* W A R N I N G *
Let's say you wanted to become a real life gangster; where would you go for your training? Well, it depends on the level of your ambition. If you are content with being a wannabe gangster, then binge-watching The Sopranos, fixing a second (fake) exhaust to your car and playing Dr Dre through your sub-woofer, while threatening traffic wardens might be enough.
For medium-level gangsters I would suggest a portfolio career, which would involve a smorgasbord of crimes, including violence, extortion, large-scale theft and if you've got the stomach for it, a sprinkling of drugs supply for good measure. Over a period of time, your crimes would increase with severity and frankly you'd get better at it, thus being financially able to employ apprentice gangsters to be your 'Flash floor cleaner' - they do the hard work so you don't have to.
But what if you want to be at the top of the pile? Not a lifestyle business or an aspiring small enterprise. but what if you have high growth potential? If that's the case then you need a mentor. You need to learn from the best. Learn from the gurus. Just how Tony Robbins became the personal development giant of the planet - he learned from the best in the world, his mentor Jim Rohn. Just as Luke Skywalker defeated the empire with the assistance of a tiny Jedi, Mr Yoda and similarly how Leonardo DiCaprio learned how to be high on Quaaludes, from the world's expert, Jordan Belfort.*
You'll learn more in a one hour conversation with a 'guru' than you will in years of trial (literally) and error and Tully knew this.
He was sleeping rough at ten years old, escaping the violence of his stepfather. By 14, he had smashed a glass bottle and holding it by the neck, pushed the fragmented edges into the face of someone who quickly wished they hadn't pulled a knife on him. Sowing the seeds for a lifetime of crime, Tully was to become a tier one criminal.
In 1983, he was incarcerated in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight, UK one of the few maximum security prisons in the country. It was here that he had a brief liaison with his first mentor, Charlie.
Like any gentleman would, Charlie invited him in for tea (in his cell) and spotting that he was keen to learn, handed him a book about positive mental attitude. He was a scrap metal dealer who had fallen on the wrong side of the law; when I say fallen I mean leapt, whilst wearing a rocket pack and fully on steroids. 'Charlie' was in fact Charlie Richardson, leader of the Richardson Gang and arch rival of the most famous of British gangsters, the Kray twins. The Richardsons earned the alias' The Torture Gang' as their signature moves were using pliers to remove fingers and toes and hammering six inch nails into (alive) humans to nail them to the floor.
Good to know that whilst he cut off your fingers, he would do so with positivity.
After Charlie came and went Tully, now in his mid-twenties, decided it was time to go to the very top. By some luck (?) there was a fellow inmate who fitted the bill. He'd been given thirty years for murder and sent to maximum security at Parkhurst after the longest criminal trial in British history. It was a highly complex and dangerous investigation, requiring witnesses to have secret interviews and change their identities in exchange for their testimony. The perfect mentor.
Taking the deepest of breaths, Tully approached the cell door of Reggie Kray:
"Mr Kray can I speak to you?"
"Yes come in son." He made him a tea (which apparently tasted foul, but you probably wouldn’t mention it).
"I want you to be my teacher."
"Well, I've never been asked that before, son. Let me think about it and I'll let you know."
Ten minutes later he was back in his cell, clinging onto all he had; a bunk bed and a positive mental attitude, having asked the country's most famous killer to be his mentor. Reggie adored his mother Violet and was still reeling from her death a year earlier, but that night she appeared in his dream. This was the sign that sealed Tully's fate and the next morning Reggie was stood at his door telling him that he agreed to his request. Reggie was now his personal teacher.
They became close and Reggie set about giving Tully the best criminal and business education that money can't buy.
Reggie taught him everything. He gave him the nickname 'Dodger,' (as in 'Artful Dodger' from Oliver Twist) and became the father figure Tully had never had and the results spoke for themselves. Tully amassed a seven-figure crime fortune in less than five years but also got twelve years for the trouble after being convicted of the armed robbery of a jewellers. The job went fully sideways, resulting in a serious injury of staff member, a police chase and Tully swallowing a ring in an attempt to hide some of the evidence. The moral of the story, don't commit armed robbery when it's snowing.
Although Tully was later diagnosed with a psychopathic personality disorder and was emotionally detached from his crimes, this was the one job that played on his mind more than any other. It was to be his last conviction.
After his release in 2009, Tully went on crime detox. He wrote a book, became a speaker and in collaboration with university professors this tragic and dangerous street-kid-turned-villain became fixated with giving back, devoting his life to ensuring troubled youngsters don't follow the same path as him.
