A policeman who quits the force out of shame

Sometimes only art will do — a particular book, picture, poem, piece of music. Some people I know can read a book once and then get rid of it, but I never know when I’ll need to go back and look something up.

So it was on the evening of Thursday 9 December 2010. Aghast and increasingly anxious at events unfolding in Westminster, both in Parliament and outside where I knew many friends and colleagues were legitimately protesting against the insultingly perfunctory debate on a transformation of higher education the impact of which can scarcely be guessed at but which will likely be felt by many people for many years, I began scouring the shelves for a particular title, but couldn’t find it by the light of the lamp. I looked again this morning, and found it. Here was a book which had suddenly come to mind for what felt like a whole new aptness in face of the ‘tuition fees vote’, Government ministers’ all-too-believeably crass framing of education as a selfish personal gain that is somehow stolen from the taxpayer rather than a public benefit — let alone a national one, or international — and the kind of baldly choreographed police aggression and provocation that was surely designed to produce the violence or the appearance of violence that it claimed to be a response to but that was reported as if the Battle of Orgreave had never happened. (Then, infamously, BBC News coverage reversed the chronology of footage to incorrectly show ‘shots of miners throwing stones at police before showing mounted officers charging the miners’.)

The book I’d been looking for was not artist Jeremy Deller’s The English Civil War Part II — an excellent published collection of, as the subtitle has it, ‘Personal accounts of the 1984-85 miners’ strike’, which was brought out to accompany his 2001 re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave in Orgreave, an event which I was lucky enough to attend — but the script of the film Wetherby by David Hare. I knew it was there somewhere and I’d wanted to check a line of dialogue that I had (in fact mis-)remembered — if you’ll excuse my paraphrasing — as something like, ‘Right then, those of us who still believe in education, let’s… [something, something, something…]’

If you haven’t seen Wetherby I’d recommend it. It remains one of my favourite films. You might struggle to see it though, because sadly Wetherby doesn’t seem to be currently available on DVD in the UK. The script, too, is out of print although when it seemed that I might not be able to find my own copy I did quickly check to see if any secondhand copies are available online, which they are.

Wetherby is a kind of Thatcher era allegory — from and of the early, mid-1980s — in which an act of unhinged and paranoid Nietzschean violence is visited upon a Yorkshire community as represented by teacher Jean Travers (played by Vanessa Redgrave) and her British Library-worker friend Marcia (Judi Dench). I use the word ‘Nietzschean’ advisedly because the act of violence is tagged as such by several shots of the reading matter of the aggressor, a violent stalker named John Morgan (played by Tim McInnerny). In this much it is such a perfect allegory of the time, of the acts of violence that were perpetrated on communities in Yorkshire and elsewhere during the miners’ strike, that I have to remind myself that given production schedules of course the film must have been written, gone into production even, before the  strike even started. In which case it becomes an act of prophesy. It seems scarcely credible now, but looking at the dates today I see that Wetherby premiered in the same week that the Miners’ Strike ended, at the beginning of March 1985. The script lists the premiere as having taken place at the Curzon West End, London on 8 March, although there was also a Leeds premiere at the Hyde Park Picture House, a beautiful 1914, gas-lit, end-of-terrace cinema which features in the film. I remember this because I lived in Leeds at the time, so somehow it has become bound up — as films, music, works of art can — with my own biography (in ways that are both too slight and too convoluted to describe here), but also with my own writing.

In the mid-1990s I was writing a satirical piece of fiction, a short story about a pre-Macpherson police force that had seemed since the early 1980s — with the policing of the miners’ strike, the Battle of the Beanfield, and later with the institutional racism found by Sir William Macpherson in the aftermath of the murder of London teenager Stephen Lawrence — to be locked into a self-perpetuating cycle of alienated violence and prurient self-justification.

Once I’d started writing though, it was hard to stop and that short story became the novel CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO, which was published in 1999 — the same year as ‘The Macpherson Report’ — by the former, now sadly-missed Hove-based publishing house Codex Books. The novel is told in an expletive strewn, phonetic prose style that is structured around a very loose appropriation of the central conceit of Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘The Third Kind’ and features three ‘Retropolitan Police Force’ goons in a riot van whose call-sign is an acronym of my (slightly adapted) phonetic alphabet title. In the period pre- and post-publication I did loads of readings from CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO, often with a live, improvised musical accompaniment from James T. Ford, a former Hammond Organ player for The Jam. We performed at the performance art venue Hollywood Leather, at the ICA a couple of times, the Zap, Cabinet Gallery, Vox ‘n’ Roll, and others I can’t remember; then I put the book away for a decade, had other books to promote. Codex went out of business and the book out of print. There are a very small number for sale secondhand, but not many.

The novel is still out of print, but I did a public reading from CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO earlier this year at a gig in Shoreditch with the mighty Malcolm Bennett of Brute! fame, which was the first time I’d done so for about ten years. Then again in November at Wordplay’s benefit night for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, at a great venue called The Good Ship in Kilburn. That was the night before the previous pro-education protest in Westminster, which seemed to give the reading a whole new kind of currency.

