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IT’S NONE OF my business whether women should be allowed to fight on the front line.

As far as I can see, the only people who have the right to make that sort of decision are those charged with ensuring the effectiveness and morale of the Army, and if they’re sure that it wouldn’t jeopardise the lives of other soldiers then that’s good enough for me.

John Nichol was on Radio 4 this morning arguing quite vociferously that it is a good thing, and he cited RAMC medic Michelle Norris as an example of the effectiveness of female soldiers under fire.

In 2006, Pte Norris became the first woman to win a Military Cross for her actions in Iraq, when – under heavy fire – she leapt onto an armoured vehicle to treat a colour sergeant who had been shot in the face. She saved his life.

I interviewed Michelle for In Foreign Fields. It wasn’t the easiest interview – she was still a very young woman and didn’t enjoy talking about herself at all – but we felt it was important to include her in the book. Here’s her chapter:

WHEN British forces first went into Iraq, Michelle Norris was a schoolgirl. Just three short years later, she was sitting in the back of a Warrior armoured vehicle at the centre of one of the biggest battles British troops fought in Iraq.

It was June 11, 2006, and she and her colleagues were engaged in a night-time search operation aimed at arresting key Mahdi Army figures and seizing their weapons and ammunition. It had erupted into full-on war fighting, with hundreds of enemy fighters surrounding the British troops.

A few hundred metres away, Jim Harkess was engaged in one of the actions which would see him awarded the CGC, and many other soldiers were fighting hard.

During the heaviest of the fighting, CSgt Ian Page, the commander of her Warrior, was shot in the face and seriously injured.

Pte Norris was just nineteen years of age, and only recently out of basic training.

But without hesitation, she dismounted and climbed onto the top of the vehicle to administer life-saving first aid, while under sniper fire and with heavy small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks continuing around her.

I joined the Army in November 2004, and went out to Iraq on TELIC 8 eighteen months later. I was eighteen at the time, and I’d wanted to join the Army since I was really little. I’d always been a bit of a tomboy – I like playing rugby, and I follow the Worcester Warriors – but I’m not from a Forces background. One of my uncles did his national service and then stayed on for a few years with the Royal Logistic Corps, that’s it – but I remember watching all the war films and documentaries with my dad and I guess it sprang from there. I joined the cadets when I was thirteen, and I really enjoyed that so I joined up after college.

When I was in the cadets, I developed an interest in the medical side of things. Both my parents worked at the local hospital, and my brother was in the Red Cross and the St John Ambulance, and I found I really enjoyed learning first aid. I progressed to teaching it as I got older, and found it was something that I was quite good at.

When you put the two together, I suppose it was inevitable that I’d joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, though my initial plan had been to go into the Royal Artillery.

My job is combat medical technician, which means dealing with casualties anywhere from immediately after they get hit – on the front line, if you want to call it that – to bringing them back to hospital or dealing with them once they are actually in the hospital. On any given operation I could be out with the troops or back at the hospital; on TELIC 8, I was a company medic out on the ground all of the time, whereas on my next tour I’ll be working in a hospital.

There were two medics, myself and a lance corporal, in our Warrior company – four Warriors in each platoon, three platoons to the Coy. We’d each travel out in different vehicles and the idea is that if someone gets shot we are on the scene to give whatever immediate treatment we can; the initial period, what we call the Golden Hour, is very important in surviving major trauma like gunshot wounds. As a medic, you might have to go to someone who has been injured and expose yourself where everyone else is taking cover. That is a scary thought, but we are trained to make sure the situation is as safe as possible before we move.

Pte Michelle Norris rescues injured commander in Iraq

I went out to Iraq on April 12. I was with 1 Close Support, and in the January they had asked for volunteers to go out and I put my hand up. I thought, This is why I joined the Army, it’s an opportunity to see and do things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I had no idea what to expect. You see stuff on the telly, and you get your briefings and chat to guys who’ve already been out there, but I went out with a clear mind, determined to experience it for myself.

My first thoughts were how hot and dusty it was – a lot different from back home. And there was the cultural shock of seeing how other people live… the sounds of the praying from the mosques, the sights and smells. Very different.

On June 11, C Company 1 PWRR, to which Norris was attached, went out on a night-time search operation in Al Amarah. It turned into the largest and most intense battle in Iraq since 2004, a war-fighting engagement where the soldiers found themselves under very heavy, accurate and sustained attack from a well-organised Mahdi Army force of over two hundred.

We were going out to look for weapons caches after a series of recent attacks. I was obviously nervous before we went out; pretty much every time we went out we were shot at, and the anticipation of that isn’t nice. But it wasn’t as scary as it had been the first time; you just got more used to it, eventually. We were out all night and there were lots of contacts. Warriors were being shot at all over town, I could hear the reports coming in over the net and part of you is thinking, When are we going to get hit? You’re reasonably safe sat in the back of the vehicle with the dismount troops, protected by all the armour, certainly against small arms fire, that’s no problem at all; multiple RPG strikes or IEDs, that was what we were really concerned about.

We got through most of the operation without too many problems. But then, just as it was getting light-ish, it came over the net that we had to go to this particular place where there was a crowd gathering around another Warrior which had become bogged down in a ditch. So we set off, and as we got closer I started hearing things bouncing off the Warrior, little pings and dings. I thought it was just kids throwing stones, because that’s what it sounded like, but then I heard the turret getting hit, and that was clearly rounds. The turret is where the gun is, and the gunner and the commander.

Ian Page had taken a round to the face.

I shouted up, ‘Is everyone OK?’

