ACAB (or are they?)
I caught a flash of orange ahead and gave my GT250 a little extra, shaving a few more percentage points off my margin of error as I rode west along Bishopsgate. I caught the other Mercury bike as we crossed London Wall, which was when the rider spotted me and stopped poodling about. We swung right, cutting straight across the flow of traffic without a pause and screamed down Threadneedle Street like a pair of banshees on heat. As we blasted across the junction at the Bank our wheels were so close that pedestrians who’d jumped back in terror as the first bike raced past, did a horrified double take as their near death experience came with a built-in aftershock.
The lights at Queens Street turned green just ahead of us and we shot through the gap and past the front cars so fast that they almost stalled in shock. With a hundred yards or so of clear road ahead, we both jammed our throttles on the stops and raced to the right-hander. I was the last to brake, which gave me the perfect line to ride round the outside and take the inside line for the all-important left-hander into Cannon Street. As I tossed the GT from right to left, I caught a peripheral glimpse of something white over my right shoulder and as I whipped my head the other way, my blood ran cold as I saw one of the City’s finest tucked in less than two feet behind my topbox.
My speed disappeared almost as quickly as my grin, as I sensed that my day had taken a sudden turn for the worse. He whipped alongside and barked, “Follow me!” in such a tone that it never occurred to me not to. A single twist of his right wrist followed by a couple of toots was all he needed to haul in the other rider and the three of us came to a halt on Ludgate Hill.
We pulled up directly opposite Old Bailey. The cop ordered my compadre in crimes & misdemeanours to wait by his bike, before turning on me, pen and pad in hand. He asked if I knew how long he’d been following me, which worried me just to think about it. I suggested Queen Victoria Street rather optimistically, to which he raised his eyebrows, before informing me that he’d seen me checking my A to Z at the top of Commercial Street!
Every fluid ounce of blood in my body went south. My lunatic blast from E1 to where I now stood almost within the shadow of the scales of justice, tripped through my mind like a bad acid nightmare. Watching it suddenly bereft of adrenalin made me cringe as the officer recounted his perspective (the one he’d present in court in that flat tone they do so well) chalking up my offences as he went along: reckless, speeding, without due care & attention, overtaking on a pedestrian crossing… As the list went on and on, I could just picture the appalled faces on the bench – and the Chair reaching for the black cap.
I was sick at my own stupidity. I’d started in the courier business at the beginning of November and had spent about five months (most of them in the grindingly bitter winter conditions which had arrived on New Year’s eve) doing shit ‘new boy’ work, on a series of mangled pool bikes. It had only been in the past few weeks that I’d finally become sufficiently established to get my own personal fleet bike and onto the in-town circuit where everything happened. It had all coincided beautifully with the first buds of spring; but as I stood there listening to his damning assessment of my suitability for public roads, I saw my newly realised dream job being snatched away from me before the first heat of summer. And I had no one to blame but myself – it’s not like the lawman was making any of it up.
After listing everything he had on me, he offered me the opportunity to say something. He wasn’t a youngster and he cranked the tension up to ten before saying he’d got my details and if he ever stopped me in the City again – for anything – he’d bung this lot on top and have me banned forever. I was nearly sick with relief and had to fight to control a strong urge to kiss him. Instead I decided to take his advice and off I pissed before he changed his mind.
Back in a day when a tattoo was more likely to be a rough edged job, done with a needle and India ink rather than designer Indian script, misspelt on the golden boy of English football, A.C.A.B. was a popular knuckle decoration. For anyone who’s unfamiliar, it stands for: “All Coppers Are Bastards” and echoes a cry many of us have uttered at one time or another. But is it entirely fair? Even if he were unique, my man in the City would demand that the “A” be changed to an “M” for Most, because surely there can be no question about the legitimacy of his parents’ relationship! On that occasion, even if never before or since, he was undeniably one of the good guys. He had me banged to rights – and not on any arbitrary speeding charge either but on a serious case of reckless stupidity – and for whatever reason, he decided that the greater good would be best served by scaring the shit out of me, before issuing me with a stern warning. And to this day, I have no doubt he was spot on. Gawd bless his wisdom and humanity!
