I was hoping my second novel EDGE OF CIVILISATION would be published in time for Christmas, but for various reasons, it’s now due out in April 2022. Being a total novice in the world of novel writing, I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing to have a book appear around Christmas or is April the absolute prime time to launch a new book. I know Christmas heralds a plethora of autobiographies, obviously they’re considered to be ideal Yuletide gifts. However, it does astound me that certain celebs believe they’ve done enough by their late twenties to warrant not just one autobiography, but two or three. I have been asked in the past to write an autobiography about myself (that’s a joke), but I’ve always declined. There are too many people in my life that I would feel it necessary to include, and they’d probably prefer it if I didn’t. True friends are a valuable asset and having to read something about yourself over the turkey and mince pies, something you might not want to be made public, won’t enhance that friendship. So no autobiography from me and no novel for a few months. The main thing is this novel is getting out there, because it’s been burning a hole in my brain for over thirty years.
Let me take you back in time to the last century, to the late 1980s to be precise, when the hair was big, tattoos were the domain of drunken sailors and Rolf, Michael and Jimmy were still deemed as the good guys. I’d been working on EastEnders since 1984 and during the 80s I had also done a number of other shows and a number of radio plays, as well as a stage play, but what I wanted was my own series. Of course, I had a lot of treatments and ideas flying around with various broadcasters and independent companies, but anybody that works in TV knows how hard it is to get something actually moving. Nevertheless, there was this idea I wanted to write that was set in Bradford, the town I originated from. I still had a number of relations that lived in and around the area, so we would visit fairly regularly, but I no longer knew the area intimately. Also, I wanted to get the feel of how a police officer went about their daily business, not in a superficial way, but in detail, I wanted the minutiae, the nitty gritty, warts and all.
As luck would have it, my sister-in-law, Jenny Bolton, worked with a girl whose husband was a police inspector and he very quickly arranged for me to join a CID squad stationed in a small police substation, a mile or so from the city centre and on the fringes of a large ethnic enclave, bedsit land and the red-light district. Fucking loved it! Couldn’t have wished for better. And in those days there wasn’t a word about health and safety, nor was I asked to sign any disclaimer. I think it was just accepted that if anything did happen to me then it would be my own hard luck and I’d just have to live with it, that’s as long as I survived. A few years later I went out with another police force and I was asked to sign a form waiving any rights I might have thought I had. And now, I’m not sure they would even allow you follow anyone, and if they did it would probably take you a few weeks to fill out the paperwork.
Purposefully, I’m not going to mention the names of any of the officers I spent time with during those three weeks, but I would like to add that all of them were committed to the work and as far as I could see, their one and only aim was to ‘catch villains.’ There was one detective in the team that was nearing retiring age and I wondered why he was still a DC (Detective Constable). The immediate thought was that promotion had passed him by because he wasn’t good enough, or he’d committed some sort of transgression. However, it became apparent that he’d refused every opportunity to gain promotion, because if he had been promoted then he would have had to spend a period of time back into uniform, and there was even a chance he would have to remain in uniform for the rest of his career. He didn’t want to take the risk – he liked being a detective. He liked what the work entailed; he liked ‘catching villains’ and, from everything I saw, he was good and fair at it.
Most of the time we were flat out, staking out people and places, searching premises, interviewing suspects and witnesses, or making arrests. The only respite it seemed from the work on the coal face, was the occasional trip to the mill shop outlets, where suits could be purchased at a much cheaper price than at Burtons or C & A. And having a few suits was an important accessory for every self-respecting detective.
The person I was trailing for my duration at the police station, was the DS (Detective Sergeant) who was in charge on a day-to-day basis of this particular squad. I guess he’d drawn the short straw and was stuck with me, but if he did resent it, he never so much as a gave a glimmer of annoyance, in fact it was quite the opposite, he seemed quite pleased to have me around. He felt he wanted me to experience what they experienced on a daily basis, which was often both bizarre and frightening, and thank God, at times, funny.
On my first day the DS told me he’d have to show me around later as we had to get over to Halifax pronto. We went to get into his car, I don’t remember the make, but it was a small saloon, like an Escort or an Astra, or something similar. He opened his boot to put in the battered brief case he was carrying and as he did so I saw lying there, in full view, a baseball bat. I have to say from the off it didn’t really worry me, but for some reason I felt I had to say something, so glibly I asked, “I bet you don’t want me to write about that, do you?” His answer, however, did slightly surprise me. It was something on the lines of: “I would love you to write about it. Do you seriously think we go into some of the places we go into empty handed? We’re not that stupid. The officers further up the tree, put out that it’s all nice and easy going, and everything is under control. Well it’s fucking not. It’s far from under control. We’re firefighting every single day, but they don’t want you to know that. They don’t want panic and that may be the best way, but it doesn’t alter the fact that’s how it is.”