There was no answer, but I could see movement – they had the hatches up, and there was some light coming in – so I thought nothing of it. I reached for a bottle of water, and the driver, Pte Nani Ratawake, shouted down to me that the vehicle commander, CSgt Ian Page, had been shot.

I got on really well with Pagey. He had his birthday while we were out there and I said, as a joke, ‘Blimey… you’re old enough to be my dad!’

He said, ‘You cheeky so-and-so!’ and ever since then we’d walk past each other and he’d say, ‘How are you then, daughter?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m alright dad, how are you?’

He was a nice man, very good to the younger soldiers, and if I wanted to talk about anything I could always go and talk to Ian. You don’t go to Iraq to make friends, you go to do a job, but sometimes it happens. You can’t help it – I just got on really well with him. So when I heard he’d been hit I was really concerned.

In the back of a Warrior there’s a cage around the turret mounting – the turret can traverse through 360 degrees and obviously you don’t want the soldiers in the back falling into the mechanism, or the guys in the turret getting their legs caught in it… hence the cage. You should be able to open it to get into and out of the turret, but it was jammed. I tried for a moment or two, but it wouldn’t open, so I shouted to Nani to stop. The only way I could get to Ian was to get out of the vehicle and up onto the top of it.

This was obviously an extremely dangerous action, and one which put her own life at immediate and serious risk.

The area was full of people, many of them armed, and the sniper who had shot CSgt Page saw her emerge from the vehicle.

As she clambered on top of it, he began trying to shoot her as well.

Despite this, she continued to administer first aid through the commander’s hatch, until the gunner pulled her into the turret for her own safety.

In addition to the sniper fire, heavy small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks had continued around her, yet she deliberately ignored the danger to her own life in order to save CSgt Page.

I told the lads in the back to move out of the way to let me out. They opened the door for me, and I think one of them shouted to me, ‘Be careful.’ I jumped out.

From that moment on, it’s a bit of a blur.

I ran round to the side of the Warrior and climbed up on to the top, using the bar armour as a ladder. I stood over the turret and looked down. Pagey looked up at me, and I could see this massive hole in his face. There was blood everywhere, he was in a lot of pain and you could see the fright in his eyes.

He wasn’t speaking, I don’t think, but over the noise of the engine and the gunfire and the people I don’t know if I’d have heard him anyway. I shouted down through the turret to get one of the lads to chuck my med bag up while I was having a closer look at him.

He’d been standing up, with his head out of the turret and his rifle up, scanning his arcs for targets. A round had come in, hit the rifle, come through the other side and gone into his cheek. As it turned out, there was also an exit wound but I couldn’t see that for all the blood and tissue. I had to assume it might still be lodged inside his head, so that was another complication. If it had lodged in the back of his throat, say, it might obstruct his airway; if it had deflected upwards, it could have led to a brain injury. I just didn’t know.

I realised I wasn’t going to be able to do anything up there on top of the vehicle, so I told the lad with my med bag to get back down inside. Up to that point, it was strange, like time had accelerated.

I have no idea how long I was out there, but the OC said it was something like three or four minutes. If that’s right, it’s amazing – it didn’t feel anything like that. But then things started slowing down again, and I started hearing rounds cracking off right by my head. I thought, Maybe I’m getting shot at here? One of them hit the radio mounting a few inches away from me, and pretty much at that moment one of the lads pulled me down into the turret.

I slid down in with Ian. There was a lot of blood and I needed to get him into the back with the rest of the lads so I could treat him properly. I was thinking out loud, and I said to myself, ‘What do I do now?’

Pagey said, ‘Traverse the turret.’

Those were his only words – the rest was just mumbling, really. He was in a lot of pain.

I got the gunner to traverse it, the dismounts inside pulled the cage open and dragged both of us down through the turret into the back.

I applied a first field dressing to try to staunch the blood, and then had a think.

I couldn’t give him morphine for the pain, it’s not allowed with a head wound as it has effects on your breathing and blood pressure which can make things worse. So I checked his vital signs, his pulse, his respiration, his pupil dilation, the colour of his skin.

It wasn’t easy. There’s not a lot of light in the back of a Warrior – it can be pitch black at times, but there was some light coming in from one of the mortar hatches, which are used for top cover, and there’s a small red light inside which might have been on, too.

He looked OK, considering, but he was my first real casualty so I had nothing to compare it with. I’d never seen a gunshot wound like that before. I was crouched over him, talking to him all the time, trying to make sure he didn’t lose consciousness.

As long as someone is awake, you can get feedback to your questions. Where does it hurt? They can point. Is this helping? They can nod. They can squeeze your finger once for yes, twice for no, even if they can’t speak. He never lost consciousness, which was good. I felt that he needed fluids put into him, given the blood loss, so I told him that and he pulled away, which was a good, strong response. He’d understood me and knew he didn’t fancy a line being put into him.

While all this was going on, the driver was heading as quick as possible to the nearest HLS so we could evacuate Ian and get him to hospital. I have no idea how long it took us to get there, but the helicopter would have been airborne almost immediately and it was actually coming in to land as we drove into the camp. We stopped and a medic from the Light Infantry ran over. I did a quick handover, told him what I’d done, and we got Ian onto a stretcher and onto the chopper and away.

Despite the fear and shock she must have felt, her citation says she “immediately and without hesitation then remounted the Warrior and returned to the battle” for the remainder of the action. “On return to camp, she and the gunner helped to clean the large amounts of blood and human tissue from the turret. Even on being told that someone else would do this psychologically difficult task, she insisted on continuing.”