Generalisations are difficult to argue with because any evidence which counters them will invariably be dismissed as exceptions that prove the rule, before the overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom is wheeled out to back it up. Consequently groups as diverse as police officers, white van drivers, Kosovans (and asylum seekers generally), security guards, Muslims, even women – and they’re over fifty per cent of the population for fuck’s sake – are regularly glossed over with brushstrokes as wide as the Westway. I hate generalisations. Not only are they lazy but more often than not, when you actually examine them closely, they’re not even true. In my humble opinion, the sum total of what ‘everybody knows’ is bollocks! In fact I’ll take it further: simply by putting the words ‘conventional’ and ‘wisdom’ together, you provide the perfect illustration of a contradiction in terms; because in my experience the more widely a belief is held to be ‘fact’, the less likely it is to hold up to any sort of serious scrutiny.
So what about the Police? In ‘Homage to Catalonia’ George Orwell wrote, “… But when I see an actual flesh-and -blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on” and I’m with him all the way on that one. If you find yourself in an actual battle, whether it be at Wapping, Orgreave coking plant, or somewhere in the Spanish Civil War, the people who are attacking you are usually being seriously unfriendly so it makes sense to dehumanise them and revile the fatherless bastards wholesale. But on a day-to-day basis it’s only the TSG, Armed Response Units and the various other storm troopers of ‘Political Will’ who seem to make it their mission to generate hate and fear.
Unless you’re particularly unlucky, most of the traffic police you come across are generally only bastards in the same way referees are and I can remember enough after work ‘friendly’ footy matches in Hyde Park – played without a referee, in trainers with ‘mates’ in motocross boots – to appreciate the scant protection offered by the man in black on Hackney marshes on a Sunday. Nobody wants officialdom to rain on his or her parade and everyone knows the worst sort of bastard ref is the scumsucker who gives a decision against you or your team. Well it’s the same with the police. We all know what the rules are and while it might be a bummer when you are caught, there’s no point in blaming the Old Bill.
Crossing green lights on the Eastern Avenue in the wee small hours, doing a ton when you should be doing forty, the last thing you’d want to meet is a Traffic cop. Or is it? Personally, if my bike was up to it, my biggest worry would be meeting an ‘acne factory’ in a GTi, which is older than he is (but still has a management chip that’s more sophisticated than him) who thinks there’s no point in waiting for red lights at that time of night – especially when you’re out trying to impress a Doris. I’m glad the police are out there, if only because they offer some degree of protection from people like him and all the other murderers and manslaughterers lurking on the road.
I know there are loads of you out there who race everywhere all the time. Not because you’re under any illusion that you’ll arrive tangibly quicker, but simply because you lurve that feeling when the adrenaline kicks in like nitro. I’ve seen you out there wheelieing away from lights and scraping around corners. Even if I hadn’t, I’d know you existed, because for as long as despatching on motorbikes is there as an option, there will be an inexhaustible supply of takers who want nothing more than a steady stream of excuses for a little heads-down no-nonsense mindless boogie (apologies to Albertos YLTP ). Truth is, even wrinklies like me stray above prescribed speed limits, but nobody wants to be flagged offside.
However the alternative to traffic regulations and enforcement wouldn’t be anarchy, it would be chaos – with a small c. In spite of what ‘everybody knows’, anarchy isn’t about disorder and mayhem, it’s about a refusal to accept illegitimate authority. Therefore I don’t think an anarchist would have a major problem with the rules of the Highway Code. After all it’s no more than a convention, which on the whole provides a climate of predictability, which allows you to travel quicker than you ever could in real chaos. Figure of 8 stock car racing with no give way lines – nor inclination to do so – at the crossroads provides spectacular sport but it would make it difficult to give an accurate guesstimate for that SE27 to NW6, if that’s what you could expect at every junction in between.
