A student asked me for a character reference the other day because the university he wants to attend has discovered a criminal caution he had received as a child for stealing a Nutri-Grain bar and he needed to prove he wasn’t a paedophile or a granny basher.
This got me thinking about stupid things I did when I was a beginner human; things that had on the odd occasion quite rightly got me arrested, and I remembered an event many years ago where I was quite wrongly arrested, and the sense of impotent rage it creates when something like this happens to you.
It was in the late eighties at some point – 1987 or 8 I think – and I was living on Stamford Hill Estate in Hackney; an estate that today looks like this (image source: john-clark.org.uk):
But when I was there, looked more like this:
And then on the very day I left London forever, it looked like this:
(Image source: http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/stamfordhill/Interesting)
A lot of the estate then was council-owned and there were many empty flats which inevitably attracted the homeless, the feckless, the creative and the thrifty who found legal ways in and took up residence. The squatting ‘community’ was massive in the area; the Squatters’ Advisory Service were just a payphone call away and would send someone out to help a homeless person find a home without breaking any laws, as would a Glaswegian metal fan, K, who used to scale the outside of tower blocks without ropes or trampolines to catch him if he missed his footing and liberate empty flats for the price of a few cans of Special Brew. Water, electricity and gas could be turned on by those in the know, and furniture was always available from skips. It all seemed pretty amazing to a country bumpkin like me.A cheery greeting on the side of Stamford Hill MFI.
Several months into my residence in Hackney, someone opened up an old pub as a squat and began to hold parties in there. I think it may have been this place on Northwold Road (pictured here looking all clean and painted and wholesome, so presumably long after the squatters vacated)
The place was only a short walk away from the estate, so one night I went with three friends and my dog (dogs were obligatory at squat parties) after the pubs closed to see what was going on. Here’s a picture of me in those days. Mysterious, aren’t I.
When we got to The Cricketers it was packed. There were two floors as far as I remember, and the doors opened into what must have once been the bar but was now furniture-free and carpetless and rammed with humans in rags, boots and dreadlocks holding cans and bottles and dodging packs of rampaging dogs.
There was music coming from somewhere below, so we found the stairs and went down into the darkness where, unusually for a squat party before the rave scene kicked off, someone had set up a DJ outfit with massive speakers, a proper record collection and coloured lights. Nobody seemed to be responsible for this, so I ended up behind the deck finding all the most danceable ska music and drinking cider until early in the morning when we realised we’d finished all the alcohol and danced ourselves sober and decided to go home.
The streets were dawn-lightening, empty and pleasingly quiet as we shuffled back up to the estate in a post-alcohol blur. B the dog was trotting alongside us sniffing all the lampposts and enjoying the rare freedom of being off his lead in the city. We didn’t even notice the police van until it swerved onto the pavement in front of us like something from an American cop movie. At least six young ‘men’ in police uniforms jumped out of the back and – well, to be honest, I can’t really remember how; it’s all a bit vague probably because I was tired, slightly hungover and in shock – but somehow we ended up in the van sitting on wooden benches, handcuffed, with a uniformed lout either side of us making no attempt whatsoever to even pretend we had committed any crime. In fact – and this is what I STILL find almost impossible to believe myself and I was actually there – they were blatantly winding us up by fabricating charges right there in front of us and laughing at our reactions.
The uniforms were from Stoke Newington police station, so it’s there that we were taken and put in separate cells. My dog was taken from me and I could hear him yelping and barking from somewhere – I think he was chained up in a yard outside my cell, but I couldn’t see. After I don’t know how long, I couldn’t take it any more, so I pressed the buzzer thing that alerts a uniformed person and, crying, I asked what they were doing with B. I was told they were taking him to be put down first thing in the morning.
I can’t remember if the cells were before or after we met the desk sergeant, but whenever it was, I was relieved because I genuinely thought he would listen to me. It seemed impossible to my child-brain with its child-ideas of fairness, that he could possibly believe what the louts were saying. How wrong I was. Even here, with other people around, there was still no pretence that we had committed any crime – the banter between the uniforms continued in front of the sergeant as they decided what we would be charged with. I was crying with helpless rage; powerlessness is possibly the most horrible feeling in the world – when someone else has total charge over your destiny. The banter went something like this:
“What do you reckon? I know… racism. They were intimidating an elderly black gentleman waiting harmlessly at the bus stop. That’ll do.”
“Yeah – they were dancing round him singing racist songs.”
Laughs all round.
“When we tried to arrest her, she jumped on my back and scratched my face with her fingernails.”
And the desk sergeant wrote it all down. I cried (like an embarrassing wimp), asked where my dog was (no answer) and said to the desk sergeant,
“Please just let us go. None of this actually happened.”
His answer branded itself on my memory and has stayed there forever. Again, I still can’t believe it quite – but this is exactly what he said:
“I know that. You know that. But the magistrate’s not going to know that. Is he?”
So we were charged with harassing a non-existent old man and I was also charged with some sort of bodily harm to a police officer (despite never having had scratch-capable fingernails in my life), given a court date and released. I was flabbergasted with rage but utterly relieved when I was given my dog back all in one piece.
The outcome of all of this was this: We went to see a solicitor and were very anxious about being able to persuade him to believe our far-fetched story. The minute we’d finished relaying it all to him he said,
“This sort of thing happens all the time – it’s text book.”
He agreed to defend us for nothing. We went to court. The magistrate threw us out of court because we were too scruffy. We went back to court. I stood in the dock and told the magistrate plainly that the police were making it all up. The magistrate laughed, said,
“you expect me to believe that all these officers are making this story up just to victimise YOU?”
And found us all guilty.
Years later, I was idly listening to Radio 4 news on a traveller site somewhere and something came on about an investigation into corruption among the Stoke Newington police.
Reading about the things those total bastards got up to, I realise we’d been lucky we weren’t black.