When I moved to London in 1960, I soon found I needed something to occupy my spare time. So, I enrolled in the Metropolitan Police Special Constabulary. I served for 23 years, although not always a regular attender, particularly as my job and family took more time.
After basic training and induction I was stationed at Cannon Row, at that time located in what was part of the old ‘Scotland Yard’ at the top of Whitehall. There the Specials were deployed mainly for ceremonial occasions and as a back-up to the regulars. Over a number of years a tradition had developed for the Specials to look after crowd and traffic control at the Changing of the Guard at Horse Guards’ Parade and Buckingham Palace every Sunday morning.
We were also called out for major events such as Remembrance Sunday, the State Opening of Parliament, and other similar special occasions. In fact the last ‘ceremonial’ at which I did duty at was 29 July 1981 - the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, when I was posted on a crossing control at the top of The Mall opposite the Buckingham Palace Fountain, not far from where I was standing when the picture was taken.
This picture alongside shows me on traffic duty down the side of Buckingham Palace - I recall it was pretty scary looking to stop four lanes of traffic approaching at speed!
The other picture shows me on one of my first duties outside the central gate of Buckingham Palace - that’s me on the left - note the long hair and flared trousers of the man on my left!
However, the reason for adding this as an incident which affected my ideas for writing was to record what happened to me on the first volunteer night duty I did. I was posted on foot patrol around the MoD - the Ministry of Defence.
A few weeks earlier two incendiary devices had been found placed against the MoD walls, and it had become policy to mount patrols there every night. In those days personal radios were strictly limited and not often allocated to Specials. Given I was being asked to patrol alone; I was issued with a radio for the first time.
My route started in Richmond Gardens, took me through Whitehall Gardens, along Horse Guards Avenue, and, using a key for a gate, through the Victoria Embankment Gardens.
As I did this last part of the patrol, I could hear what I later described as a ‘fizzing’ noise. It was coming from the stairwell of a basement entrance. This area was shielded by a fence and a locked gate, and was in total darkness.
I had no torch, the rain was pouring down - what was I to do? The noise wasn’t mechanical, as it was intermittent. So, I did the only thing I could do - I couldn’t leave my patrol area, I had to use my radio.
I pressed the transmit button, gave my call sign and relayed my message: ‘I have found an area in total darkness; there is a fizzing noise, which seems to be getting worse’. The controller told me to stay close by and wait for assistance. It came in the form of the patrol van pulling up on the embankment and four colleagues rushing to my assistance. The powerful torches they carried soon identified the source of the problem, and I was left feeling stupid.
There in the basement stairwell were several oxyacetylene cylinders standing on end. The cup on the top end of one, designed to protect the valve, had filled with rainwater, and the valve was leaking, ‘fizzing’ gasses through the rainwater.
Later that night when I entered the station canteen for my scheduled meal break, there was a lot of laughter, and the call of ‘here comes the flying special’. Everyone out on patrol with a radio had heard my ‘distress call’ and now they all knew what it was about. I wanted to crawl out of there.
However, before I signed off for the night, I was asked to go and see the station Superintendent. He said ‘I hear you’ve acquired something of a nickname. Look lad, don’t let it worry you. Given the circumstances you made absolutely the right call. However, I think it’s time you guys had some better briefing’.
And so for the next several weeks I and five other Specials attended an explosives and incendiaries course at the Police Training College at Hendon. We were taught what to look for and what to do if we ever found one. We were taught how the various devices were made and how they worked. It was my first real introduction to explosives, and the damage they can do.
In effect, I learnt how to make a bomb!
( © Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime, Metropolitan Police Service )
Read what happened on my first visit to Berlin click here