I went back to the Warrior. I sat in the back thinking, What if I haven’t done something I should have done? What if I could have done more? What if he dies? I got myself quite worked up and worried, with all sorts of stuff going through my head. What about his poor wife and parents? I didn’t have too long for that, because we needed to get straight back out onto the streets, continuing patrolling until the operation was officially over.

When you get back to camp, you have to strip down the wagons and get everything out. In our case, the vehicle was obviously full of blood. The sergeant major came over, pointed to a load of lads and said, ‘You, you and you… go and clean that Warrior.’

I said, ‘I’ll come and give you a hand.’

The lads tried to stop me but I wanted to do it. I couldn’t just sit around because at that stage I didn’t know whether Pagey would survive and I knew I’d just break down if I had nothing to do. So we cleaned it out.

The doctor phoned me later on in the evening from the hospital and said Ian had come out of theatre, he was fine and was making good progress. He said, ‘If it wasn’t for you getting to him in the time that you did and doing what you did he would have died.’ I just broke down and cried.

It was a bit embarrassing later on. In the cookhouse and places like that, people kept coming up to me and shaking my hand and saying, ‘Well done.’ Everyone loved Pagey, and they all kept saying what a good mate he was to them, and how long they’d known him. I was only doing my job.

I remember someone saying that because the operation had involved such a lot of fighting that it might be on the news, so I phoned my mum and said, ‘Something happened today, mum. It might be on the telly, but I just wanted to tell you that I’m OK.’

I went on R&R for two weeks not long after. It was really weird being at home, when just a day before you’ve been in Iraq surrounded by a lot of people who would kill you if they got the chance. I just chilled out as much as I could, still thinking about the lads who I was working with, the people still out there, but trying to enjoy myself as much as I could. After Ian got shot, I realised for the first time how special and fragile life is, and how you can be there one day and gone the next, so I just spent as much time as possible with my family.

When I went back out, the story of what had happened came out in the papers. There was a lot of stuff written that wasn’t true – like saying I got shot through my rucksack, which I didn’t. I’d seen it on the internet and I phoned home and said, ‘I think I’m in The Sun, mum.’

She said, ‘Do you know how much hassle you’ve caused me?’

I said, ‘Me? Why?’

She said, ‘I’ve got news reporters knocking on my door and phoning me up and trying to talk to us.’

After the incident, I was a lot more nervous when I went out.

Basically, I was scared of having another casualty to deal with and not saving a life or doing the right thing. Before this happened, I was basically an infantry soldier for seven months and I was always thinking, I want to do my job. And then that happened and I thought, Actually, I don’t want to do my job!

I mean, I love it, but if it’s quiet it means that the lads out on the ground aren’t getting injured or killed. He was actually the first and last casualty that I dealt with on the tour: most of my time was spent dealing with blokes who’d got insect bites and stuff like that. Thank goodness – if I never see another soldier with a gunshot wound I’ll be very happy.

We got back to Germany and we had to queue up at the barracks to hand our body armour back in. I was standing in the line and I head someone say, ‘Cheers, Pagey!’

He was the Company Quartermaster Sergeant who deals with all the stores and stuff, but I didn’t know he was back and in the office. I walked in and he dropped his book and said, ‘Private Norris!’ and he walked over and gave me a big hug and a kiss and said, ‘Thank you.’

I had tears in my eyes. It was all I could do to say, ‘Thank God you’re OK.’

As I say, I hadn’t really thought about dying or death before that. There were times… I still think about it now.

Do you remember the young girl who died not that long ago, Eleanor Dlugosz? She was in a Warrior, doing exactly the same job as me, and it was blown up.

She was one of four who died, including another girl. Eleanor was a few weeks behind me in training, and I knew her. My friend phoned me up and told me that she had been killed, and everything just came rushing back again.

It is hard. You do try and forget about it but there are certain moments when you can’t just forget about it. You have to sit down and have a think, or have a cry, or talk to someone about it. The Army’s like a family, especially in a small regiment, and something like that affects so many people.

But there has never been a moment when I’ve regretted joining up. It’s a really good thing to get into. You can be skint at the end of the month, but you’ll still have a roof over your head, three square meals a day and all your friends there to watch your back. And you’re learning a trade. I think you grow up a lot quicker than you do in Civvie Street. You have to look out for yourself, get yourself up for work, wash and iron your kit, look after your money… stuff like that. You can’t rely on mum and dad. I see some of my civilian friends back home, and they’re still asking their parents for things… ‘Can I have this, can I do that?’ I feel so much more independent.

Yes, there’s danger. I’m going back out in December and while I won’t be going back out on the ground again, there’s still mortars and rockets, you can’t do anything about them. But if it’s going to hit you it will, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s just one of those things. That is what I signed on the dotted line for: to get sent anywhere in the world, any day. I’m looking forward to being back in Iraq.

I couldn’t believe it when I was told I was getting a medal. After the contact had finished, my sergeant major said, ‘You’ll probably get a Mention in Dispatches for that.’

I didn’t even know what one of those was. I read up about MiDs and thought, Well, that would be nice, but it wasn’t something I wanted or set out to get.

Afterwards, when it came out that I was getting a Military Cross, I thought, Bloody hell.

I was gobsmacked, and when the 2IC came up to me and said, ‘Do you realise you are the first female ever to win that award?’ I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry… I didn’t know what to do.

Of course, I’m very proud, but, honestly, anyone would have done what I did, and people did lots of far braver things and didn’t get medals. Look at Pagey – he had exposed himself by standing up in his turret and letting them shoot at him. How brave is that?

