Dirty literature v. dirty tactics

I’m really pleased to be taking part in the opening event on 17 March of the forthcoming Dirty Literature season put together by Fatima Hellberg of the excellent contemporary art agency Electra for the National Portrait Gallery. Doing a project for the NPG has stirred up memories of the Poll Tax Riots; made me think about the regeneration/rebranding of Trafalgar Square and the impact on that of the recent protests. This week has also seen publication of a review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary on Policing Public Order which includes recommendations on the use of force following the death of Ian Tomlinson and a depressing admission that such recommendations may take years to implement on the ground. More on these related issues below.

All the events in the Dirty Literature series are free but booking is essential. Here is the blurb:

From performative lectures that roam across fact and fabrication to genre-defying plays with storytelling, Dirty Literature brings together artists and writers exploring the boundaries of narrative […] – a form of contaminated literature, unfolding at the edges of coherence. Ephemeral like a rumour, mobile like gossip this is a form of biography that escapes the weight and permanence of the published word and the painted figure alike, a real time portrait.

I’m going to be sharing the event on 17 March with my old friend Tim Etchells, best known for his work with UK experimental theatre company Forced Entertainment but also a prolific and consistently brilliant writer across media. Alongside his writing for and about performance, Tim has also written some great fiction over the last decade or so, including the now sadly ultra rare Endland Stories from 1998 (further background on Endland Stories here, too) and more recently an excellent novel The Broken World.  Another current solo project of Tim’s is entitled Vacuum Days for which he is posting a gloriously downbeat series of graphic and satirical, daily playbills (developing an idea first explored in a brilliant free pamphlet he produced a couple of years ago called Events at the Downturn). Here’s the Vacuum Days playbill from 9 Feb:

My contribution to the Dirty Literature event will be to read from two pieces of fiction. One is a completely new commission, the other is CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO, my satirical novel from 1999 (which I’ve blogged about here and here). The novel  was amongst other things a fictional response, through the imbecilic monologue of a uniformed goon in a ‘riot van’, to a police force which by the mid-1990s, more than a decade after the miners’ strike, seemed to have become locked into an alienated cycle of violence and prurient self-justification that was exemplified for me at time of writing by the circumlocutions surrounding the failures of the investigation into the murder of London teenager Stephen Lawrence.

CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO is long out of print, following the closure of the novel’s publisher Codex Books getting on for a decade ago, but I’m reading from it at the National Portrait Gallery, because a sequence in the novel riffs (albeit detachedly) on the protests in Trafalgar Square of March 1990 popularly known as the ‘Poll Tax Riots’ and some of the aggressive crowd dispersal techniques — mounted police charges, vehicles driven at speed — that I’d witnessed that afternoon from this same north-east corner of the square and from the elevated area beneath the portico of the National Gallery.

Since the turn of the century, Trafalgar Square has been rebranded via the ‘World Squares for All’ regeneration initiative as a venue for celebration rather than protest. The aim of this was to create ‘a new heart for London’ (a phrase previously used to announce the development of Picadilly Circus tube station in 1928), an ambition that was achieved through major transformations such as road closures and traffic re-directions to create a pedestrian plaza; through rolling, participatory cultural events such as ‘The Fourth Plinth’ sculpture competition; and through regular use of the square for civic and community celebrations such as that which followed the announcement of London’s selection as host city for the 2012 Olympic Games.

The protests of 24 November and 9 December 2010 (the latter I blogged about here) have now displaced the media archive of all that careful work with many thousands of new images that all look eerily familiar, echoing documentation of the Poll Tax riots of March 1990 or the Miners’ Strike, but on a whole new scale. Sites such as Flickr and Youtube host countless photos and videos of the protests and of violent police tactics such as kettling and mounted police charges, and of some now higher-profile incidents involving the use of violence against young people such as Jody McIntyre and Alfie Meadows and the ensuing debates and coverage they provoked.

