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
“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.
When Nduno was a child, every time an aircraft flew over her village in a rural part of Namibia, Africa she ran out of the house calling to it and begging for it to land. She would plead for the aircrew to throw sweets or to do something exciting. She was so mesmerised by these flying machines that these early experiences began to feed a dream and an ambition. Nduno wanted to become a military pilot and eventually Nambia's first astronaut.
Bad luck showed up, not only because Namibia of course is not known for space exploration, but the roles that are made available to young women tend be nursing or teaching careers and certainly not military pilots. But as every year of her childhood went by, the dream of becoming not just a pilot but an astronaut grew ever stronger.
Nduno was inspired by her mother who was the driving force in her life, nurturing her to become the best she could be. Good luck showed up. Reaching for the stars and landing on the moon was not a cliche for Nduno because she had the belief that anything was possible. She worked hard at her studies, became a high achiever and edged closer and closer to her dream.
But then, bad luck showed up. Someone she trusted deeply and admired in her family took her confidence. It showed up in the form of her uncle - and - probably without him knowing, he destroyed her confidence because he told her:
"You can't do this. Who are you to be a soldier? You are not strong enough. Look at the size of you!" He lifted her arms and dropped them." You are not strong enough to be a soldier and be an pilot."
The words cut deep. She was so wounded by his words that she cried like any of us would, hearing from someone we love and trust that we are 'not enough' to pursue our dreams. But now she had a decision to make. Would she allow his comments to define the rest of her life? Should she give up on her unrealistic dreams and become a nurse or a teacher as per society's blueprint?
Last summer in Windhoek, Namibia at the 13th Namibian Women Summit, I met Nduno, now in her twenties and a young, intelligent and incredibly engaging military pilot, flying helicopters for the Namibian Air Force and travelling to schools across the country to inspire other young women.
Her Uncle's comments lit a fire inside her to prove him wrong. Without this fire she would've struggled to muster the resilience to withstand the physical, emotional and social barriers she had to overcome throughout her army training, her pilot training and through to collecting her wings - not least as the only female in her regiment.
When bad luck shows up it appears very much as it seems, but perhaps is masquerading as good luck after all.
There's a lot of bad luck at the moment, but perhaps a little of it may just seem that way. Good times are coming. Hang in there.
CEO & Co-founder of the PopUp Business School.