with the British Heart Foundation. They were the old type,  in a large case, with lots of knobs, and manual paddles, attached by curly wires. You know the sort, they have featured in many films and TV dramas. One evening, we had picked up a man who was pretending to be unconscious. He was completely uncooperative, and showed no signs of any injury, or symptoms of illness. My best guess at the time, was that he was a psychiatric patient, or someone with severe antisocial tendencies, trying to get attention. He was a large man, about 30 years old, and also quite tall. It is not difficult to be taller than me anyway, as I am less than 5′ 8″, even in shoes. We had no option but to take him into hospital for assessment. After getting him into the vehicle, I strapped him down on the trolley bed, and we started to move off. At that time, the defibrillator was mounted immediately above the head end of the trolley bed on top of a small unit, and we generally allowed it to stay weighed down by its own weight. It was slanted slightly backwards, and connected to a twin wire charger.

We had only been travelling a short time, when the man began to thrash around on the bed, making growling noises. He was trying to pull off the safety straps, and kicking his legs wildly. I told my colleague to keep driving, as we were only going slowly, in heavy traffic. In retrospect, my next move was ill-advised, to say the least. I stood up, and reached over the man, to secure the straps, to try to stop him being able to move so freely. He immediately grabbed me around the waist and shoulder, pulling me downwards, as he rained numerous kicks and knee-jerks against my right side. Despite the awkward angle, he succeeded in striking home on several occasions, and as he got free of the straps, he tried to wrap one leg around my neck. My colleague had seen the disturbance, and was looking to stop the vehicle safely, to assist me in the back. I decided that there was no time to wait for help, as the ‘patient’ had also begun to punch me violently on the side of the head, with his free hand. I got both arms free, and reached out for the nearest thing to hand, the defibrillator. Pulling it from the mounting, I crashed the flat underside full onto the man’s head, with as much force as I could muster. When he continued to punch me, I did it again, with more deliberation, and a better aim. The second blow did the job; though it did not knock him out, it dissuaded him from further attacks. By this time, Police had arrived, and they arrested the man, taking him away in their own van.

I made no further charges, as he was bound to plead that his ‘condition’ had made him unaware of his actions. The short unpleasant episode was over, and I had proof that a defibrillator can really save a life, if not always in the way it was intended.


The Lantern Torch. In those early days, we carried a large torch, with an integral handle, and a substantial plastic casing. They were always useful when working outside at night, and I rarely left the vehicle without one, whenever it was dark. Late one night, we were called to a collapsed male, who was lying in a doorway on the Harrow Road, in West London. On arrival, I shone the torch into the doorway, illuminating a young man who was slumped in a sitting position. He was very tall, probably six feet five, or even more. He was also well built, like a rugby player, or someone who attended a gym regularly. Besides this, he seemed to be very drunk. As well as the smell of alcohol, he was swearing, and mumbling incoherently. He had also vomited copious amounts of sick into the recess, as well as all over himself. When I tried to talk to him, and examine him in situ, he became aggressive, pushing me away, and swearing. We decided to call the Police to take him away, as we could get nowhere with him.

By the time the Police arrived, he had gone into a deep sleep, and none of our efforts could rouse him from his slumbers. The Police declined to arrest him, deciding that he was ‘unconscious’, therefore ill, so our responsibility. We had no alternative, but to take him off to the local hospital in Paddington. We got him onto our trolley bed, and loaded him into the vehicle, ready for the very short journey to the casualty department, that we could actually see in the distance, as it was located on the same main road. Arriving there, the man suddenly woke up, and tried to get off the bed. I allowed him to sit up, explained that he was at a hospital, and that we would get a wheelchair for him. He gazed at me quite menacingly, but said nothing. My colleague went inside, and brought back a large hospital wheelchair. We helped the man down the steps, and I realised that I was still holding the torch. I managed to push the chair anyway, and we went into the department. It was very busy that night, and the nurse in charge asked us to wait in the entrance.

After a longish wait, of almost ten minutes, the man was still sitting in the chair, apparently relaxed and compliant. I tried to chat to him, and get his details, but he was having none of it, and just ignored me. Moments later, he stretched, raising his arms up, as if about to yawn. Before I knew it, his hands were suddenly around my throat. With the reverse angle, his fingers were locked around the back of my neck, and his thumbs were biting deep into the front, crushing my windpipe. My first reaction, and that of my colleague also, was to try to pry his fingers loose, but we could not budge them. I was really scared, as I could not move at all, such was the vice-like grip he had on my neck. I then felt the torch, still clutched in my hand from earlier. I raised it as far as I could, and smashed it into the side of his face, continuing to do so until the case shattered, and the battery was hanging out by its connectors. I cannot honestly say how many times I hit him before he let go of my neck, but when it was over, there was nothing left of the torch, except the plastic handle.

