Friday, April 10, 2009

The man with no title

I'm writing my autobiography.

Now, that may seem like the most vainglorious and egotistical statement you'll read this Easter weekend ... but before you start tutting and frowning, let me explain.

Although technically it will be an autobiography, it isn't really about me. I will be the narrative device that allows the story to be told of a young, naive Cornish lad joining the police in London at the age of 18 and finding himself plunged into the chaos and madness that was the early 1980s.


This all started with John Lloyd. We were chatting after the filming of an episode of QI last year and, as often happens, the topic of discussion came round to the fact that I have been a police officer for nearly 30 years. As some of the funnier and more extraordinary stories came out, I found that I'd gathered a small crowd all eager to hear more. 'You really should write this stuff down', said John, 'Even if all you do is donate it to the British Library or pass it on to your kids'. The more I thought about this, the more I liked the idea. There's nothing at all special about me but, like any person who's lived for a few decades, I have many, many stories to tell. Any one of you reading this could fill a book with your life story and much of it would be fascinating to readers. Anyway, I thought I'd give it a go. And, handily, I used to be a diary keeper so I had a lot of material to work with.

Then, last week I met Kate Adie - the undisputed queen of UK journalism. Now, the last time I met Kate was in 1981 when I was a callow spotty youth in uniform. I was one of the first officers on scene at the IRA bombing of RAF Uxbridge and, while no one was seriously injured, the scene was one of confusion and mild panic as we searched the buildings for more devices and attempted to clear the area. Kate and her film crew soon arrived and set up in a suitably photogenic location in front of the gates (RAF Uxbridge was one of the bases of operation for the Battle of Britain and a trophy Spitfire is mounted by the gate as a memorial). I, meanwhile, was engaging in crowd control and was darting around in front of her camera. I imagine that Kate asked me to get out of shot several times but the first I heard was an exaperated 'Get out of the way big ears!'

I recounted this story to her on Tuesday. 'You shouted at me', I explained. 'Only shouted?' she said with a wry smile. After all, this is the lady who has ducked flying bullets in Sarajevo, who witnessed the atrocities in Tiananman Square and who once kneed an armed soldier in the cods in order to escape being arrested. Anyhow, we got to discussing the 1980s and she said (and I'm paraphrasing here), 'It's extraordinary how the passing of time affects people's memories. We hear all the time that we're living with the constant threat of terror these days ... but compared to the 1970s and 80s, things really aren't that bad. Back then we had bombs going off every few months, we had riots, we had a war raging in the South Atlantic and we had bloody and brutal industrial disputes. It was scary for us reporters but it must have been a nightmare for the police.' She too suggested that I should commit my memories to paper.

The final nudge came from comedian Sean Lock. He was telling me about a friend who spent a little time in prison but who is now completely reformed. 'Thing is, he's a really clever bloke', he explained, 'He talks really eloquently about his experiences and I wish I could persuade him to write it all down. You should do the same. I'd read it. I'd really like to read a smart, clever well-written book about what being a copper is like, not just some 'we kicked the door in and nicked the bastards' Sweeney clone.'

The very next day, I dug out my first embryonic attempts at an autobiography and I found myself laughing as I read. John, Kate and Sean were right. This stuff was worth passing on to others. Not because it involved me, but because the situations and characters I describe - all real - are just so damned extraordinary. So, loyal followers (that sounds so patronising doesn't it? Blame Blogger), I thought I'd give you a tiny sample of the work in progress. It may never be published I know, but I will write it as if it were going to be a book and then see what my agent can do with it. All I need now is a great title, something that encapsulates the main theme: a young, naive country boy thrown into what seemed at the time to be a warzone. Pig in the city? Oh, that's been done. Suggestions anyone? If I use one of them and I get it published, I'll credit you with the title.

Enjoy the extract!


London’s Trafalgar Square has traditionally always been the place to be on New Year’s Eve. Hundreds of thousands of people swarm there every year and, as the twelfth Bong of Big Ben rings in the New Year, the place starts to resemble a frog spawning pond. Everyone looks for someone to hug (and, if possible, to mate with) and for no good reason I’ve ever been able to identify, normally sane people develop a sudden overwhelming urge to snog a copper.