She may not see it herself, but her citation is clear. “Her actions were extremely courageous,” it says, “and certainly saved CSgt Page’s life. Her total disregard for her own personal safety to save the life of a comrade showed incredible bravery, particularly for a soldier so young and inexperienced.”

I was only allowed three guests at Buckingham Palace, so I took my mum, my dad and my older sister. It was hard to pick between my granddad, my brother or my sister. Because it was up steps, and my granddad has bad legs, it was between Peter and Tina. They put their names in a hat, and Tina’s name came out, so she came down.

It was mad. We were waiting upstairs, and there was a screen where you could watch people being invested. I could see my family in the audience and the next minute I was walking through and was in the queue myself. And I was like, Oh my God! That’s the Queen!

When my name was called, I walked forwards and curtsied and shook her hand and she was really nice.

She said, ‘I am really proud to be giving you this. You must be proud of yourself.’

I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’

It wasn’t as though she was just talking to anyone, she really seemed to care. She wanted to know where I was based and whether I was going back out to the Middle East, and when I said I was she wished me luck. And that was it. She shook my hand again and said goodbye.

It was great for my mum and dad. They say they’re proud of me but I can’t imagine how proud they are. There’s only so much words can say.

 

THE AL SWEADY inquiry into the events at the Danny Boy checkpoint near the Iraqi town of Majar al Kabir has ended, and its report is finally published today.

It shows some relatively minor ill-treatment* but the original allegations, that British soldiers tortured and murdered a number of Iraqis whom they had captured after an ambush and a fierce firefight, are totally discredited.

The attack happened near Majar al Kabir, a town which was already notorious as the scene of the horrific murders of six members of the Royal Military Police a year earlier.

Sgt Chris Broome CGC was there that day, and he won the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for his actions.

Chris’s story was featured in our book In Foreign Fields: Heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan in Their Own Words.

I interviewed him at length for the book, and, watching this very brave man struggle emotionally as he remembered the events, it seemed absolutely clear to me both that no such torture or murder had happened, and that he and other soldiers were utterly horrified by what they’d seen and done.

Chris had been in the Army for seventeen years by that point, and yet until he arrived in Iraq he’d never fired a weapon in anger. Others were in a similar position. Having been involved in the necessary and defensive killing of very young men who had died horribly affected him badly, and I’m not sure he’s even recovered to this day.

The bulk of Chris’s chapter is here.

*Relative to the original claims.

NOTE: IF YOU ENJOYED IN FOREIGN FIELDS YOU MIGHT LIKE OUR LATEST TITLE, AT THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN.

MANY FAR MORE interesting people than me have had their say about the bizarre kerfuffle surrounding the Cereal Killer Cafe in Brick Lane, east London, and Channel 4 News, but.

Basically, a new cafe has been set up in a fairly run-down area of London.

It sells bowls of cereal to people for about three quid a pop. Its decor is all 1970s and 1980s kitsch (I think), with Shoot! annuals and old copies of Smash Hits about the place, which means customers get a metaphorical taste of childhood along with the real one.

Channel 4 ambush-interviewed the owner on Day One, and asked him what he thought he was doing selling cereal for £3 a bowl when there were poor people living in the area.

Why am I interested?

Because that question betrays an utter lack of understanding on the part of that journalist as to how small businesses (maybe any business) operate, and I run a small business.

Worse, it was later picked up by (among others) Isabel Hardman, who writes for The Spectator, a magazine I read.

Her piece was described as ‘a defence’, but it didn’t really address the main issue, which is: Is £3.20 actually a rip-off for a bowl of cereal?

Answer: if Cereal Killer Cafe’s only cost is the cereal, which they can buy in at, at most, c40p a go (this is a non-wholesale price – punters can buy boxes of the stuff at £5 for thirteen servings), then maybe you could argue that it is.

But they aren’t.

As well as cereal (some of which will doubtless have to be thrown away as wastage), I’m fairly sure their other costs will include (but are not necessarily limited to):

  • Rent
  • Business rates
  • Staff costs
  • Bowls
  • Spoons
  • Milk
  • Sugar
  • Cleaning and maintenance
  • Decor and general kitscherie
  • Advertising and promotion (they need less of this now)
  • Book-keeping or accountancy

Every single bowl of cereal that they sell has to make a contribution to those costs, or they are gone.

And it’s when you add all of these things up that you realise that there may not be that much profit to take out of the Cereal Killer Cafe – profit, of course, upon which they will also have to pay tax.

It’s not dissimilar to the cost of a book.

Our latest is At The Going Down Of The Sun, a heart-rending series of pieces about soldiers and Royal Marines killed in Afghanistan.

The jacket price is £18.99, which we are very conscious is quite a lot of money.

But only an idiot or a Channel 4 reporter would assume that the entire £18.99 is our take, or that the fact that there are some people who simply can’t afford £18.99 for a copy should influence our pricing. It couldn’t.

This is because, by the time was have paid for typesetting, proofreading, jacket design, printing, images, author’s expenses (significant, when you consider he travelled all over the UK to interview almost a hundred people), the retailer’s share (usually fifty per cent of the jacket price or more) and the cost of sales and distribution, and then the author royalty, we will make a very modest profit (nothing like even the print bill alone) if we sell out the entire print run.

I am no accountant, and I have no idea if there are major illegal tax scams being perpetrated by international business conglomerates – and if there are I think they should be prosecuted – but seriously, small cafes in Brick Lane are not a fair target, no matter how irritating one might find their beards.