The nurse came wandering up as this was going on, to tell us a bed was free. All she saw, was me pummeling an apparently defenceless man with a large torch, and she screamed at me to stop. When I told her what had happened, she looked at me with disbelief, and wheeled the man off for treatment. Later that night, she told me that she had thought about reporting me, but had decided not to, as it was her word, against two of ours. The next evening, I found out that the drunk had hit a different nurse during the early hours of the morning, and had to be removed by six police officers. She never mentioned it again, and I had found another use for a torch, other than to light my way.


Ambulance stories (35)

The Black Ambulance.

If you ask anyone who works in the Ambulance Service, and they answer truthfully, most will have a very low opinion of the general public. When I was first working in London, there were no television programmes like ‘Casualty’, or ‘Holby City’, and no fly-on-the-wall documentaries following crews about on calls. TV shows and films showed ambulance crews as little more than drivers, walking about in the background, or lifting stretchers. The Police were the stars of the show, and they would bark orders at the ambulance staff, saying things like ‘be careful’, or ‘hurry up’. Even in ‘medical’ programmes, the ambulance would arrive with a patient, and the crew would almost disappear, cutting to a scene where a doctor, and a usually adoring nurse, were caring for the stricken individual. In many productions, especially comedies, the crew might even be portrayed as incompetent, often forgetting to close the doors, and losing the patient out the back. This may seem harmless enough, but it fostered a public attitude towards ambulance staff that lasted for many years; until the advent of shows like St Elsewhere and ER began to show another side to the work.

Most of the public had scant regard for us. They would address you as ‘driver’, and feel comfortable ordering you about, or arguing with you. This crossed all classes, and was as prevalent in affluent suburbs, as it was on the poor estates in the centre. They felt it was perfectly acceptable to be downright rude, openly insulting, and at worse, physically violent. When I worked alongside a West Indian colleague for many years, there would be frequent references to his colour, not only from white people, as other West Indians regarded him as part of the establishment, and fair game for abuse too.

This grew steadily worse, with frequent assaults on staff, and constant intimidation during calls. Add alcohol or drugs into the equation, and the job started to get downright dangerous, as well as wearing and stressful. Of course, we could call the Police to assist, and we often did so. They could do little, as the offender was usually considered to be distressed or unwell, and not arrestable as a result. We would be left in the unenviable situation of still having to convey them, even after all the previous unpleasantness.

On one particularly bad night, we had just attended the flat of a well-known argumentative time-waster for the umpteenth time. Sitting in the vehicle, in the car park of a Maida Vale housing estate, we came up with the idea of The Black Ambulance. My colleague bought into this plan too, though he shall remain nameless, as he still works for the LAS. The fantasy involved respraying the conventional white vehicle to a nice Matt black. There would be no windows to the rear, and the logo and sign-writing would be in contrasting grey. Anyone who abused or assaulted staff, would have the Black Ambulance sent to their address; and this would also apply to time-wasting alcoholics and drug users, persistent callers, and those just seeking someone to argue with, and shout at.

The Black Ambulance crew would be dressed in the style of a SWAT team, and wear mirrored visors on their helmets. They would carry implements to subdue and restrain the offender; instead of defibrillators, and dressings cases, there would be CS Gas, Cattle prods, and straight jackets. Once inside the back of the vehicle, the offender’s fate was sealed, and disposal their only option. There would be secret dumps, where they would be committed to landfill, and all traces of their existence would be removed, by a special team, following on later. For those pests outside in the street, and not in any dwelling, the vehicle would be fitted with a raising mechanism, to allow the underside to lift over the prone person. Then some kind of acid-based solution would be deployed, leaving no trace after our departure. Very soon, rumours of the terrible Black Ambulance would begin to circulate, and the low-life, abusive idiots it targeted, would be deterred from ever ringing 999 again.

It was only a short diversion, a momentary drift into fantasy. Yet it says something about the constant stress that we were under, that we could gain pleasure and satisfaction, from imagining being able to actually kill and dispose of roughly 10% of all those we were called out to.

