Chapter 2 – Selection day
My stuttering police career had started some ten months earlier in the autumn of 1982 in a spectacularly dull classroom, illuminated by a dozen harsh strip lights each filled with the bodies of a thousand dead flies, which was situated on the third floor of Paddington Green police station. There were forty of us, men of varying ages of whom I was definitely the youngest and we were all white except one Asian chap who was more my own age. We were seated in rows of five and addressed by a middle aged man wearing a blue civilian jacket with two small silver pips on the lapel.
“This building is bomb proof and fitted with metal shutters which will close over the windows should a threat be identified. There are no tests or drills scheduled for today so if they do come down and plunge the place into darkness, it’s the real thing. Right, take a ten minute break gentlemen; there’s tea and coffee behind you. Then form yourself into the three groups as instructed and we’ll get on with meds.”
A few of the men pushed their chairs back and stood up but being less confident than the other candidates around me, I hesitated because something in the man’s voice suggested he hadn’t completely finished speaking; I was right.
“Oh and one more thing.” He paused, waiting until once again he had everyone’s attention.
“If you’re queer now’s your opportunity to leave. What sick acts you get up to in private is your business but we definitely don’t want you in the Metropolitan Police. So do yourself and us a favour and quietly slip out during the break, we won’t ask any questions if you’re not here when we resume.”
The man waved his right hand in a gesture which indicated the first part of our selection day was over and everyone headed towards the refreshments at the back of the room and formed a polite, orderly queue.
In front of me was the Asian lad with whom I was just about to spark up a conversation when someone tapped me on the arm. I swung round to see a very smartly dressed older gentleman who was wearing a dark pin striped suit.
“Can I ask you a question old sport?” He said, with an impeccable public school accent.
“Of course.” I replied, curious to know what information I could possibly possess that he would require.
“Don’t take this the wrong way but why the devil aren’t you wearing a suit or at least a shirt and tie?”
I hadn’t really thought about it but looking around the room, I noticed I was indeed the only person not wearing a collared shirt and tie. Instead I had donned black cords, a white T shirt, a black artificial leather jacket and an impressively long pair of winkle pickers; I had thought I looked quite smart, I didn’t any longer.
“I don’t have a suit.” I answered, sheepishly.
“Listen. You had better make some excuse at the start of the interview otherwise you are bound to fail. I know, tell them you can’t afford one. Go for the sympathy vote.”
“I can’t afford one.” I replied, in complete honesty.
“That’s the way old sport.” The gentleman said, enthusiastically.
I hadn’t been confident of success when I’d arrived, I was even less so now and put my chances of being selected for the Metropolitan Police at about one in a hundred.
The selection day was to be conducted in two distinct parts; meds, or to use the full title medicals, in the morning and then an interview in the afternoon. Meds was split into four stages, an eyesight test and then a colour blindness test, a dental check-up and finally something called an inspection.
The first three I passed without trouble but the final med was quite bizarre. For this they got us to strip completely and queue in a corridor wearing only a towel and an uncomfortable smile. I had no idea what was coming when without solicitation, the chap in front of me who was covered in tattoos, offered an explanation.
“This is where they check if you’re queer.”
“Oh.” I replied, lamely.
I racked my brains but couldn’t imagine how ‘they’ were going to discover such a personal thing; was there going to be some kind of examination? As I neared the front of the queue, curiosity got the better of me.
“Yes mate.” The tattooed man replied, pleasantly.
“How exactly are they going to do that?”
The man answered me in as matter of fact a way, just as if he’d been asked directions.
“Well I don’t know how they do it here but in the navy they get you to bend over and they examine your arse hole. Don’t worry about it mate, it’s no sweat.”
I thought this bloke might be winding me up but was soon to discover he was being completely serious.
The room I entered several minutes later was ridiculously cold but still warmer than the unfriendly stares of the three gentlemen seated behind a long mahogany desk; I assumed, I hoped, they were doctors. One pointed to a taped black cross on the floor which was roughly in the middle of the room.
“Drop the towel on the chair Pritchard and stand there; put your hands on your head.”
I felt very embarrassed and stared at a picture of Her Majesty the Queen which was hanging on the wall immediately behind the middle of the three doctors; Her Majesty held my stare with dignity.
“Stand on your toes.”
“Open your legs slightly, with your knees straight, bend over and touch the floor.”
“Now turn around and touch your toes again.”
Immediately after each instruction I did as I was told.
“Good. Now pull your cheeks apart.”
My indignation and humiliation was tempered only by the knowledge that all forty applicants that morning had gone or were going to go through exactly the same procedure.
“Still tight, everything’s all right, off you go.” One of the other men said.
I assumed they had discovered nothing to suggest I was queer.
After lunch, which was a selection of sandwiches with very little filling, a packet of crisps and an apple, I and five other applicants sat quietly in a small room waiting for our interviews. I kept turning some answers over in my mind, like why I wanted to join and what I had to offer the Met but the more I did the more my confidence shrank. The man sitting next to me was the Asian guy from the queue; although he was slightly older than me, we were similar ages. I gave up rehearsing my answers.
“Have you come far?” I asked.
“Not really, Manor Park.” He replied.