The two things — Wetherby and CHARLIEUNCLENORFLKTANGO — are not unrelated. One short passage in my novel was consciously written as a kind of minor homage to Wetherby. It picks up on a fleeting scene in Hare’s film that appears on page 55 of the script. It would take longer to describe what happens on-screen, but in the script, Hare simply writes: ‘In the middle of the road children have lit a bonfire and are playing around it with sticks, and smashing bottles.’ As it happens, CHARLIEUNCLENORFLKTANGO features what (a confessedly irritated) Christopher Tayler in his review of the novel for the LRB called, ‘a tirelessly reiterated opposition of the lights of civilisation and the “dark playsiz”, [and] ow blokes & birds on Erf can keep the dark dark nyte at bay.’ As I was writing those sequences I thought again of that fleeting glimpse of the bonfire in Wetherby, and so in keeping with my prurient police officer narrator’s endless riffing on the light and the dark I used something similar. Near the end of the novel, as the Sarge drives the van back to his own house to inflict some (unseen) act of violence on his own family, he turns off the main road and they drive past ‘sum kidz dan by the garridjiz awl standin round a fyre wot theyv maid owt a sum ole matrissiz & shit […] & there chuckin stix at the cunt.’ I thought of this again when I saw some of the footage being posted on Youtube of Parliament Square, like this short clip by my friend the artist Chris Dorley-Brown.

There is a small nod to Wetherby in my novel Foxy-T as well, but I’ll leave that for now because I don’t want to overload a post that is already too long, and because there is already too much to digest. I am well aware, for one thing, of just how contingent my own engagement with higher education was. Then there are the brutal police tactics used against students and young people in Westminster on 9 December 2010, the innocent people who were kettled on Westminster Bridge until late at night and the odious likes of Michael Gove, the current Secretary of State for Education. I’d initially seen Gove as a kind of comic Dickensian figure, who came on the radio like Tory grotesques of old to try and feed us a burger about this or that, but there was a link floating around this week to a piece he wrote in the Times a few years ago in which he said that pricing education out of people’s reach is ‘all to the good,’ continuing, ‘anyone put off from attending a good university by fear of […] debt doesn’t deserve to be at any university in the first place.’

It was one of those times when only art will do, when nothing else is up to the task, and this was why I was reaching for my battered old Faber and Faber paperback of the script of Wetherby, and why it suddenly seemed such a good and useful fit; something to be immediately consulted.

Here was violence being visited on a community and being brought into people’s homes.

Here was the rejection of education as fake.

Here the violent desire of an aggressor to take everyone down with them and who blows his own brains out in pursuit of that power.

Here, too — in Wetherby at least — was a policeman who quits the force out of shame.

Most of all though, it was that line that I’d been trying to remember, which comes close to the end of the film (and on pages 90-91 of the Faber edition of the script). The teacher Jean Travers (Redgrave) is back in her classroom where she discovers that one of her pupils has quit school to run away with a boy.

‘Anyone else?’ she asks. ‘Anyone else want to go?’

No one does.

‘Right then, for those of us still remaining — us maniacs, assorted oddballs, eccentrics, folk who still feel that school is worthwhile, I suggest we keep trying. All right everyone?’

3 thoughts on “A policeman who quits the force out of shame

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A policeman who quits the force out of shame « Piece of Paper Press -- Topsy.com

  2. Tony, what a great post. Like you, and so many other people, I have been disgusted by the entire process through which this higher education bill has been introduced. The 2003 Times article by Michael Gove is very revealing and absolutely reinforces Stefan Collini’s argument (‘Browne’s Gamble’ LRB, Nov 4th) that Education has been reduced to the level of a commodity, and that the witless ideology of the deregulated market has been applied to yet another public good created in the post-war consensus of Beveridge and Keynes.

    I was in Westminster on Thursday during the protest, and to see the whole thing unfold through the course of the day was instructive, and terrifying. The police, in their thousands, arrived early in the morning to erect barriers around Parliament Square and prepare their tactics. There was an air of total hostility mixed with a sort of febrile anticipation, as if they were keen for the confrontation to begin. Many were laughing and joking at the prospect of fighting with the students – an uneven battle if ever there was one. You may have heard the Met commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson’s disgraceful comment this morning that: “armed officers showed enormous restraint….”, implying that they might have opened fire on the demonstrators if the violence had escalated any further. And you might also have seen the disgraceful intimidation of a 12 year old boy who organised a small Facebook group to defend his local leisure centre, in the Prime Minister’s constituency, against closure – http://bit.ly/e1SZMc

    But what followed the protests was arguably even more worrying. As you say, news coverage of the demonstrations has been completely biased, with students cast as violent and dangerous criminals, completely ignoring the police’s disgraceful handling of the situation. Not only that, but the many false premises on which the Coalition’s policy rests have gone unchallenged.

    We can afford to pay for higher education and widen access, but we choose not to. Education is not a commodity like orange juice or natural gas. It is a public good whose purpose is to make a civilised society. Higher fees will deter students from applying, especially if the EMA is removed or reduced, and especially from Arts and Humanities courses where not only has 100% of the grant gone, but the careers students can expect to go into with these degrees will make the argument about lifetime value of the grant much less attractive.

    But depressingly, far from condemning the government and the police, the official opposition has been largely absent, and of course it was the previous administration which commissioned Lord Browne (Lord Browne, I mean, honestly!) to prepare his independent review in the first place, so they would be compromised even if they decided to argue against higher fees.

    Students, who have been lied to and lied to and lied to, and who have no obvious supporters in Parliament, are taking matters into their own hands, and who can blame them? Politicians of all parties bear a heavy responsibility for this violence, but it is the wholesale assault on the very notion of public goods and community that is being carried out with indecent abandon by the government that really sticks in the craw. And of course it is not just Education. Health is next, and every area of the public sector. This is about reordering the whole basis of public spending, and reframing public discourse so that it will be more or less impossible for future governments to argue in favour of large scale public investment or intervention. And this at a time when, arguably, that is precisely what the economy and the country needs.

    Art is, of course, the final refuge of meaning and moral courage, and it’s a constant source of refreshment and strength for me, but I wonder if it is not time, now, for art to make something happen. If only more police officers, like Mike Langdon, would resign out of shame.

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