Friday, August 09, 2013

On Love, Stationery & Law Enforcement.

When I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a detective.

Television had taught me that children could achieve almost anything by writing letters, so I wrote to Suffolk Police offering my services as a detective. I thought I could help out - that really is how I phrased it. I also offered the services of my older cousin because crime-fighters generally come in pairs.

A Police Range Rover with my nine year old self
at the wheel. 
The police were unable to find a position for me at that time, but they did take my cousin, myself and a boy who'd had the same idea, for a day at the Suffolk Police Headquarters at Martlesham, at the end of the Christmas Holidays, in January 1990. I had just turned nine.

This was amazing. They picked us up in a police car. They shows us the control room where they receive emergency calls. They took our fingerprints. I got to sit on a police motorbike. I got to sit in a police Range Rover. They showed us a private museum of criminal paraphernalia; weird weapons, benign-looking objects with secret compartments for smuggling drugs.

The best bit was sitting in the back of an ordinary-looking car while the driver demonstrated advanced driving skills; speeding around and skidding all over the place. Scary and brilliant in equal measure.

That day was one of the most exciting days of my young life and it influenced me in two significant ways:

1. Unsurprisingly, I carried on wanting to be a detective, right up until an adolescent need for attention and self-expression beckoned me onto the stage. Thus, I kept looking at the world with a view to solving its mysteries. I noticed curious behaviour. I watched people. And I've never really stopped that - I still notice people who don't quite fit and briefly fantasise about their criminal story.

I always wrote stories, as soon as I could spell enough words (or at least, I could spell some words, and build a story around them). However, I'm not sure I've ever written any piece of fiction which wasn't about some kind of mystery. This is, apparently, what I do.

2. I basically trust the police. I report crimes and encourage others to do the same. When asked for information, I've always been forthcoming (except once, when I had the most inappropriate fit of the giggles*).

Three children and a police officer in front of an ordinary
looking white car which can go faster than you'd think.
I know some people can't trust the police and I understand that; if you've been dismissed or belittled in your most vulnerable moment, if you have been repeatedly treated with suspicion because of your race, impairment or the place you live, then trust would be an unnatural response. I also know that some people enter the police force (together with certain other professions) because they enjoy wielding power over others.

However, that day at the Suffolk Police Headquarters established a fundamental trust in the police which has remained largely unshaken by adult experience.

Anyway, my most beloved souvenir from my day with the Suffolk Police was my Suffolk Police pencil. Well, obviously - you use it to write things down!  I used to write stories, but also to collect the number plates of suspicious (or at least unfamiliar) vehicles, to note the strange comings and goings at Number 52 and to record general observations in the hope that one day, one of my neighbours would be brutally murdered, and I'd be able to work out who'd done it.

Then one fateful day, I was on a school trip to West Stow Anglo Saxon Village. I was dressed as an Anglo Saxon, casing out one of these reconstructed Anglo Saxon dwellings for signs of underhand Viking activity (why no Anglo Saxon literary sleuths? We've got Falco, a Roman, then no detectives until medieval Cadfael?).

I dropped the pencil.

I don't recall my visit to the Anglo Saxon village as well as I do my trip to the police headquarters, but I can tell you that when Anglo Saxons built a house, they first dug a deep hole for foundations. I know this because I watched helplessly as my pencil rolled through the gap between the floorboards (no tongue and groove for those Saxons) and fall down to the floor of the pit the house was built over.

I could see my pencil, but there was no way I could reach it. Also, it was really going to confuse future archaeologists if the settlement got buried again by the sands of time, only to be dug up again, featuring authentic Anglo Saxon buildings and artifacts and one graphite pencil with Suffolk Police printed on it.

I don't generally get too attached to objects, but I was fairly gutted about the pencil.

My nephew has been to West Stow himself a few times and has always brought back a pencil. "It's to replace your Police pencil!" he declares (he knows the story but being six, he may have forgotten the fact he'd bought me a pencil on previous visit. After all, when I asked him what year he thought the Anglo Saxons lived at West Stow, given that it had to be a very long time ago it was, his guess was 1998).

Anyway, fast forward to our wedding day, last Monday. Stephen gives me a long velvet box, the sort you might display a bracelet in, or perhaps a fountain pen, or perhaps... a Suffolk Police Pencil! Exactly the same pencil!

Me holding a white pencil with an eraser on one end and
"Suffolk Police" printed in blue on it.
I am stunned. Delighted. Curious. Surely they're not selling these things on eBay now?

In May, Stephen wrote to Suffolk Police - sent an e-mail entitled "NON-EMERGENCY - a request" and told this story. He used what he had learned of the language of policing from TV and Films, referring to Suffolk Police as Suffolk's Finest (like New York's Finest, only with many more incidents involving pigs). He even concluded the story with "Can you see where this is going?" just like on The Wire when they've presented incriminating evidence to a hoodlum.

This e-mail traveled through departments at Suffolk Police over a period of some weeks before landing with a public relations officer. They no longer have pencils (they probably give away USB pens these days) but they had a rummage in their stock rooms and found two. Two Suffolk Police pencils. And they sent them to Stephen, along with a compliments slip congratulating us on our wedding. Suffolk Police congratulated us on our wedding.

A man and a woman in fairly fancy clothes:
Mr Goldfish & myself on our wedding day.
And so, now you know. Now you know why I still think the police are basically a good bunch who will be there for anyone in their time of need. And now you have a tiny taste of why I married Stephen.

[The school liaison officer who took us around the Police HQ that day was a PC Howlett, who also came into our primary school to advise us against playing on railway lines and the like. He was an engaging speaker and some of the stories he told (fun stories about feckless criminals, rather than stories about children getting hurt) stuck in my mind, regardless of everything else. Just saying on the unlikely chance he should google himself. ]

* They were door-to-dooring following a very serious crime on the street where I was living (this was the North Yorkshire police, or the NYPD as I'm sure they prefer). Anyway, the officer handed me two sheets of paper, one of which had an outline of a car, the other the outline of a man - a person, I suppose, but definitely a mannish figure. The idea was to draw or write in any details you remembered. The whole situation was so serious, but this outline of a man struck me as very funny - there were just so many silly thing you could - and people probably would - do with it. So I had the giggles. I expect the police are used to that. I expect they have gigglers even when folk are identifying bodies. Especially if someone has died in a comical way.