The Little Girl In The Radiator, Martin Slevin’s funny, bittersweet memoir of life with his mum as she descends into the pit of Alzheimer’s, continues to attract great reviews.

This picture tells its own story:

LGITR Amazon page

We’ll have some news about the book soon (it’s embargoed for a while) but in the meantime, Christmas arrived and Martin’s mum has been out to get a turkey:

ON THE MONDAY BEFORE that Christmas, I came home from work to find mum sitting in one armchair in the living room watching television, and a great featherless and headless bird sitting in the other armchair, as though watching the box with her.

It had been positioned in the armchair the right way up, so that its enormous, drumstick legs pointed down, and it was resting with its back against a cushion facing the TV screen. It had been placed there while frozen, but it had begun to thaw out and a great wet patch was now spreading out behind and below it across the fabric of the chair.

‘What’s this, mum?’ I asked, expecting her to explain to me how some long-lost relative had come to stay with us for Christmas, or something like that.

‘It’s our Christmas turkey, of course,’ she replied, as though I was an idiot. ‘I got him from the supermarket this morning. I couldn’t resist him. Isn’t he smashing?’

There was a paper tag on one of the creature’s legs which announced proudly:

 

GIANT CHRISTMAS GOOSE.

WILL FEED TWELVE PEOPLE.

 

The damned thing was the size of a Rottweiler.

‘How the hell did you get it home?’ I asked, struggling under the weight of the mighty bird as I hauled its frozen carcass off the armchair.

‘A man gave me a lift back,’ she said.

‘What man?’ I asked.

‘He looked like your Uncle Bernard,’ replied mum. ‘Only fatter.’

A feeling of déjà vu swept over me. Her eyes never moved from the television screen.

‘Never mind,’ I sighed. I wasn’t going through all that again.

I hauled the huge goose into the kitchen and threw it onto the floor. It landed with a sloppy splat like some sort of suicidal nudist, with splinters of ice flying up into the air. I looked at our small fridge. Shaking my head, I knelt down and took out most of the contents and two shelves. I could just about get the goose in now, but I couldn’t shut the door. I sat back and sighed. I’d not expected to spend the evening wrestling with a headless 25lb bird. Like I said, it’s amazing what you get used to.

I hauled it out again, put the fridge back together and wondered what to do next. Christmas Day was still nearly a week off, and unless I could cold-store this thing somewhere it wouldn’t be fit to eat. I checked our small freezer: it was also full. (I established this by quickly pulling out the three drawers, one after the other, seeing they were stacked, and shoving them closed again, without examining their contents. Only later did I discover it was actually packed with 50 packets of chocolate biscuits; but that’s another story.)

I thought about the people I knew who might have a fridge large enough to take a giant goose, but I couldn’t think of anyone. I began to walk about the house looking here and there for inspiration, and found myself in the garage. Like so many people, we never put our car in there, even through the harshest winters; instead, we left it sitting all night in the street, and filled the garage instead with a lifetime’s collection of useless junk and worthless memorabilia. My old school reports (must try harder), rolls of carpet (must get this cleaned), a mostly cracked, china dinner service (must glue this all back together one day), my dad’s tools (you never know when you’ll need an Allen key), the lawnmower we no longer needed after dad had paved the lawn…

Dad’s tools! I spun around and spied his old saw; it was a bit rusty now, but if I sawed the goose into quarters, perhaps people would be able to store it for me then? I picked up the rusty saw and waved it about me like it was Excalibur. Then a little voice in my head told me I would probably poison the both of us if used it on the bird. Back to the drawing board.

It was bitterly cold at night that winter…

A few moments later I stood back and admired my ingenuity. The goose was sitting on a wooden garden chair next to a small round garden table. We used to take our meals out there in the summer. It could sit outside, the temperature would be cold enough and the meat wouldn’t go off; it was too big for a stray cat to drag away in the middle of the night. I smiled: another problem solved.

Inspector Gadget may no longer be blogging, but he’s tweeting like a good un, and one of his tweets today is this:

Gadget death messageWhile we were working on Wasting MORE Police Time, we had a lot of discussions with coppers about this most difficult side of their job.

Unlike Wasting Police Time, the second book is a collection of stories from interviews with officers all over the UK – we were trying to get somewhere near Talking Blues, Roger Graeff’s groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed oral history of the police in the latter part of the 20th century (which we later published in Kindle format).

Here’s an extract from WMPT:

I thought I was lucky, in that I’d never been badly affected by any of the things I have seen in my 20-plus years of service. I thought I had this sort of ability to zone it out. Suicides, road traffic collisions, accidents in the workplace, sudden deaths, like most police officers I’ve had my share of all of them.

Some years ago, I went to a house fire where a toddler was burned alive, and we physically had to hold the father back from going into the burning house to save his child. Same thing – no real effect on me. I don’t mean I didn’t care, just that I was able to think, This is a job of work and I’m really just at the office. I felt very sorry for the father, as I’ve always felt for the relatives of people who have died before their time, but it didn’t play on my mind.

Or so I thought. A long time after that house fire, I found myself driving down the street where it had happened on the way to some bullshit call, and for some reason I looked at the house. I must have driven down there many times before in the intervening years but, for some reason, this time it caught my eye. It had obviously been repaired and renovated and sold on, and there was a little girl of about six or seven playing on a swing in the front garden. And, I don’t know why, I just crumpled. I actually had to pull the car over to the side of the road and I got my notebook out and a pen and I buried my head down, like I was writing, but really it was so no-one could see me having a good little weep to myself.