Spoiler alert: prison doesn’t really work and it’s all we’ve got, but expecting a career criminal to go straight after release is like sending a fox to a chicken coop to learn vegetarian cooking, running a drug rehabilitation course in a pharmacy, or holding an AA** meeting in a pub. You get the idea.
This makes Tully’s achievements even more remarkable and despite his shocking past, I am both fascinated and inspired. Perhaps even more so, because I witnessed the very beginning of his new crime-free life.
I was his business advisor.
*Jordan Belfort, the real-life Wolf of Wall Street who taught Leo how to ACT high on (not take) quaaludes. I think.
** AA Alcoholics Anonymous
They only got me once, which wasn’t bad going for a ten year career. Police are known for pranks and wind-ups and in the 90s, many were outlawed as unacceptable examples of a ‘canteen culture,’ rife with testosterone-fuelled mischief, ranging from the ridiculous, to the bullying to the downright criminal.
Mild examples include the teapot being super-glued to the tray, a non-existent disturbance call with people waiting to leap out of the bushes, or tricking the newbie into jumping repeatedly on the automatic barrier plate to check it’s working correctly.
My favourite, which thankfully was banned (and rightly so) shortly before I joined, on account of the trauma it caused the victims, involved some pre-planning, a trainee officer in their first few months of service and a mortuary.
Yes, a mortuary.
Acceptance from colleagues is a big deal for a new cop. You’re either in or you’re not and if you’re not, it’s a rough and lonely ride. You have to prove yourself first: a pub fight, a violent domestic or some other dangerous incident, to show that you can be relied upon. Your life is in the hands of the person next to you, without notice and at any given moment, so when it hits the fan, everyone has to know you'll get stuck in. There needs to be evidence that you won’t freeze, panic or run away or a combination of all three (which sometimes happened first time round).
This is why the mortuary prank was so effective. It played on these insecurities and enabled a dreadful slight-of-hand trick.
Here’s how it works. An experienced cop takes the newbie to one side (still wet behind the ears as the expression goes) and conspires to prank a colleague, by hiding in the mortuary. When the prank-victim arrives (to investigate a spurious intruder alarm), the hiding cops jump out and scare the shivering bejaysus out of them. For added effect, this is best performed at night; there’s no one else around, but more importantly there’s nothing like silence and total darkness to dial up heart-rate of a mortuary prank.
Naturally the newbie is thrilled to be in on the joke; finally they sense that they’re truly becoming part of the team. Except they're not. This isn’t the actual prank. It’s an illusion. This is just the set-up.
So while they cheerfully hide among the body bags stacked on sliding stretchers in the refrigerator, next to the main examination room, their colleague closes the door and the lights go out.
Unbeknown to them, there is already an officer hiding in the fridge. Not only is he hiding in the fridge, he has been zipped up inside a black plastic body bag, waiting silently among the corpses.
You can see what I mean when I say this particular one had to be banned. I’m not sure which is worse, when the body bag sits up in the darkness, when their hand grabs your wrist or when you hear the bag talk:
“Cold in here, isn’t it.”
I think I’d still be running now.
How they got me was with an intricate plan. It involved over 70 staff across 5 departments (including the police control room), an Algerian national and a large metal bucket.
About to be posted somewhere else, I was counting down my days on station sergeant duty, which to put in context of challenge and excitement, ranked right up there with defrosting an ice box with a blunt toothpick. The police station I was at had been designated for terror suspects, so in the unlikely event* that someone was arrested on terror offences (PoT**) the whole place would get shut down to become an ultra-secure zone.
This hadn’t happened in years, but just after 3:30pm one Friday afternoon, the phone rang. Special Branch had 'pot'd'*** an Algerian national with a false passport and the Inspector instructed me to get the manual and follow procedure. 'Prepare for Special Branch,' he said.
I may have mildly, secretly panicked. The good news was that a step by step guidance manual had been written and was cloaked in dust on the shelf, waiting for me. The bad news was it was thicker than a car dealers money clip and I only had fifteen minutes to read it.
I ripped out the checklist page and marched around the building, barking orders at anyone I happened across; windows had to be locked, the car park cleared of all vehicles and the cells prepared (that until that day were used for storage, lost uniform items and dead house plants).
I was frantic but after a huge and collective effort from five or six in the team and with a few minutes to spare, the checklist was complete and I sat quietly in the office contemplating. The radio was on the desk I listened anxiously to the details unfolding.
“One detained. PoT. Sus links to Islamic terror organisations on a false passport, over.” I could hear a foreign voice shouting in the background of the transmission. He didn’t sound happy. My mind was racing.
