August 07, 2005

Search strategy

As I get older, it often seems the major function of the present is to remind me of the past. I watched every ball of the cricket today, England beating Australia by two runs in one of the closest matches in Test history, and what I mostly thought about was an evening more than twenty years ago in December 1982, when in a similar finish England beat Australia by three runs in Melbourne. I had been talking about it with friends, the previous night, when discussing prospects for the morning's play: but for other reasons, it had already been much on my mind.

On the evening in concern (it was, of course, morning in Australia where the game was played) I was walking back from a gig in London, on my way to King's Cross to catch the last train back to Stevenage where I lived. I was walking along the Euston Road, quite close (as I recall, and I recall that evening pretty well) to Euston station itself. There were only about fifteen minutes left before the train was due to leave. As I walked, I became aware that I was being, for want of a better term, kerb-crawled by a police car. The driver started dawdling behind me, then driving ahead, stopping, waiting for me to walk past and then dawdling again.

I found this highly disconcerting. I'd never had much contact with the police before, being a reasonably respectable youth (albeit one with straggly long hair) from a reasonably respectable background. Besides, it was the crawling that perturbed me, that made me nervous. Had it been anything other than a police vehicle, I think I might have started to run. That I didn't was less because I trusted I would come to no harm than the belief that running away from a police officer was likely to get me into trouble. If a policeman wanted to ask me something, why didn't he just park his car, get out and ask me? As it was, I was nervous, and a bit afraid.

I have reflected since that this must be part of what it is like to be a woman, walking home late at night and hearing footsteps behind you. The feeling of being sized up. The feeling of the situation being sized up, some course of action being weighed up and you being powerless to do anything about it. According to the prevailing wisdom - the wisdom, usually, of those who are never likely to be stopped by the police - I should not have been worried, for (like Josef K, I might over-dramatically claim) I had done nothing wrong. But it isn't like that. You are being confronted by somebody in possession of power: if anything, the very fact that you have done nothing wrong makes you more nervous, since something has, apparently, gone wrong already.

So I was no made any less nervous when the officer did finally get out of his car and approach me. He asked me my name and address, where I'd been, questions like that, none of which seemed to me to his business but questions which I answered nevertheless. He was then good enough to reveal that he suspected me of taking drugs. Which opinion, he declared, was based on the fact that I was walking very quickly and, so he said, shivering.

This had the merit of being some sort of an explanation. It had, however, the demerit of being otherwise entirely disconnected from reality. My explanation, which I was happy to offer by way of counterpoint, was that I was walking quickly because of the necessity to catch a train: and that I was shivering because it was December, it was not far short of midnight and I had neglected to dress as sensibly as those facts should have determined. This explanation, by contrast, had the merits of being true in every detail, and of being entirely sufficient in itself. No detail of my appearance and behaviour was unexplained: no further explanation was required. It was a proof quite as complete as any Archimides might have published. It had, however, the serious demerit of not being what the officer wanted to hear.

Up to that point, I could have accepted that he'd made an honest mistake for honest reasons and left it at that. That is, if he had left it at that. He wouldn't be the only policeman ever to make a mistake by misinterpreting his observations and jumping to conclusions. However, he had presumably had time, during his kerbcrawling exercise, to start looking forward to running in some poor lad with nothing better to do of a winter's evening than stick a needle in his arm. Now, apparently, he was going to miss out on the opportunity. At least, he wasn't going to take the chance of running me in anyway, and then finding himself in trouble if I turned out to be the drug-free child of nice middle-class parents who didn't take kindly to the way their son had been treated.("First rule of policing," says Detective Sergeant Wakefield in The Cops. "Never fuck with the middle classes.")

So, rather than let me walk away without further discussion, he compromised with himself. I got to walk away, but not before he'd buillied me a little first. He decided that I should demonstrate my drugs-free status by holding out my arm, completely still, at a right angle in front of me. This would prove, apparently, that I wasn't a junkie after all. Of course, we both knew that it had nothing to do with that at all: that he was making me do it because he could, and that I was going to do it because I had to. Nevertheless it was a feat which, despite the aforementioned cold and aforementioned absence of appropriate clothing, despite the fact that I was a nervous teenager in front of a powerful official, I managed to perform without shaking - and therefore to his satisfaction. Though, presumably, sufficient satisfaction had been obtained from making me perform the task in the first place.

So I was free to go, which I did, taking the officer's number before I did (though he refused to allow me to borrow his pencil to write it down). I even got to King's Cross with time to make a short and somewhat dishevelled phone call to my mother before getting the train and getting home. I remember that I wrote a complaint and passed it on to my great-aunt, who had been a member of Camden Council and was acquainted with the Police Consultative Committee, this being the early Eighties when such bodies had some clout. Or, at least, wanted to have it. However, I was passed a message from a friendly councillor to the effect that under the Metropolitan Police Act of whichever year it was, they could do pretty much as they chose and therefore there wasn't much that I could do.

But, as I've always remembered, the evening when I got home, the radio was on. So, while I was talking my family through the events of the evening, Allan Border and Jeff Thomson were coming within four runs of winning the Fourth Test - until Thomson edged Botham to second slip. The ball cannoned off Chris Tavaré's chest into Geoff Miller's hands and England won the match. I've never forgotten that finish. I've never forgotten the small humiliation outside Euston station either.

Of course, more than two decades later, now that I've tried to learn to override my natural inclination to be stroppy, now that I try - sometimes - to leave things be, I sometimes look at it thus: it's not important. After all, nothing really happened.

I was not beaten up, or even hurt, or even arrested let alone charged with anything. I was not even insulted or spoken to in a particularly unacceptable manner. It was not Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. It makes a difference. In different circumstances, what constitutes a night in the cells now might bring about a bullet through the neck. And yet a night in the cells is very differenet to a bullet in the neck.

If it happened now - which of course it would not, now I have short hair, now I am forty with a shirt and tie and look like the librarian I am - then I might very well mentally record the number of the officer, but I would probably not be as upset about it as I was when I was seventeen. Since I was seventeen, I have seen and been through far too much for that.

But, in another way, that's the point. It wasn't all that much and yet it was humiliating. It wasn't all that much and yet I still remember it today. I was sufficiently wounded, as a teenager, by a small humiliation at the hands of the police, to still be stung by it today.

So, what do I think now, when it is being spoken out loud, that what we need to do is to stop and search young men, young Londoners, people who will often be much the same age now as I was in December 1982. And, moreover, to do this not just once but, maybe, over and again for an indefinite period? Young men who will have done nothing and will feel all the worse about it because of that? Do I think they will forget it more easily than I did my Euston incident? That they will not feel upset about it, that they will not experience humiliation? That they will not brood on every incident just like I did?

Or do I think instead that the major function of the past is surely to remind us, in the present, to do differently?


At August 08, 2005 8:32 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Err. Salt n vinegar, luv?

At August 09, 2005 6:45 pm, Blogger Jonathan M. G. Bryant said...

Memories eh...

I remember getting up the following morning and finding out England had won - just.

Nothing really to do with your story but the way i remember the final ball is that Tavare dropped the catch and Miller caught the ball after it popped up in the air from Tavare's hands.

I wonder if it really happened like that?


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