I sat there for probably five minutes, just down the road from the house, and then I wiped my eyes and blew my nose and sorted myself out and then I was off. Never happened before or since, but I have lost that hard shell I thought I had. Intellectually, I know that, whatever happens to a person, life moves on for the rest of us. Emotionally, however, I find it much harder now. I haven’t told anyone about it before this, actually.

- Sergeant, 44, Eastern force

 

Fires to me are the worst. We like to have a laugh at Trumpton [the fire brigade], the world’s best-paid landscape gardeners, but I couldn’t do their job. There’s something about the smell of a burned body, be it from a car or a house or whatever. I know it’s a cliché, but the first time I smelled it was in the summer, and it was a hot summer with lots of people having barbecues. Spare ribs… The smell of accelerant and burning flesh… I spent most of July and August retching.

- PC, 30, Southern force

 

If anyone dies unexpectedly, we need to attend to establish whether it’s a suspicious death or not. Quite often, we have also been the ones to break the news to the parents, or children, or husband or wife that they are never going to see their loved one again. For me it is the worst part of the Job by a long way, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t dread having to do a death knock after all these years.

It makes me sick when I hear people running down the police service as just a bunch of thugs, as fitting people up, as being racist and this that and the other. They have no idea what we do. The bloke in riot gear who you called a ‘scumbag’ because he was supposedly ‘kettling’ you to stop you rampaging round the streets, yesterday he was telling a mum that her ten-year-old son had just been squashed under a bus. The Stephen Lawrence report comes out and says we’re all racists… A couple of weeks ago I spent half an hour hugging a black lady who was sobbing in my arms because I’d just had to tell her that her son had been killed in an accident at work. She didn’t think I was a racist.

- PC, 42, Southern force

 

I’ve been to a couple of blokes who’ve shot themselves. One guy whose haulage business was in trouble, he planned it to the nth degree. Sent his wife and kids away to the seaside for the weekend, and did it in his garage with the doors open. He’d worked it out so that he was sitting on a chair in the middle of the garage, he’d got the shotgun under his chin and… The garage opened out onto the drive, which was quite long but gave out onto the pavement. I think he wanted to make sure someone other than his wife and kids found him. Which I suppose is good of him, in a way, but someone had to find him.

He must have stayed up all night drinking because he had a lot of alcohol in his bloodstream, and he did it at about 5am on the Saturday. You’d think in a quiet residential street, someone would hear a gunshot, but no-one did. One of the neighbours thought it was a crow scarer or a car backfiring.

It was the postman who actually found him. As luck would have it, he was a former soldier who had served in the first Gulf War and had seen a few dead bodies, so he wasn’t as fazed by it as the Avon lady might have been. The guy had used both barrels under his chin and the whole top and back of his head was missing, and his face was attached to the front of his neck like a rubber mask. One of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen, and sometimes I still see it in my mind’s eye now.

I watched the undertakers load him up and I wondered how and why a bloke in his 40s, basically my age, with two young kids, a lovely wife, a nice house and everything to live for… How does he do something like this? It turned out later that the business was on the brink. He was living above his means, he thought he’d lose his BMW and the house and that his wife wouldn’t have stayed with him. She said, ‘I’d have stayed with him if we lived on a park bench.’

The lesson I took from that, which I have always tried to pass on to people, when they’re threatening to do this and that to themselves, is there’s always a way out. You might have to trade down to a smaller house and car, but to do that to your kids… Unthinkable. The irony was that at the inquest his wife said that on the Monday a letter had arrived asking him to tender for some work, which he might well have won and which would have lifted him out of the hole he was in.

- PC, 43, Northern force

 

I’ve seen lots of terrible things. In Northern Ireland, when I was in the Army, I saw a guy who had been machine-gunned in the face, so that there was nothing left of his head but a stump. In the police, I’ve seen a family minced in a car. But for some reason, none of it really bothered me. I can remember it, in the way that you would remember anything significant – I can’t remember the last time I stopped a vehicle, because I do that all the time, but you do remember unpleasant things. I just don’t dwell on them, and it doesn’t affect me like it does some people.

The one and only time I’ve been affected on the Job, I had been working a day shift and we were short-handed and they asked me to stay on. I ended up working sixteen hours solid. Towards the end of the second shift, I was basically shattered. I didn’t have my radio ears on, and a call came through, ‘Go to such-and-such an address and…’

And I sort of half-caught it, it was something like, someone has fallen down the stairs or something. So, OK, didn’t think much of it, off we go to the address.

When we got there, it was actually a toddler who had been killed by his father. He had been beaten by the man, and had died from a ruptured stomach. That is one of the most painful deaths possible – I know, again from my time in the Army, that a stomach wound is terrible, the worst place to get shot. And the thing that got me was, when I saw the little boy’s body he was lying in exactly the same position as my own baby son had been when he had died a few years earlier.

I came out of the hospital later, and I remember I just stood there and beat the crap out of a road sign. When I got home after work, I just burst into tears. And later on that evening, I went out for dinner with my wife, and I started crying in the restaurant. She was like, ‘What’s the matter?’

It was just the way the poor little lad had been lying, it reminded me of my own son.

[The above officer is a boyhood friend of mine – his marriage collapsed after this incident.]

- PC, 30, Southern force

 

I absolutely love my job, but I do hate dealing with death. I know it’s just part of it, but especially if it involves kids, probably because I have children of my own, that destroys me.