Two painfully long minutes went by and the radio went off again:
“Can we have a reception committee please he’s kicking right off.” The agitated prisoner was now going bananas in the back of the van and the arresting officer was barely audible above the screaming and banging. After muttering something beginning with ‘f’ under my breath, I started to rally a few cops from around the office and we made our way to the secure yard where the van was slowly reversing – and rocking with the prisoner’s tantrum – into position.
The Special Branch officer jumped out:
“Ready? He’s a nutter.” I could hear him screaming from inside the van in what sounded like Arabic, his face and limbs alternating their appearance at the bars in the back window. I could feel myself being ushered to the front of the welcoming party, which seemed odd at the time but I had too much adrenaline to process it. As the van was unlocked, both doors flung open and the prisoner leaped into the air like King Kong’s smaller yet equally peeved cousin. I was livid:
“Why the fuck isn’t he handcuffed?” I screamed at no one in particular and it was all I could think of as my feet left the ground, launching myself at him like a crap Superman.
No terrorist was going to spoil my day or anyone else’s. But it was at some point mid-air, at least three inches off the ground, that I suddenly realised I was acting alone. With such a large reception committee behind me. Wait a minute, why was the reception committee so large, I wondered. Why is no one helping me? Then as if to underscore my realisation, I saw the prisoner lift a full metal bucket and with a majestic swing of his arms, delivered the payload of freezing cold water it was holding with precision, hitting me squarely in the neck.
Everything stopped. I froze. Literally. I was still ticking at the lack of handcuffs and wondering what the Peter Paul and Mary a prisoner was doing with a metal bucket and then…oh.
My soul sank. Slight of hand. I was so focused on what was in front of me, I didn't spot what was really happening.
There was no terrorist. There had been no arrest. The international mastermind was in fact Ali, the esteemed payroll clerk from the second floor, smirking in wonderment of his moment: the only time in his life when he could drench the duty sergeant with freezing cold water without being hit with a baton. I never did discover who was the mastermind; I accepted defeat and took it as a compliment.
Slight-of-hand is not just for magicians. Something wonderful can be hidden in plain sight.
Just like a full metal bucket.
*This was in between gulf wars and just after the Good Friday Agreement so as far as terrorism on mainland UK was concerned, we were in a quiet period.
**PoT was the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989, superseded by the Terrorism Act 2000.
***Pot'd - to detain someone under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, nothing to do with snooker.
* W A R N I N G *
The themes in the following post may be distressing.
She was just a year old and her brother, James was aged three the day her father walked out. It meant the end of her mother’s career, moving across the country and restarting life as a family of three.
The years that followed were beyond troubled.
Suffering with insomnia and bullied for being slim, she developed an eating disorder in her teens. Alongside trying to maintain a relationship with her father, she found it extremely difficult to connect with people. It was during this time that she discovered a therapeutic and horrific ritual that, whilst distressing for her mother and brother, was the only thing that made her feel alive.
She cut herself.
Suffering from depression she self-harmed regularly before discovering drugs. In fact there was barely a drug that she didn’t take although heroin was her go-to. Her spiralling self-destruction continued into her twenties and almost with catastrophic results. She planned her own suicide and even tried to hire a hitman to do it for her. Put simply, she was a punk kid who'd be lucky to make 30.
At the age of 24, scarred and tattooed, the safest place for her was the psychiatric ward. When things came to a head, she was detained and closely watched; her life depended on it. She was, for a short time at least, safe from the hitman, the heroin and herself.
The word 'remarkable' doesn't even come close to what happened next. According to Forbes in 2009, this distressed young woman was the most powerful celebrity on the planet.
On the planet.
For someone who found daily life so excruciatingly difficult, how, in the name of Rocky and Bulwinkle, did she find the resilience to reach the very top of her game? As Sharon Salzburg noted (meditation guru, best-selling author and provider of the quote I was looking for):
"You are capable of so much more than we usually dare to imagine." This is a truth. Especially true when it comes to takeaway pizza.
Anyway let's examine the facts about this extraordinary woman. She is a mother of six (by adoption as well as birth), an academy award winning actor (throw in a few golden globes for good measure), a writer, a director, an entrepreneur and a global humanitarian (working with the United Nations). As if that wasn’t enough, she achieved this through three divorces and a double mastectomy (to prevent the cancer that her mum suffered and took the life of her Aunt). Oh and in a final middle finger to her past mental health troubles, she decided to share the emotional experience of her consultation, operation and recovery publicly (despite a challenging history with the media) to encourage other women at risk of breast cancer. Her decision led to an unprecedented and sustained increase in gene-testing around the world as thousands of women faced their fears and stepped forward.
She stared death in the face and death blinked first.
