Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 26 September 2009

Just say sorry

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I glanced in my rear-view mirror. A police patrol car, right on my tail, blue lights flashing. A woman cop in the passenger seat leaning forward and jabbing instructions at me with her forefinger. I was to turn left into the pub car park. I knocked up the indicator stick and swung in. The patrol car followed close behind. I cut the engine and got out of the car quickly and walked a few paces towards the policewoman as she got out of hers. No doubt she wanted a word about my not wearing a seat belt.

My brother is a big incorruptible policeman. Only the day before, funnily enough, he’d given me a useful tip for exactly this kind of situation. If I were to commit a minor traffic offence and I got pulled over for it, he said, all I had to do was speak to the officer pleasantly, perhaps slipping in an apology somewhere, and he could almost guarantee I’d be let off with a warning.

How so? Well, says my brother, pleasant, civilised people are now relatively few and far between. Nine out of ten people automatically turn nasty and belligerent when he pulls them over to advise them that they have broken the law. So on the rare occasion he meets with intelligence and good humour instead of pop-eyed abuse, he is grateful to that person for restoring his faith in human nature and where possible lets them off with a friendly warning. And he reckons that the same probably applies to the majority of his colleagues.

I’ve always liked the police, anyway. Even the ones I encountered in the bad old days, who punched and kicked you routinely, just for starters, seemed like honest, good-humoured sorts. During a silly season in my late twenties I had the cuffs on in the back of the van several times for one thing and another, but I don’t think I ever met a copper I didn’t like.

The thing I respected most about them was that nobody complained about my behaviour unless it had been dangerous in some way, either to others or to myself. Morality was never an issue. I’m certain that, if someone had mentioned it, everybody would have laughed. Public safety was their main concern. Questions of morality they left to bishops, magistrates and the eccentric promptings of an individual’s conscience. A six-month sentence, suspended for three years, more or less ended my silly season. After that my dealings with the police became less frequent.

Three years ago I woke up on a trolley in a hospital, my suit and face bloody, and I was still drunk, to be genially greeted by two policemen, one of whom was going through my wallet. They had been patiently waiting for me to regain consciousness so that a sample of my blood could be taken and its alcohol content established. (This was before the ancient writ of habeas corpus was abolished and they needed permission from an awake donor.) He fished out my press card and cocked his head to study the likeness. ‘So you’re a journalist, Jeremy,’ he said, nodding slowly and sagely at his colleague. His colleague nodded slowly and sagely back. It was a little comic turn. The unarticulated thought was: ‘You’ve only got to look at the state of him to know his press card is genuine.’

And three months ago I was pulled over by a patrol car and a vehicle check revealed my lack of a valid MOT certificate. The officer couldn’t have been more apologetic. He was going to have to issue me with a penalty notice for £80, he said, but I wouldn’t have to go to court, nor would I get points on my licence. Technically I couldn’t be allowed to continue with my journey, he said, but if I were to assure him that I was going straight home, even if I wasn’t, that’d be fine.

In the pub car park I shot the WPC the big confident grin. A bit of charm, some light-hearted banter, and I’d be on my way. Piece of cake.

‘I don’t know why you’re grinning,’ she said. ‘Stand there. Don’t move.’

She checked the car over to see if there was anything else she could pin on me while she was about it. Fortunately, and unusually, the car was taxed and the tyres had good tread. Then she fined me, no ifs or buts, for not wearing a seat belt. The fine, she was glad to tell me, had recently been raised from £30 to £60. If she had her way, she said, it would be £200. Then I got a long, finger-wagging lecture about my duties and responsibilities as a citizen. She took it personally, she said, that I wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Then she turned abruptly and left me, trembling with rage, humiliation and disappointment, with my penalty notice in my hand.