And with this general summation of the situation, we set off to Halifax. On route he added that he’d seen a shift in society. Villains, in the past, operated to some unspoken and unwritten code. Kids and old folk were off the agenda. The only time they were threatened would be by weirdos and paedophiles. Thieves use to target the wealthy, and violence was a last resort – there was more fighting between the villains, than with the victims of crime. He went on to say that was no longer the case. Now anything and everybody were fair game. If there was a way of getting cash and it meant torturing a pensioner or abusing a child, then that was okay. Also, the concept of ‘honour amongst thieves’ was a thing of a bygone era, honour on any level just didn’t exist anymore. And the crime we were about to investigate was just such an example.
Over a certain area in Bradford a team had been operating a con, which went something like this. They targeted vulnerable senior citizens, as they were easy to identify and were more susceptible to the con. This group of ‘wrong ‘uns’ would select a neighbourhood and start knocking on doors, claiming they were in the area doing some work on a chimney on a nearby house and they’d noticed that the person’s house needed work on their chimney. If the person didn’t fit the bill, they weren’t in that elderly age bracket, then the gang quickly found an excuse to move on. When eventually they did find the perfect target and had persuaded them that there was a problem with their chimney, they agreed to fix it for a very reasonable price – ‘As they were in the area.’ The victim of this con thinks he has a bargain, they’re going to get their chimney fixed before it starts causing them a real problem, and it’s only cost them fifty quid.
But of course, this is just the start of the con. Once they were on the roof, the team informed the victim that they have a problem with their roof. They can also fix that, again for a reasonable price – if it wasn’t fixed soon then water would be pouring into the room below, was what the unsuspecting victim was told. So again, they would get the go ahead.
The whole purpose of the roof work, was so they could gain access to the upper floors of the house, via the loft. One of the team kept the victim occupied, while others searched the house for details of how much the person was worth. Once the gang had got a reasonable idea of their financial standing, they would charge the person for the work they’d agreed on and just leave.
Then the con started in earnest.
The next day someone, supposedly from the company that had done the work, arrived at the victim’s house and tells them that they’d forgotten to charge VAT, and the victim coughs up the VAT. Then the fake councilman would show up, saying that a cursory inspection showed that the work hadn’t been carried out to the standard required by the council and the victim needed to pay for an independent surveyor – the victim coughs up again. Then the pretend VAT man arrived, saying he’d never received payment from the company, so it’s the victim’s responsibility, he has to pay, and once again the victim coughs up. Then the surveyor arrives, he didn’t realise it was roof work, he’ll need to contact another company to deal with it, which will cost more – the victim coughs up again. And so it goes on until they’ve cleaned the victim out of all their cash.
As we continued on route to Halifax, it was explained to me how the police had become aware of the case. It had only come to their attention because the daughter of one of the victims had arrived at her father’s house to find him distraught. He explained what had happened, how he had now spent his life’s savings and was terrified there would be others asking for more and he wouldn’t be able to pay them. The daughter reported the con to the police with the added information that late on Friday afternoon, her father had given some spurious character a cheque for £500 and he’d written it out to ‘Cash’, something you could do in those days. (Yes – you could literally go into a bank with a cheque made out to ‘Cash’, signed on the back by the account holder and they would give you the money there and then.) The police were able to ascertain which bank the gang had been using, by using the father’s bank statements to discover where previous cheques he’d given the gang had been cashed. The plan was to occupy the upstairs of a shop across the road, it had a good view of the bank, and wait for the someone to try and cash the cheque. As soon as someone tried, the bank would notify the police and they would sweep in and make the arrest. I remember thinking we could be there all day, whoever had the cheque may never show. I voiced as much to the DS who matter-of-factly reassured me, they’d show, and they’d show early doors. His comment was something like – He’ll want to cash it as soon as possible. I’m guessing this is the bank nearest his dealer.
We took up our position in the shop at about 8.45 am and settled down for what I was convinced would be a long session. The doors of the bank opened at 9 am and within a minute the first customer arrived. There were no mobile phones, so the bank had been asked to ring the shop number should a suspect show. At 9.05 am the shop phone rang, the DS answered, it was clear that someone had tried to cash the cheque. The DS got on the radio and I watched from our vantage point as a number of police officers seemed to just materialise from nowhere and enter the bank. We packed up and went to join them. The man they’d arrested was the first man we saw entering the bank that morning. The DS clearly knew how this level of villain thought.