Any volunteers for the Black Ambulance out there?

Ambulance stories (18)

Living with the dead

This is not an anecdote about a specific job, like the other posts in this series. It is rather a reflection on death, and on dealing with it in the role of an ambulanceman. It is not meant to be depressing, though it may read that way. It is part of my reflection on those years, as I get older.

Before I joined the London Ambulance Service, I had seen one dead body. When I was young, my maternal grandfather died. He was only 65, and died suddenly. I was taken to see him in his coffin, which was in my grandparents’ front room, for a vigil before the funeral. My enduring memory of that night, was not of my first dead body, but of my uncle crying. My grand-dad just looked as if he was asleep, and I did not find it distressing.

Decades later, and I have seen many hundreds of dead people. I have watched them die, unable to do more for them. I have been having a conversation with someone, only to look up from my equipment, and realise that they were dead. I have seen people who had been found dead after lying undiscovered for weeks in a hot summer, and had to remove bodies found floating in the Thames. I have seen dead children, and helped to deliver a baby that was dead as it arrived into the world. There have been bodies of people who had died from violent acts; shootings, stabbings, and beatings, and others blasted by terrorist bombings, or consumed by fire.

I have tried, without success, to resuscitate a teenager, drowned in a swimming pool, and tiny children who had fallen victim to cot death, as their distraught mothers screamed uncontrollably. I have had to tell an old lady, that her husband of 50 years has gone, and seen the loss in the expression on her face. I have picked up the bodies of suicides, having found them still hanging, smashed into pavements after jumping from buildings, or cut to pieces under moving trains. I have watched people struggle to cling to their last few moments of life; the desperation, and fear of the unknown, discernible in their wide-eyed stares.

There have been the tragi-comic deaths. The man dressed in his wife’s clothes, dying as he masturbated, found by his confused and disgusted family. The overweight man who died as he made love to a prostitute, so heavy on top of the woman, she was still struggling underneath him, as we arrived to help. An elderly lonely man, dead on his bed next to a partially deflated, garish blow-up doll, as well as the auto-erotic asphyxiations, once a common find. A dead alcoholic, his cat sitting on his head, looking for all the world like a fur hat. The one constant with these deaths, the victims always died alone. To some extent, everyone does.

Then there are the places of death. Emaciated junkies, crammed into toilet cubicles, the needle still in their arms. Toilets are surprisingly popular places for people to die. It seems strange, until you realise that urgent bodily functions often precede a demise. Vagrants are often found dead in large refuse containers, having crawled in there to escape the weather. Stairwells are also a common place to die. Murder victims lie in them, drug users hide in them, and victims of crime are pursued into them. Roads and traffic provide their allotted share of bodies. Mangled in the wreckage, or struck at speed, catapulted along the tarmac. Cyclists’ bodies wedged under trucks, youngsters under buses, all dead the same. Stranger’s bedrooms, canal banks, inside supermarkets, in a crowded tube train carriage, or in the middle of a busy building site. There is nowhere that someone will not die.

There are good and bad weeks. I recall one early shift where the first three jobs all dealt with a dead body of some sort. Our colleagues joked that we should swap the ambulance for a hearse and carry a scythe, like the Grim Reaper. There could be a period of as long as a few days when you did not deal with a death, though that was rare. This was balanced by other incidents, where one job would provide multiple deaths. Mainly because of where I worked, I had some contact with many of these. The Hyde Park bombing, 11 soldiers killed, and many horses too. Harrods bombing, 6 killed. Ladbroke Grove train crash, 31 killed, as well as hundreds terribly injured. To a lesser, or in one case, greater degree, I was at the scene of these incidents, and dealt with all this death, as best as I could.

There are many deaths that fade from memory, and others that can be recalled with ease. The sight of a man sprawled in a chair, with a large knife protruding from his chest, or what was left of a man’s face after he had shot himself with a large-calibre pistol; things like that are easily remembered. If you stay in the job long enough, you start to identify with some deaths. They begin to get closer to your age, and you discover, perhaps for the first time, a real sense of your own mortality. If you are 27 years old, and a man in front of you is dying, and he is 60, you think he is getting on a bit, and has had a fair run at life. As you approach 50, you start to see yourself lying there, like looking in a mirror. One third of my life spent looking at death.

It was time to go.

Is it any wonder that people say I am grumpy, and easily depressed? 🙂