She sat in the darkest of thoughts, across her formative years, yet went on to achieve truly incredible things in the oppressive glare of the public attention worldwide.
But despite all of this, Angelina Jolie will, in her own words: “always be a punk kid with tattoos.”
Mental health support:
Samaritans (UK): Call 116123 - www.samaritans.org
SPL (USA): 1-800-273-8255 - www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
In an undisclosed market town in Southern England, the security guard (off-guard) stumbled out of his workstation almost face-planting, as his eyes and commitment to his job moved considerably faster than his legs were ready for. The only crime of the month was happening right in front of him and on his watch. He lunged for the door.
The arch-villain had grabbed a Dyson from the window display and legged it out of the shop and up the hill and - I shit you not - towards the magistrates court which was situated - and I shit you not again - in the same building as the police station.
Why would he run towards the law in broad daylight, carting a stolen yellow vacuum cleaner? Well, his house was on the small housing estate next door to the courts and there was a convenient alleyway that lead from the top of the high street, between ‘Your Worship’ and the back gardens on the estate. Just 150 metres or so and he’d be able to duck into the alley and ten more metres he’d be home and dry.
But the main reason was this: he was a bad criminal. One of the worst criminals I ever met. Not ‘worst’ because of the despicable nature of his crimes but because he was really really bad at it.
As the call came in, we’d literally just poured the tea, before sharing the customary eye roll and strolling out of the back yard past the police cars and round the corner to where the Pablo Escobar of suction was padding through his garden and in the through the back door in plain sight.
There wasn’t a police officer either on or off duty who wouldn’t have immediately a) known the identity of the vacuum villain (sorry) b) known exactly which address he was headed towards. We knocked with authority on the door. His nervous girlfriend opened the door to a crack:
“What you want?”
“Can you go and get him please?”
“Who?” Insert Martin Freeman's favourite acting face (see below). “No. He’s not here.” Repeat face. “He’s not here.”
"Either you get him or we’re coming in to get him." We’ve just watched him run in with a hoover.” My foot was wedged in the door (one of the first lessons I learned in the job) in case she felt like making life difficult.
“He didn’t have no hoover.”
“I thought you said he wasn't here.” Not quite 'Line of Duty' but I was amused nonetheless. She stepped out of the way leaving her spirit in the doorway but resigned to the section 32 (ask H) that was about to take place.
What started as a house search quickly descended into a farcical game of hide and seek. The stolen Dyson was outside the bedroom door, sheepishly eyed by the girlfriend. We drew our batons and slowly opened the door to the main bedroom:
"We're coming ready or not, Matthew." I opened the door cautiously, ready to react. Nothing happened. My eyes darted around the room and in the same moment we both looked at the wardrobe. "Come out Matthew." Silence. "Maaa-theewwww. We've found you!" Still nothing. Even my sing-song voice didn't flush him out. "Come on! It's my turn to hide." Not professional I know but by this point we were struggling to hold it together. We moved to the closed doors.
Nodding to each other and on three, we yanked open a door each to reveal its contents. Empty but for the human-shaped lump sat cross-legged with a blanket draped over his head.
"Hello Matthew." Again, nothing. The blanket was breathing heavily so I put my baton back in the holster, deciding it would only impede my next manoeuvre. I bent down to grab the corners and with a Houdini flourish I whipped the material up in the hair and over his head.
"Ta-da!" Matthew held his hands up in submission. "Put your hands down Matthew it's not the Sweeney. Come on we've got to bring you in."
When I began writing this post (around 7pm Saturday 1st May 2021) I hadn't figured out how to frame the ending. Probably something about the comedic and no-doubt unprofessional manner in which the detail of the arrest was relayed to the custody sergeant or whatever.
Then this happened and the ending wrote itself.
At 7:26pm and 7:28pm I was still writing this post when I received two calls on Facebook Messenger, neither of which I answered. I rang back and we had a 2 minute conversation which consisted of a welfare check, a location check and then an apology for bothering me.
I stared at my phone for some time, followed by a longer stare at the wall. He'd called me by accident, which in itself is not unusual. Also the fact that I'd not spoken to him for over 20 years - not even via text - might not surprise you that much. If I told you he was a former colleague and we were both Sergeants together in the job it could cause a smile.
But what if I told you he was the custody sergeant on duty on the very day of the Great Vacuum Robber?
He booked him in.
Martin Freeman Acting Face
PS If you're not sure what I meant by the Martin Freeman acting face reference from the British panel show Never Mind The Buzzcocks, here it is:
This was the night that Mick Jagger might've saved my life.