The worst day of my policing career has also been one of the worst days of my life to date. I attended an incident outside a school at going-home time where a young lad had been knocked down by a boy racer, who had then made off from the scene.

There was a crowd of people gathered around the lad, who was unconscious and bleeding heavily from the head. He was nine or so years old, I won’t be specific. It looked very bad.

As the first member of the emergency services on scene, people looked to me. What could I do?

Response officers do get some first aid training, but it’s at about St John Ambulance level, if that. We carry a few items in the car, but realistically I could only get the control room to hurry up the ambo as much as possible and try to staunch the bleeding.

I don’t want to make this a political point, but with the mania for centralisation over the last decade or so, which has affected the police just as much, they had closed the local ambulance station. The idea is that they would have their vehicles plotted up and waiting up in various locations, but if they are all in use or whatever then they have to send from some distance away. To be fair, as it turned out, it could have been parked up across the road, and I’m not sure that it would have made much difference.

Anyway, I knelt there actually in this boy’s blood, talking to him, trying to get some sort of response, and I sort of became aware of a little girl looking at me, and crying. It was his sister, who was six or so years old. Basically, she watched her big brother die in the road, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Eventually, the paramedics arrived, pronounced life extinct and that was that. I couldn’t do the death message because I had the lad’s blood all over me, which was a ‘be grateful for small mercies’ moment, though I felt very guilty feeling that.

My guv’nor [inspector] sent me home to clean myself up and I stood at my kitchen sink, trying to scrub this brown, coagulated blood from under my fingernails, and I just started sobbing. Luckily, my own kids were still at school, and my wife was at work. I try to keep this sort of thing from them. It can wreck your home life. Most of the people on my shift have broken marriages.

I couldn’t get the image of that little girl looking at me and crying out of my head for a long, long time. For quite a while after that, I dreaded calls to incidents near schools and I would avoid driving past that particular spot if I could.

Again, not to make this a political issue, but what really pisses me off is we spend very little time learning how to deal more effectively with serious injury, and next to no money on equipment, yet we spend days and days in courses learning not to be rude about travellers and gays.

Which, I’m like, ‘Fair enough, I understand that’s important, but which should we spend three days on and which should we spend three hours on? Which is our priority?’

I could not have saved that little boy, I don’t even think HEMS [Helicopter Emergency Medical Service] could have if they’d been across the road when it happened, but that’s not the point.

The other thing… Speeding drivers. Slow down. It’s not hard. Lift your right foot half an inch, for fuck’s sake.

- PC, 36, Southern force

 

The worst death I have ever attended was that of a seven-month-old baby girl whose mum had found her blue in the cot in the morning. Obviously, we have to attend to make sure the woman hasn’t killed the child, but in this case there was absolutely no suspicion of this, the doctor on scene was very happy that it was just a tragic cot death. A nice couple, nice house, nice people, no previous history, just a terrible tragedy.

The father was out at work, he was a dry-stone-waller, and he was out of mobile range up in the middle of nowhere, so we sent someone over to roughly where he was, looking for him, while myself and a WPC sat with the mum until he arrived. We asked the undertakers to wait outside, and this poor woman just collapsed, sobbing, into my arms.

I mean, her whole body was heaving with it, she was utterly incoherent with grief. I didn’t know a human being could be so – bereft, is the only word that comes close. She howled like a wounded animal. We sat with her for two hours until they found the father, who was just as inconsolable; as we were leaving, he managed to tell me that they’d been trying for a child for eight years.

I went from there to a report of a shoplifter stealing bacon from Morrison’s. When I got there, the bloke had been detained by the store security guards but he wouldn’t come quietly, would he, so I spent a few minutes wrestling him to the ground to get the cuffs on him, while he spat at me and tried to gouge my eyes out, and his mate shouted at me that I was pig scum from across the car park. I remember my top was still wet where the woman had cried on my shoulder.

That bloke had four children by four different women. He’d never worked, they’d never worked, and it crossed my mind that the other poor guy is going to be out in the wet and the cold all winter to earn the money to pay the tax to keep thieving scum like this in their beer and fags. And I’m ashamed to say that it also crossed my mind that I would like to take our shoplifter friend up on the moors, have him dig his own grave and then put him in it. That feeling eventually went away, but the lingering sense of, how can life be so cruel and so unfair, has never left me.

- Sergeant, 40, Northern force

 

There was a woman on top of a multi-storey car park opposite the old cinema threatening to throw herself off.

Most people accept the road’s closed, there must be a sensible reason, but there’s always someone who insists on trying to get through – usually either a scrote with an exaggerated sense of his own importance, or, at the other end of the scale, a bloke in an expensive suit who just won’t accept that you can possibly ‘bar the public highway’ to him.

And sure enough, one of the latter type appeared. He started complaining that he was late for a business meeting and did all that, ‘I want your name and number!’ stuff. So I gave him those and said, ‘Nothing’s changed, except now you know my name and number… You still can’t go down there.’

He wouldn’t have it, he kept moaning and muttering. Eventually, he said, ‘Can’t you just tell her to jump and get it over with?’

I said, ‘You’ve never seen someone jump from six storeys up, have you?’

He goes, ‘No.’

I said, ‘I have. I’ve seen their arms and legs come off when they hit things on the way down, I’ve seen their brains splattered in a 15 foot arc on the pavement, I’ve seen them lying there blinking after impact, with their brain still working but nothing else, and you can see they’re slowly realising that they’ve actually done it this time, and, whether they really want to or not now, they are going to die in that ambulance before they get to hospital. So please don’t say things like that.’