No one ends up as a traffic cop by accident and I believe that on the whole the men and women with TD on their shoulders, do it for many of the same reasons that drew you into the courier business – and this has to be particularly true of those on bikes. Occasional egos and arseholes apart (which you get in every business) I think I can genuinely say that in over a quarter century of roadside interactions with bike police, very few of them have been bastards (beyond the fact that they caught me at it) while many of them have behaved like good ref’s, who are more than willing to play the advantage if they think you’re not a total wanker.
Obviously they have to mature into it. There’s nothing worse than getting a lecture from an arrogant pup who thinks he learnt more about bikes in a few months at Hendon than you’ve gleaned in five years hard despatching; but that’s always a danger when you bestow too much authority on anyone with too few years life experience. It requires a lot of wisdom to use power appropriately so of course it’s frustrating when you meet a youngster who’s both callow and shallow, but that’s just another of life’s hazards; when you take your chances you accept that you may end up getting pulled by a young snot with attitude. What can I say? If you don’t like the odds stick to the traffic regulations.
Although I must say as I get older, even the young uns seem to be getting easier to handle. My most recent encounter involved two bikes pulling me in Blackwall Lane, on the grounds that I wasn’t displaying a tax disc. When I took off my lid and handed over my licence (and the tax disc from my wallet) it was obvious that I was older than the sum of both their ages. The one who was doing the talking asked if I’d ever been stopped by the police before. At which I smiled and even treated them to a good humoured chuckle, before saying that with all due respect, I’d been riding a bike for twenty-five years (I consciously avoided saying since before either of you were born) and having spent a number of those years despatch riding, yes I had been stopped before. He said he’d thought I rode like a courier and I asked what he was suggesting. I told him I’d seen them pull out of the petrol station right back by Greenwich baths and knew exactly where they were all the way, even when they tried to hide in my blind spot after we’d turned left. He actually apologised and said he hadn’t meant that I’d committed any offences, just that I seemed to know what I was doing in traffic.
“Well that can’t be all bad can it?” I pointed out with a smile which seemed to be infectious because he agreed and nodded at his colleague to stop checking over my bike, before adding: “Have a good one”, and sending me on my way.
And it’s not simply a question of my age; I remember almost twenty years earlier, tearing round the North Circular and checking over my shoulder for sneaky police as I passed a down ramp. Sure enough there he was, accelerating his boxer hard, preparing to swoop on me. I grabbed the front brake (not connected to the brake light on the GS425) and hauled about 40mph off my speed, which put me back under the limit. Then I waited for the tug. The cop wasn’t in my mirrors, so I knew he was in my blind spot but there was no way I was going to give him the satisfaction of looking round. We continued like that for around thirty seconds before he pulled alongside and tooted. When I looked across for the inevitable finger pointing to the curb, I found instead an upraised thumb and a grin that seemed to say, “We’re both playing the same game from different sides and at least you’re paying attention”, before he wound it on to turn off at the next junction. Clearly age is useful, but not riding like a total wanker seems to help too – I find it helps to establish common ground with the average police rider.
Occasionally you find yourself in a situation where the divisions created by generalisations break down and you realise the rider on the white bike is just another motorcyclist. Whether it’s a fraternal wave out in the sticks, or a friendly chat at the traffic lights, sometimes it’s obvious that they’re just bikers. I remember picking my bike up, too shaken to smack the coach driver who was screaming, “What sort of fucking speed were you doing there?” at me, when a police bike pulled up alongside and the rider said, “What happened, did the cunt pull right out in front of you?” When the driver attempted to present his angle, he was told to move it somewhere more sensible until the officer had time for him, or he’d be nicked for obstruction as well, before the cop turned back to me to enquire solicitously after any physical injuries “that bastard caused”. Oh the brotherhood of bikers!
So next time you are pulled for something that a Gatzo wouldn’t even debate, don’t dis the ref’s parents. Try instead to look past your assumptions and you might just recognise another professional rider. You never know, that moment of recognition may allow him or her to forget their own prejudices and realise they’re dealing with exactly the same thing.
Be careful out there.
(And remember to always keep at least two players between you and the Gatso)