It began as an emergency call to the police control room with a message from a distressed woman that I'll never forget:
"He's got a baseball bat and he's breaking my front door down. Please help me. Quickly."
It was around 5pm on a Saturday, a warm summers evening on a housing estate on the outskirts of Portsmouth, UK. We were only about two minutes away when the call came in, meaning it would still be happening when we arrived, rather than the usual and unsatisfactory 'no trace of offender.'
Maybe it was domestic, maybe drugs-related; I don't really remember, but I can clearly remember where, how and who. You always remember your first baseball bat job (probably all of the subsequent ones too).
My crewmate Dinger was already half out the car before it stopped and I quickly joined him, running towards the front door of the house, with screaming coming from inside. The perpetrator was still there, stood outside and having retreated a few metres away from the door. Actually 'door' would be a strong word to use for the mass of splinters, glass fragments and flapping hinges occupying the space where the door once stood, just a few minutes earlier.
The person responsible was looking at us. He was breathing heavily, his rounded face sweating and his well-built frame was cloaked in a browny-red coloured leather (plastic) 3/4 length jacket. His hands were behind his back, trying (and failing) to conceal an aluminium baseball bat, that was playing a menacing game of peek-a-boo from atop his shoulder. His eyes were darting, deciding (I think) whether to make a run for it - or to attack.
In the exact moment that he shifted his weight from one foot to the other I felt a searing and debilitating pain in my back, just above my kidneys on my right side. Have you ever experienced this?
Faced with immediate and terrifying danger and just when I needed to be agile, responsive and alert I was physically paralysed by fear. My body started to shut down, deciding it was a great time to play statues. Great. In fact I distinctly remember making a mental picture of him raising the bat above his head in a kind of Jedi slashing move (which he didn't actually do). My mental picture made me think in that moment 'what would happen if he brought that bat down on my head.' No wonder I was scared; I'm feeling scared writing this.
In fact I'd never been so scared of immediate violence than in that split-second (although I have many times after) and I had no idea what to do. But what happened next was inexplicable.
I channelled my inner Mick Jagger to disarm him.
Yes, you did read that correctly and it was all thanks to Chlorobenzalmalononitrile and yes that is an actual word. Also known as CS gas (this was pre-tazer), it had received mixed reviews from police about its ability to deter or calm violent offenders. It operated like a disappointing water pistol and if you did manage to draw the cannister with the nozzle pointing in the desired direction, it was an absolute bonus.
The chances of hitting an assailant were already slim but in the early days of issue, more police officers than criminals ended up with a shot of CS in their chops, as the thing had a tendency (especially under duress) to squirt out at a 60 degree angle. As I drew the gas, Dinger fleetingly wondered whether today was his lucky or unlucky day, especially given my limited firearms experienced had proven that I couldn't hit a cows arse with a banjo.
I was just as worried about gassing my crewmate as I was about convincing Batguy to surrender. If he was to attack, I didn't fancy our chances much.
Back to Mick; I needn't have worried, because just then, the Universe took over. For reasons that can only be explained by the belief that I wasn't in control of my body, I shouted my way through the adrenaline, bellowing with every fibre of my being in the direction of Batguy.
"GAS! GAS! GAS! I HAVE GAS!" The words tumbled out with an urgency I can't describe.
Later there were tears. Of laughter. Dinger sobbed with laughter as he relived the moment when I screamed a Rolling Stones chorus (Jumpin' Jack Flash) at a violent nut-job who held our lives in his hands.
Amazingly it worked. Instead of being attacked (or crowned with a spike right through my head for you musos) Batguy dropped the weapon to the floor, fell to his knees and began begging for me not to spray him. Insert Keith Richards guitar riff here. Thanks to Mick and the boys. (Also, while I'm here, what an incredible band).
I was a professional and committed police officer in those days. Why, oh why did I have to be so ridiculous in a moment that required bravery and poise? I'm even pouting while I type this out. If only I'd strutted across the pavement.
Dinger incidentally, was heaven-sent. Although fresh out the box and as rattled as me, he was also much stronger and together we jumped on Batguy, wrapped him up neatly in handcuffs and folded him into the back seat of the car for transportation.
I have no idea where the gas thing came from. In moments of terror our in-built survival mechanism reveals itself and knows what to do better than we do consciously. We should trust this more (even if we do sound stupid).
Ironically, ten years later I was singing this very song as frontman of band in a large wedding marquee in a field that I don't remember, around the same time as I had begun suffering from post-traumatic stress (not from Batguy incident - something else - tell you about this another time).