- PC, 30, Midlands force

 

We had a guy hang himself by means of a thin nylon rope which he had tied round a branch high up on a tall tree. Must have taken him some time to climb up there. It wasn’t a cry for help, put it that way. He put the noose around his neck and jumped off, and the length of the drop pulled his head off.

Imagine seeing that on early turn on an empty stomach. T

hat afternoon I’d been booked in to give a talk about policing to the sixth formers at the college and one of them put his hand up and said, ‘What have you done today, then?’

I looked at them and thought, ‘Shall I tell them?’ But I thought, One of them might have known the guy and, anyway, it would be just for shock value. So I said, ‘I attended a sudden death, and then I patrolled.’

Probably not the most exciting talk they ever had.

- Sergeant, 36, Welsh force

 

Death knocks are the worst part of the Job for me. That said, I had one where a bloke was killed in a car crash and I had to break the news to the widow. I hadn’t been to the scene and was just sent round there. She opened the door and said, ‘Yes, can I help?’

I said, ‘I wonder if I can just come in for a moment, I’ve got some bad news.’

She said, ‘No, tell me now.’

I told her, and she said, ‘Good. I hate the bastard.’

She started going on about the insurance payout she was in line for, and it was so odd I actually radioed the officers at the scene and asked if there was any sign of interference with the vehicle, but he’d been hit by a lorry which had crossed the white line. Couldn’t pin that on her!

- PC, 36, Midlands force

 

PETE ASHTON WAS an undercover police officer who spent years buying heroin, crack, ecstasy and speed from various mid level drug dealers in the Midlands.

By his own admission, he was a violent and unpredictable copper.

He came from a hard-drinking, fighting family and a milieu where you went one of two ways.

He could easily have ended up on the other side of the law, but he joined the Army as a sixteen year old, and when he came out he went into the Met.

Undercover - AI Cover jpeg

After working in the TSG, he transferred out to work nearer to his northern home. There he found himself in plain clothes, playing a football ‘casual’ who liked his drugs.

Over the next decade, he infiltrated dozens of gangs. One particular set of targets was the Burger Bar Boys, members of which gang went down for the drive-by MAC-10 murders of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis.

Pete – whose story is told in our book Undercover – was often on his own with several members of this crew – while wearing less than state-of-the-art recording equipment, or carrying a housebrick-sized video camera in a sports bag.

He received several commendations for bravery, but he also put away some hopeless cases, people who were almost as much victims as those they sold to, and he eventually came round to the view that drugs ought to be decriminalised.

After all, if the ‘Burgers’ has not been able to make huge profits out of flogging ‘white’ and ‘brown’ to kids in Birmingham and elsewhere, they would perhaps not have been involved in a turf war with their rivals the Johnson Crew, they would probably not have attacked the New Year’s Eve party attended by Letisha and Charlene, and two young women would not have been killed.

Pete’s friend and fellow undercover officer Neil Woods – they worked together on lots of jobs – has just outed himself in Vice, and he is of a similar mind.

During his tenure he estimates that his work put drug criminals behind bars for a combined total of 1,000 years, though he’s certain all that prison time did absolutely nothing to stem the flow of drugs like heroin onto Britain’s streets.

“Everything I did while undercover was a waste of time,” he says. “All I did was make the lives of the vulnerable more unbearable.”

 

Thick as thieves!

THE PAPERS ARE full of the story of the hapless thief in Wollongong who was captured on film by the very CCTV camera he was trying to steal.

It’s actually not an unusual crime, as our book Thick as Thieves: Hilarious Tales of Ridiculous Robbers, Bungling Burglars and Incompetent Conmen reveals.

The book was painstakingly compiled from media and police reports from around the world by the Daily Mirror‘s doughty and fearless crime fighter Andrew Penman (some 5* reviews of it here).

Thick As Thieves - AI Cover

There’s a try-before-you-buy extract here at our website, but here’s a couple more unlucky felons who were immortalised in the act:

A Cumbrian thief who pinched two security cameras left the cops with plenty to go on – including images of himself taken by the cameras as he unscrewed them from the wall.

The rapscallion in question had burgled a charity called the Rising Sun Trust, which provides help for drug- and alcohol-users and their families in Workington. He hadn’t been entirely stupid, in that he had begun by stealing the CCTV cameras in the backyard at around 3.45 one April morning, and had carefully hidden his face as he did so. But though his face could not be made out on the footage stored on the charity’s PC, his hands could. One hand bore the word ‘LOVE’ tattooed across the knuckles. So far, so clichéd. But on the other, much more helpfully, was the word ‘RAY’.

That just happened to be the burglar’s name (and it raises an interesting but separate issue – why would you tattoo your own name on your hand?).

‘It took police a matter of minutes to arrest 52-year-old Raymond Adams and charge him with the theft,’ the paper reported.

Adams was sent to prison for 164 days after pleading guilty to theft, Carlisle Crown Court hearing how he had 109 previous convictions.

(No, that’s not a typo: he had one hundred and nine previous convictions.)

Maybe it’s a northern thing? Christopher Cummings spent four hours diligently unscrewing four cameras from the wall outside a former pub which was being converted in offices in Bradford. The building’s owner, solicitor Amjad Ali, said: ‘This guy must be Britain’s dumbest criminal. He is staring straight at the camera – he is so close you can see his breath. Then, as he is removing the last one, he nearly kills himself. He was above a 12ft drop and he nearly lost his footing.’

Within hours of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus publishing the CCTV images, unemployed Cunningham, 22, was arrested. In July 2011 he was sentenced to a 12 month community order.

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