I am old. I remember when schoolboys wore short trousers. I was twelve when my mother let me wear long trousers to school, but by then it was late spring and my knees weren’t freezing anyway. I remember when teachers (or ‘Xaverian brothers’, as they were called at my school) were allowed to use corporal punishment to make us remember our Latin. I remember the Latin for ‘enjoy the day’, but not the Latin for ‘bloody hell, that hurt’. There’s a lesson there somewhere. I remember when cars didn’t start (or go, and in some cases, stop), and I remember when central heating meant a paraffin fire in the hall. I used to be sent along the road to the garage with a can to buy the paraffin. The good old days.
However, the good old days weren’t all bad. I also remember being fifteen, drinking beer in a pub in a Cornish village, after hours, when there was a knock on the door.
“Who’s that?” asked the publican.
Oops. Or a word that rhymes with ‘lugger’. I did try to hide my half pint behind my back, but the policeman wasn’t interested in me. He was just popping in for a drink on his way home. We might have been breaking the law (technically), but we weren’t doing anything particularly harmful. Live and let live.
A year or so later, I was working at a summer camp in Bodiam, and a friend and I had missed the last bus from Hastings. Undaunted, as the young often are, we set out to walk the dozen or so miles back. We’d barely left Hastings when a police van stopped. A policeman climbed out, and my friend muttered a word that rhymes with ‘luck’.
“Hello boys,” said the policeman, in a broad Sussex accent. “Nice night for a walk. Where are you off to?”
My friend looked worried, but I said, “Bodiam.”
As it happened, ‘luck’ was about the size of it. He asked, “Do you want a lift?”
It turned out that he couldn’t take us all the way there, because the last half mile or so was beyond the limits of his beat, and the back of his van wasn’t very comfortable, but it was a lot easier (and quicker) than walking.
Those were the days when lots of people didn’t have watches (or mobile phones), and if you wanted to know the time (or the way), you’d ask a policeman. I suppose the PCSOs would tell you the time (and give directions), but you rarely see a policeman on the beat today.
There are still policemen around. I once caught a red-eye from Atlanta to Gatwick, and got on a train, only to be accosted by a policeman with a black dog and a machine gun. “Is that your bag?” he asked, nodding at the luggage rack.
“Get it down.”
When someone with a gun asks you nicely-ish, you do what you’re told. The dog had a sniff, and the policeman walked on.
“Can I put it back on the rack now?” I asked.
“Yeah. He isn’t interested.”
It reminded me of the time a friend took some English sausages to America for her son, who was studying there. For some reason, you’re not allowed to take sausages into America. When she landed, the spaniel in customs went crazy, slobbering at the bag, and a handgun-toting Homeland Security official drawled, “Whatcha got in the bag, lady?”
“It’s just sausages.”
He put his gun away. “That’s okay. The dawg thought it was drugs.” As if. She walked in with her contraband.
Somewhere in between, someone decided that Downing Street was no longer a public thoroughfare. Possibly because we might try to smuggle drugs (or sausages) in, or steal the spare wheel. The gates went up, and the policemen got their guns out.
Who’s allowed in?
In the seventies, I taught English to foreigners, and on summer Saturdays, I’d sometimes take them on excursions to London, which might include Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, and Downing Street. You could just turn up with a gaggle of foreign teenagers, and they’d gawp at the Prime Minister’s house, and then we could all go down to the Embankment and eat ice creams. On one occasion, I lost a ten year old Italian boy somewhere between Horse Guards Parade and the ice creams. The policeman outside Number Ten suggested I try the police station ‘across the road’, which turned out to be the southern extension of Scotland Yard. I went with the boy’s distraught cousin, and we found him sitting on the counter, a policeman’s helmet covering the top half of his tearful face.
I can see that Prime Ministers might be on people’s hit lists, because mostly they’re a fairly shabby lot, but they’re probably no more at risk than the average small-time gangster. The only one actually to have been killed in office was Spencer Perceval, back in 1812. In the early nineties a couple of mortars were fired, and one landed in the back garden of Downing Street, but the perpetrators weren’t foreign students (or teachers) looking forward to their ice creams. The gates and the armed police in Downing Street look like aggressive posturing.
What happened? Teachers are no longer allowed to beat boys (which is good, even if I’m no longer a boy), but a whole lot of other stuff has been junked. I like the police, both as an idea, and (the ones I know) as people. Maybe we should blame everything on the demise of short trousers and paraffin fires. I bet ten-year-olds can’t even buy paraffin any more. Carpe diem, you never know what’s round the corner.