It is timely then that also published on 9 February is the report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) on Policing Public Order (link downloads as PDF). The introduction notes:

After a few, relatively quiet years, this is a new period of public order policing – one which is faster moving and more unpredictable. Foreseeing the character of events will prove more difficult and, in some cases, their nature and mood will only become apparent on the day.

What seems evident is a willingness to disrupt the public and test police. Police tactics have to be as adaptable as possible to the circumstances to keep the peace for all of us. [My emphasis: note the corresponding, unspoken invocation of them]

Policing Public Order is subtitled, ‘An overview and review of progress against the recommendations of [previous HMIC reports, both from 2009] Adapting to Protest and Nurturing the British Model of Policing.’

The second of these reports from 2009, Nurturing the British Model…, made a series of recommendations on ‘the use of force’, which are divided into three sections: ‘A. Principles on the use of force; B. Training on the use of force, and C. Planning operations which may involve the use of force.’ (Policing Public Order, ‘Annexe D’, p.41-2)

There are six of these principles, and — importantly — they, ‘reflect the law as it currently stands’, i.e. they do not relate to some future legal landscape or aspiration:

1. Police officers, in carrying out their duties shall as far as possible apply non-violent methods before resorting to any use of force.
2. Police officers should use force only when strictly necessary and where other means remain ineffective or have no realistic chance of achieving the lawful objective.
3.  Any use of force by police officers should be the minimum appropriate in the circumstances.
4.  Police officers should use lethal or potentially lethal force only when absolutely necessary to protect life.
5. Police officers should plan and control operations to minimise, to the greatest extent possible, recourse to lethal force.
6. Individual officers are accountable and responsible for any use of force and must be able to justify their actions in law.

In the same report HMIC recommended that training in these six principles

should not be abstract but should consider the practical application of the use force [sic.] in the public order context, for example, by instructing officers that the use of particular tactics, such as the edge of a shield or a baton strike to the head may constitute potentially lethal force.

However, Policing Public Order this week draws the pessimistic conclusion that, ‘the pace of these changes can be measured in months, if not years.’ The report continues,

These timeframes may not, even then, include the additional time needed to train officers performing the key roles on the front-line, or in command.

This is contrasted specifically with the fact that protesters can, ‘change their focus in minutes [my emphasis] through the use of social media and mobile phones’ [p.4]. A couple of pages later the report then poses the question:

How can police participate effectively in and utilise social media to assist in maintaining the peace?

But the obvious insight that perhaps the police could use social media and mobile phones to train their officers more quickly than ‘months, if not years’ (or to remind them of ‘the law as it currently stands’ in a given situation) is missed.

What Policing Public Order omits to mention is that the tragic death of City newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson on April 1 2009, following this assault by a police officer in the vicinity of the G20 protests was if not the only reason for the commissioning of these reports, at least significant enough that it is highlighted in the opening few sentences of 2009’s Adapting to Protest.

In which case it may seem surprising that as of January 2011, almost two years later, the status of even these key recommendations on the use of force (which reflect ‘the law as it currently stands’) reads:

A position on the use of force has been agreed by ACPO [Association of Chief Police Officers] for public order, but a single overarching set of principles for policing has not yet been adopted. Steps have been taken by individual forces since 2009, but the guidance given to officers in briefings and training centres continues to vary.*

So how long might it take? A press release (opens as PDF) accompanying the review states that HMIC’s recommendations

will be used as the basis for training from Spring 2011. Taking into account the time required to train officers, changes on the ground may take up to two years or more.


CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO is currently out of print, but a small number of secondhand copies are available.


Featuring: Samuel Dowd, Tim Etchells, Will Holder, Karl Holmqvist, Tom McCarthy,
Francesco Pedraglio, Sue Tompkins, Tony White. Curated by Fatima Hellberg (Electra)

National Portrait Gallery, London — 17th March – 16th June 2011

All events are free, but booking is essential: bookings@electra-productions.com

*Annex B: Status of compliance with recommendations of Nurturing the British Model, Policing Public Order. HMIC (2011), p.37