I'd just transferred to Vine Street Police Station, just off Piccadilly Circus. Vine Street nick is now closed, as is nearby Bow Street (although they are memorialised on the standard UK Monopoly board), but at the time they were, along with West End Central, the best known police stations in London. I loved working there. Except on December 31st. I always greeted the news that I was posted to Trafalgar Square for New Year’s Eve with a mix of glee and abject terror. Like finding out that you’ve won a prize worth a fortune but it’s a signed gold disk by Westlife. It’s not that I’m adverse to attention – far from it. We all like our egos stroked occasionally. And more than just our egos (Copyright © 1971 Benny Hill). It’s just that New Year’s Eve for a police officer is relentless. There’s no discrimination on the part of the snoggers – big or small, short or tall, any race, faith, colour, sexual preference, any species even – everyone wants some tonsil hockey. And it goes on and on and on and on until your lips feel like you’ve gone ten rounds with Tyson and look like two pounds of raw liver.

I always felt particularly sorry for my female colleagues, especially the smaller and slighter ones. Imagine being five feet four inches tall and suddenly finding yourself surrounded by an army of sweaty, beer-soaked Nuts readers reaching lecherously for you and puckering up. And you’re wearing the third most popular naughty fantasy uniform. Scary stuff. We didn’t have CS Spray, long batons and tasers in those days either. No sir. The girls had to fight them off with firm words of advice, no more than necessary force and, if all else failed, a dainty knee to the conkers. Policing New Year’s Eve in Trafalgar Square was once described to me as like going on a cruise when you suffer from seasickness. It starts off as fun. It’s a big adventure. There are some interesting sights. But then you start to feel bad. And it gets worse. And worse. And after a while, you want to die. But then comes the horrible realisation that you’re not going to. So, like the rest of my colleagues, I smeared on the lip balm and endured the curious sado-masochism that is New Year’s Eve.

“Happy New Year Ossiffer!”
“Gissa kiss!”
“Oy! Tanesha! I found one we ain’t done yet!”
Mwah. Mwah.

Anyway, on thi particular New Year's Eve in 1985, a young Thai lady (you’re probably way ahead of me now) threw herself at me and gave me the longest and deepest smooch of the night. A real pants stretcher. She could have removed my fillings with that tongue. Amid bawdy cries of ‘Wa-hey!’ and similar from my nearest colleagues, I fought for breath as she clung to me like a squid to a bathtub. Eventually, I managed to lever her off … at which point she removed her wig, flashed a huge smile at me and said ‘Thanks mate!’ in a suspiciously deep Scottish accent before walking off into the crowd. She also lifted her dress to flash me a substantial brace of testicles, just in case I hadn’t quite got the jape. The cries from my colleagues remained as loud and bawdy but were no longer quite so congratulatory.

After a shameful initial flurry of panic (Remember that this was the unenlightened 1980s and AIDS-phobia was considerably more virulent than the actual illness), I tried to forget all about it and return to normal everyday life. But the word ‘Ladyboy’ written on my locker would be a constant reminder of that night for years to come. As would the mail-order catalogues for Thai Brides that kept appearing in my correspondence tray every three months. The humiliation was far more traumatic than the event (which, if I’m honest, felt pretty good at the time) … but I still can’t watch The Crying Game.


chris hale said...

Working titles. Hmm...

From Helston to Hell

The Blue Lump

Truncheons at dawn

Life on Mars Bars

A serge of adrenaline

More later (maybe!)

Oh, and don't forget the constable with the trumpet (or was it a French horn?)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Cheers Chris! You'll be pleased (or terrified) to learn that a certain Pc 292X Hale will be making his first appearance very soon.

And I still think you should post the 'naughtier' but brilliantly funny other title you came up with ...

Jason Arnopp said...

"A real pants stretcher". Remarkable.

This book must be written. I'll never understand why people who lead interesting lives shy away from writing about them. Write it unashamedly!

Do something about all those names littering the carpet, though, would you? Hmmm?

Stevyn Colgan said...

Lord A - True praise indeed from a 'proper' writer like your good and beardy self. Sorry about the names. It's so difficult these days not to sound like some celeb-stalking ligger. What I need to do is get famous myself. Then, the occasional name drop will be less sick-making. See you next week!

chris hale said...

Aw, if you insist, Stevyn...

The title captures both your role and your initial naivety.

Cop Sucker.

Stevyn Colgan said...

You good boy.

chris hale said...

Yes, me good boy.

Jon M said...

Brilliant story, Steve. How about Tales from Letsbe Avenue?

punk in writing said...

Well I'd definitely pick up a copy... :)

BTW, I'm one of those annoying reporters who keep shouting at young cops to get out of the way.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Jon M - Nice one! I'm currently writing the story of the day I impersonated Gary Numan for a crowd of his fans and ended up with 5 stitches in the head ...

Punky - I don't know if you know who Kate Adie is but if you are half as scary as she is, I'll treat you with a lot more respect from now on ...