Later in life, as soon as I realised that fear can't hurt me - it's just my thinking - then the fears and anxieties fell away faster than Jumpin' Jack Flash himself. Fear is MUCH scarier than reality. Fear doesn't exist, our thoughts created it and our imagination is infinite. Just ask my ex about spiders. The fear of the spider is significantly greater than anything a tiny eight-legged web shooter minding its own business could do.
Reality - this moment - (especially when we show up) is a much better place to hang out. You can deal with anything there.
So I now know this to be true:
It's alright now, in fact it's a gas.
I don’t do rollercoasters. There’s no point because they don’t excite me. Is it because I’m boring? Well, maybe. But there is a reason.
In 1992, the Chief Flying Instructor at Cornwall Flying Club was a former RAF test pilot called Dick Smerdon. He was a walking caricature of a pilot, complete with handlebar moustache sprouting from the burst blood vessels in his cheeks, caused by decades of G-force. Friendly and razor sharp he pottered around the club dressed in a khaki flying suit, making jokes and generally causing mischief.
Flying single-prop Cessnas from a field somewhere near Bodmin in South West England was clearly not as exciting as flying at Mach 2 in a metal box, so his kicks had to come from something else. What better way than by scaring the bejaysus out of unsuspecting student pilots for shits and giggles.
He did this to me twice.
On my second flight with him, wide-eyed and eager I sat in the hot seat of a Cessna 152, call-sign G-WACG ready for take-off. I was perfecting my best pilot voice (copied from my childhood holidays to Zante):
“Golf whiskey alpha charlie golf, radio check 122 decimal seven and taxi runway three, two,” I crackled, pretending to be Maverick from Top Gun.
As the propeller span and the little plane bounced along the grass, the vibrations bounced around my chest. Five thousand feet and a few sharp turns later I was smug-factor seven. I'd figured out how the thing worked and I even knew what the dials meant. Then this happened:
“ENGINE FIRE!” Dick was bellowing at me, his body jerking with excitement and his rounded face glowed crimson red. I remember staring at him:
“ENGINE FIRE!” Then he grabbed the ignition key and turned off the engine. I had no idea what to do. The propeller gradually came to a complete and eerie stop. I looked at him suddenly aware of the sound of the wind rushing around the outside of the cockpit.
“Pick a field then! Emergency landing!” He said, obviously amused.
"Brilliant. My flying instructor is a fucking lunatic," I said under my breath (which incidentally is a skill that later became hugely useful as a parent).
What kind of mad man switches off aeroplane engines mid-flight? There was no fire. It was a perfectly serviceable engine. We began to lose altitude quickly and I chose the field furthest from the power lines, cows and buildings.
We were going to land in a field. Worse, it was me that was going to land it.
To be continued.
“Do you wanna buy some pills mate?“
A man in his early twenties stared at me with the eager (wide) eyes of any young entrepreneur spotting a sales opportunity. He was wearing a slightly grubby white T-shirt covered by a baggy khaki overcoat. I found it hard to understand him at first; he had the broadest of Glaswegian accents and the bass was rebounding off the sides of a giant and sweating marquee in a field somewhere in Ayrshire, Scotland. It was the year 2000 and Moby was gyrating around the stage.
We silently leaned in together for a second go:
“Sorry mate?” I said.
“Do you want some pills mate?” Despite telling him to fuck off, there must've been something about my demeanour that inspired his persistence. “Are you sure? I’ve got loads!” He reached inside his jacket and produced a plastic Tesco shopping bag gathered at the neck, full of ecstasy pills and about the size of a bowling ball. I looked at the bag then looked at him, his face radiating with and adventure.
I looked at the bag again.
That was a lot of fucking pills - 600-700 - maybe more. I felt sorry for him; not because I wasn't buying but because at the time I was a serving police officer assigned to a special project team developing tactics on the prevention and arrest of dealers at large scale music events. I was literally his worst nightmare.
Or was I? My ego likes to think so but I wasn't really. No, his worst nightmare was the twelve undercover members of the Strathclyde Drug Squad who had just bought me a beer as their shift on the covert drugs operation finished.
The Tesco bag and the person holding it disappeared under a pile of unwashed law enforcement. He'd had better Saturdays.
Losing both of your parents must be one of the toughest hands that life could possibly deal. Some of these children go into the state care system, some have close family that bring them up which of course is not always the better option. The 'not always the better option' for this particular family was a middle aged man called Owen and his gentle but long-suffering wife, Beru.
A wiry and weathered middle-aged man, Owen made a humble living as a farmer, spending most of his life working hard graft from dawn until dusk. He had very little to show for it and then along came the infant child of his step-brother. The child's father was murdered and the mother died in childbirth and there was no other family so it was down to them to raise this child. Heartbroken at their infertility as a couple, Beru doted on the baby as if he were her own but as the child grew up, Owen felt a growing resentment to this burden.
