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.
Now I run a successful business but I spent ten years in the 'wilderness.' I functioned, I did things but I was massively under-achieving.
Here are some of the things that were holding me back:
I beat all of them and I'm proud of that. I've learned the strategies that work and the ones that don't (and why).
I've created a series of strategies processes that remove the blockers to creating the life you dream of, whether it's money, power, a successful business, dream job, happiness or something else. And it doesn't take ten years - in fact for some people it takes only ten minutes.
Here is one of my healing strategies - TIME.
Take responsibility: You may not be responsible for the things that happened but you're definitely responsible for dealing with them
Identify the root cause(s): Are you mimicking behaviour of one of your parents? Are you distracting yourself from some upsetting events in your life?
Make it your priority: Your health and wellbeing should be your number one priority. In order to unleash the best version of yourself, you need to become the best version of yourself. No half measures. All in.
Educate yourself from the leading gurus: Based on what you believe to be the root cause, who are the leading gurus on the subject? There is so much content online that could help.
The time is now
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CEO & Co-founder of the PopUp Business School.