The suspect was probably late twenties and had on a cheap tracksuit. He was taken straight to the central police station in Bradford to be questioned. In the meantime, we visited the suspect’s home address with a warrant to search the premises. This was in the centre of a council estate and just by looking at the shit and junk in the garden, I knew we were in for a treat. The door was answered by a young woman holding a screaming baby. There was small hallway that led straight into living-room, a living room most people wouldn’t have set foot in if they hadn’t been wearing a hazmat suit. It was disgusting – dirty nappies, used condoms, piles of washing and copious copies of hard-core porn mags. If they’d have condemned the place there and then, nobody would have questioned it. Very quickly the search team found various needles and small quantities of drugs – nothing huge, these were users not pushers. But the pièce-de-résistance was waiting in an adjacent room. There, smack bang in the middle of a small, galley kitchen was – a cement mixer.
Back at the station the suspect was questioned about the cheque. He claimed he didn’t know where it came from. His story was that he was in a pub the previous night, he couldn’t remember exactly which pub, and as he was leaving a stranger stopped him and asked if he’d cash the cheque for him. He’d give him a hundred pounds. The story didn’t hold water and when asked how he was going to give the man his money, he didn’t know. It was pointed out to him that if he couldn’t even remember the pub where he’d been given the cheque, then the whole exercise was a bit pointless. Already the interview was verging on ludicrous, and it became totally ridiculous when the suspect was asked what he could tell the police about the cement mixer in his kitchen and his reply was – “What cement mixer?” You couldn’t fucking move for it. It took up virtually all of the space. There was no way it had been just brought out from a secret hiding place. But the suspect stuck to his story. It turned out that the mixer had been stolen from a local building site, but it was never apparent what the thieves hoped to do with it.
This was my introduction to my time trailing the DS.
Back at the station the DS explained their normal day. It started by scrutinising the list of offences they had been assigned, these were always offences that happened on their patch – normally Halifax would not be in their domain, but as they original offence was committed on their patch, then they followed through with the arrest. During the course of the next couple of weeks, others connected to the con were arrested and other victims were approached and asked to give statements. The police were more than convinced they would get a conviction when the case went to court. And the man that was arrested that morning, was also charged with stealing a cement mixer from a local building site, his defence of “What cement mixer?” didn’t hold water.
There are a lot of thoughts about this particular case that have stayed with me. The sheer wickedness of targeting those most vulnerable. Here were men and women who had more than likely fought in the 2nd World War, sacrificed God knows what so we could live as a free country and these villains didn’t care about any of that. The obsession to obtain money for drugs overrode everything. Society shouldn’t have to legislate to protect the elderly, it should just be inherent in our society and be a natural instinct in all members of that society. Then there was the sheer ineptness and stupidity of the conmen. If they hadn’t have cleaned out their victims totally, if they’d had a better cover story and if they hadn’t been so predictable, then they would have got away with it for much longer. But I suppose the image that’s imprinted indelibly on my mind is that of the house we searched. The image of the woman standing in the middle of the room smoking, whilst holding a screaming child and not appearing to even notice the filth and squalor and sheer degradation she was living in. That was thirty years ago, where’s that screaming baby now? There is no reason why they can’t have grown into a useful and honest member of society, but I can’t help but think that won’t be the case. I can’t help but think we’re going about this the wrong way. Politicians and high-ranking police officers are always talking about the prevention of crime, but they’re all too scared to target the actually source, which is the woman with the screaming baby. Social workers will do their best, but we know their powers are limited. No government will dare, but if anyone really wanted to change this continuing cycle of drugs and crime, then they need to hit it right at the very start. The wailing child, in all reality, doesn’t stand a chance. Parenting isn’t easy even when you’re not obsessed with where the next fix is coming from, when you’re not living in a room full of porn or you don’t have a cement mixer in your kitchen. Parenting is difficult. Nobody gets it right, it’s not an easy ship to sail, but what I saw that day wasn’t just a ship off course, the whole thing had sunk. To raise it from the bottom of the ocean of destiny, will be a monumental task, by a very brave person. Lew Grade was asked if it was very expensive to make the film ‘Raise The Titanic.’ He replied: “Let’s put it this way, it would have been cheaper to sink the Atlantic.” Anyone thinking of tackling that deep rooted social problem, ought to bear that in mind.
There’ll be more ‘Tales from the Cop Shop’ in my next blog leading up to why I wrote EDGE OF CIVILISATION.
TO BE CONTINUED …