By the time reached his teenage years, it was clear the child would not become a farmer like his uncle. Like most adolescents he was a child trapped in an adults body, obsessed with staying out with his friends and bristling with attitude rather than gratitude. His Uncle starved him of love and with aggression, bordering on abuse he bullied the boy into manual labour on the farm, driving his desire to fly from the relative safety of the nest and inadvertently into the welcoming arms of predators.
There was, of course, a predator waiting. The strange old man that lived alone on the outskirts of the city had a charisma that drew the boy in, just like the others. There were rumours that he was either dead, mad or a paedophile which worked in his favour; the perfect cover for a leading figure in a terrorist organisation.
He had no idea he was being groomed; his naivety and desperation to leave home meant he was immediately hooked on the spun yarns of the struggle against oppression and the fight for freedom. His recruitment was accelerated by the tragic death of his Aunty and Uncle, for which he was partly responsible. His brief flirtation with terrorists had attracted the attention of the authorities and in a bungled raid, a fire started by a faulty grenade burnt the family home to the ground, with Owen and Beru trapped inside.
Their nephew was distraught, picking through the ashes of his belongings his heart breaking for the unconditional love of his Aunt, shocked yet indifferent to the death of his Uncle. It was too dangerous to stay at home and rebuild, even if he had wanted to. He himself was now a terrorist and he had no choice but to follow the path that had chosen him.
All he had was the old man, who of course had orchestrated the whole thing.
There his fate was sealed. Already sold on the logic of attacking the government, he now had a powerful emotional reason too. Revenge. The old man had successfully recruited and galvanised the spirit of the organisation's newest and potentially most capable agent. The orphan boy, bullied by his uncle whose only family were murdered by the authorities. The organisation would look after him now. They would feed him, train him and unleash him on a campaign of hate, murder and political destabilisation.
The boy's name name was Luke Skywalker. My childhood hero. Perspective is everything.
Ronnie Polkingham's half sister was a woman named Debbie. As a young woman she was slim, attractive and carefree, playing in a band with her lover Bruce in Missouri, USA. But her free-spirited life took a twist when she fell pregnant at 18, gave birth to her first son and predictably, Bruce left. Her beauty and innocence began to fade behind the mask of smoke, struggles with mental health and financial hardship.
As a single mother on the poverty line, she brought her son up in a predominantly black neighbourhood as one of only three white families on their block. The threat of violence was inevitable and became more than a threat on multiple occasions, including an assault that lead to her son suffering a serious head injury.
As well as being a victim of bullying, her boy was a regular truant and often fought with Debbie in their volatile household, attracting the attention of social services. It was no surprise that he became a loner and with little interest in High School, he found comfort and ambition in the world of comic books. He escaped real life, diving into the magic of storytelling and decided to become a comic book artist.
That was until Uncle Ronnie turned up at his home holding in his hands a gift. The gift of hip hop.
Hip hop continues to be huge part of global pop culture, originating from the black ghettos of 1970s and 1980s America. Then, hip hop was a small scene, giving a voice to frustrated, angry young African Americans and Latinos living in marginalised communities and low income areas. Actually it took years of block parties in the Bronx, New York before a recording was actually made and many music critics of the early 80s predicted hip hop would fizzle out.
Hip hop did not fizzle out. Quite the opposite.
Uncle Ronnie's gift was a vinyl record; the track was called 'Reckless' by The Glove and Dave Storrs, whom most of us have never heard of. But the track also featured a rapper who was little-known at the time, called Tracy Lauren Marrow. Another forgettable name, but presumably why he chose the stage name Ice-T.
The gesture was a small one, costing a little over $2. But Ronnie could not possibly have predicted that his modest kindness would trigger the start of a musical revolution.
His nephew had never heard anything like it. He played it over and again. Maybe it was the lyrics, the rapper's attitude and what he stood for; only the boy really knows. But it opened the door to a new world of creativity and possibility.
Despite the violence, dropping out of school and being kicked out of home on multiple occasions the troubled teen found solace in the underground music scene in his new home city of Detroit, pursuing his new dream of becoming a rapper, just like Ice-T.
The boy's name was Marshall Bruce Mathers III and under the stage name Eminem, he became the biggest selling rapper of all time. Despite criticism for backing a white rapper, Dr Dre who signed him to Aftermath Records reportedly said "I don't give a fuck if you're purple; if you can kick it, I'm working with you."
Eminem certainly kicked it. Some 220 million records later, neither Kanye or Jay Z have come close to matching these sales and despite Spotify not existing at the height of his success, Eminem still boasts 36 million listeners on the platform.