I had no idea where Manor Park was. In fact I’d only been to London twice and both occasions had been a school trip.
“Is it near the Science Museum?” I asked, innocently.
The Asian man laughed, but not unkindly.
“You don’t get many Indian police officers.” I commented, keen to keep the conversation going as it was easing my nerves.
“I’m not Indian, I was born here. My father was originally from Bombay. I’m Rik by the way.”
We shook hands.
“Actually my father doesn’t know I’m here today. I’m not sure he’d approve. My two older brothers are at medical school but I was the thick one so he wants me to work in the shop and carry on the family business. Then I saw the advert in the Telegraph, seven thousand a year, so I thought bugger selling cigarettes for three grand, I want to earn some real money.”
“Seven thousand a year?” I said.
I had no idea how much the job paid.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t know? Rik asked, disbelievingly.
“Never gave it a thought, I haven’t got a chance anyway. Most of these guys are ex-military and they’re a lot older than us; loads of them were talking about their time in the Falklands and Northern Ireland. I mean fuck me Rik, why are they going to pick us?”
“You never know, you might be just what they’re looking for?” Rik said, hopefully.
“Maybe.” I said without conviction.
The door opened and the man in charge, the one with the two pips on his lapel, called out a name from a list on a clipboard.
Rik stood up.
“Thanks; I’ll catch you later.” He replied.
I was the final candidate to be interviewed. I’d sat there patiently for two and a half hours when at last my name was called. I timidly entered the interview room and saw two solemn looking, middle aged men sitting behind a desk. They were marking some paperwork in front of them and didn’t look up when I entered. A lonely chair had been placed in the middle of the room facing them. I sat down quietly trying not to disturb them.
“Who told you to sit down?” The slightly older of the two men asked curtly.
“Sorry.” I said, quickly jumping up.
“Put the chair against the wall. For your interview you can stand in the middle of the room. After all you’re not going to be here long.”
I stood in an awkward silence. Having put aside one piece of paper, they collected and studied another. I assumed it was my application form.
‘You’re not going to be here long’ he’d said, I turned the words over in my mind and decided they’d obviously already made their minds up not to take me.
“What’s with the T shirt and leather jacket?” The younger man said, eyeing me up and down disdainfully.
Before I could launch into the answer I’d prepared, the man spoke again.
“You look like that guy out of that TV programme my kids are always watching, the Fonz.”
“I don’t have a suit Sir and the letter said smart, so I chose what I would wear if I was going out for the evening.”
“And where would you be going if you were dressed like that?”
“One of the nightclubs in town Sir.”
The younger man raised his eyebrows and frowned.
“Perhaps if you had sacrificed a few nights out you might have been able to afford a shirt and tie.”
I didn’t reply but looked to the floor submissively. Before I raised my stare, the other man, the slightly older one asked,
“So both your parents are dead young man?”
“Yes Sir. Mum died six months ago, I never knew my Dad.”
“Is that why your A level results were so poor?”
I hesitated, even though it was the truth, I didn’t want to sound like I was making excuses.
“No excuse Sir, I should have worked harder.”
Both men nodded, I just knew I’d said the right thing.
“No brothers or sisters?”
There was silence for what felt like a minute.
“You play rugby then?” The same man asked.
I noticed a change in the intonation in the man’s voice; I wasn’t sure quite what to make of it.
“Yes Sir, I played for the county last year and got through to the England final trial.”
“Centre Sir, outside preferably.”
Again both men nodded; suddenly I got the distinct impression that despite my cock-up at the start and my massive clothing misjudgment, this might be going all right.
“A lot of coloured youths today complain about being repeatedly stopped by police. Do you think they might have a point?” The younger man asked.
“No Sir, if they haven’t done anything wrong, why should they be worried about being stopped?”
They both muttered almost simultaneously.
“Think very carefully Pritchard, only one further question stands between you and thirty years in the Metropolitan Police.”
I was amazed, the five men who had gone in before me had been in much longer than this; I’d only answered five or six questions and most of those were about my family and rugby.
“It’s a year from now. You are on patrol and receive a call to help a WPC in a pub fight. How do you feel? I mean women shouldn’t really be police officers should they? And you’re now expected to put your own life on the line because she’s not physically strong enough to deal with a very common situation?”
I sensed a trap and took a deep breath giving myself a few extra seconds to consider my answer.
“I wouldn’t mind going to help the WPC Sir. After all, the next day I might have to look after some children or even a baby and then I’d need her help wouldn’t I?”
The interviewers looked at one another. Then the older man stood up and walked around the side of the desk with an outstretched hand.
“Welcome aboard Pritchard, I am Inspector Allan Franklin; I am confident we’re going to be seeing a great deal of one another.”
“Will I be working at your station?” I asked, as we shook hands.
“Good Lord Pritchard I very much doubt that, I work at the Yard.”
“Then can I ask why we’re going to see a lot of one another?”
“Because young man I’m the Head coach of the Met Police Rugby Club and our current outside centre has just done his ankle ligaments and will be out for the rest of the season. We’ll need to fast track your application but with any luck you’ll be at Hendon by Christmas and available for selection in early January.”
Rik had been right; I was just what they were looking for after all, well bugger me.