Marshall Bruce Mathers III had two gifts. The first was the gift of struggle. The violence, poverty and hardships gave him the narrative, the neighbourhood a platform and his skin colour made it harder. The struggle was the fuel and it showed up as pain, distress, sadness, frustration, anger, despair, hardship, fear and no doubt much more.
The second gift was from Uncle Ronnie. The gift of inspiration from someone he trusted. Let's call this the spark.
(Struggle + Inspiration) + Environment = Superpower
Or written differently: (Fuel + Spark) + Oxygen = Fire
Heathrow Airport, London circa 1991
The British Airways 747 direct from Bombay (now Mumbai) landed a few minutes ahead of time, which was the worst of circumstances for Charlie. An extra twenty minutes to gather himself and recover from the effects would have been helpful.
Smoking had not yet been banned on all flights, but as it wasn't tobacco he was smoking, he felt it was both polite and sensible to leave the cabin and head to the toilet for a smoke in private. Chasing dragons in public is still taboo in 2020, never mind 1991.
But this was not your average, garden variety heroin of the kind sold in £20 bags under railway arches, council flats and nightclubs - I am reliably told that the price has halved. This particular heroin was 100% pure and uncut. Charlie had been sleeping with about £100K worth of this powder underneath his pillow, at his digs somewhere east of Bombay for some two weeks. Up until this trip, which was his first abroad, he had never tried the stuff and had never particularly wanted to either. He'd been smoking and selling weed since he was 12, but now five years later, his curiosity to try harder drugs had been triggered by his new employer, Mr K.
Like many curious teenagers, Charlie wanted to find out what all the fuss was about for himself.
Five grand in cash is a lot of money to anybody. But if you are sixteen year old Sikh boy living in a council estate in White City, London in 1991 having been kicked out shortly before your 15th birthday with no qualifications, you have no job, no plans and a violent alcoholic father, the idea of smuggling a small package of innocent looking powder into the UK was not only an adventure, it was a no-brainer.
In fact it was for these reasons that Mr K recruited him. He would have done it for half the price of course, but didn't mention that to Mr K. Anyway back to Heathrow, specifically the green channel at terminal 2.
What you are about to read will sound like stupidity but trust me Charlie is no fool. He is very smart. Street smart. He was just a kid, on his trafficking apprenticeship and on a very steep learning curve at the school of survival. But he made two key mistakes. The first was not anticipating the significant weight loss caused by two weeks of daily heroin use. It meant that his clothing didn't fit him particularly well and even with his belt on the tightest notch, they kept falling down to his knees as he walked. Anyone behind him would have enjoyed a clear view of his pants (they were brown, he told me) as he shuffled his way to the entrance to the green channel. He drew attention to himself, albeit comically, but of course not ideal while smuggling class A drugs into a country.
His second mistake was a little worse. Charlie had smoked so much pure heroin on the flight he was still high by the time he reached Customs. Yes, smoking pure heroin had relieved the boredom of a long flight and the anxiety of approaching the finish line but unfortunately he now, not just a little stoned, but REALLY high; the falling asleep kind of really high.
Halfway along the green channel corridor, some 8 or 9 metres from the door to the arrivals hall, Charlie stopped innocently for a rest. He leaned against the wall and with a wave of tiredness, melted into the plasterboard and slid slowly to the floor. At the same time, so did his jeans. You would not need to be customs officer of the year to spot that a young man with the physique of an addict, his waistband at his knees and fading in and out of consciousness may be worth of further investigation. Charlie told me the only thing he really remembers was the Customs Officer summoning him in slow motion with blurred movements of his index finger.
I first met Charlie in 2008. After spending most of his adult life involved in crime, and having lost at least ten years of it to heroin addiction it was fascinating to learn from him how he got himself clean of all drugs and alcohol, attended the gym regularly and managed to get a BA in fine art (2:1 with honours). Pretty impressive for a dyslexic addict ex-con with no qualifications. His life was fully back on track.
Also, his art was outstanding. Challenging, but outstanding. He had a unique view of the world and a real talent for expression. He offered an insight into the darkest parts of humanity. This man really has been to hell and back several times, but had begun to see that his extraordinary life and adversity could be his superpower.
Through his art he was able to he was able to tell people the truth about what he'd seen. His passion was for taboo subjects of abuse, addiction and the reality of growing up surrounded by drugs and violence out in the open to start conversations, rather than be hidden behind closed doors and whispers.
He's not answering my messages but we will make a cracking movie when he does.
CEO & Co-founder of the PopUp Business School.