Sunday, December 04, 2005

The World According To Granddad Len

My Graddad Len with my niece Short-Round,"talking about the 1946 Freemantle Docker's Strike and going to sea with the hatches open" according to my brother.

A week or so ago I mentioned that I'd been talking to my Granddad about New York and arming British police officers, which drew the following comment from Walter Mondale: "I want to hear what yer grandad says about shooters". Mondale, your wish is my command.

But first Granddad Len on New York. After my recent visit to Brooklyn I mentioned to him that I had been on the Staten Island ferry and as a consequence I got a remarkably similar view of New York Harbor and the island of Manhattan that he must have seen on his first visit to the city aboard a British merchant ship in 1944. "It must have been really impressive Granddad, coming in from wartime Britain and the hazzards of the Battle of the Atlantic, to see the Verrazano Narrows bridge and the Statue of Liberty" I said. Granddad gave this short shrift, pointing out that he didn't see the Statue of Liberty the whole time he was there. How could this be, I asked, seeing as I was even able to see it from Mondale's roof, never mind the deck of a freighter?

Apparently, by late 1944 the US authorities had belatedly realized that the Statue of Liberty made a great aiming point for German submarines and therefore blacked out the statue at night; Granddad's ship slipped into the Hudson and up to the berth next to the Cunard dock in the dead of night. No Statue of Liberty on the way in.

As the cargo loaded Granddad did get a little shore leave and recalls the following:
1) Longshoremen asking to go aboard and use the heads, only to be caught in the act of drinking out of paper bags in the toilets by young Granddad. In order to buy his silence they offered him a drink which apparently tasted like "paint thinners".

2) Finding a New York bar and ordering beer, Granddad was bemused by the cold, fizzy, weak nature of the beer but was most taken by the old drunk ("like the bloke in that Sinatra song about closing time") dropping depth charges of whisky into his beer. "Waste of whisky" was Granddad's verdict.

3) Walking around Times Square, Granddad and some of his ship mates noticed a War Bond display that featured a dud V1 Flying Bomb. They started talking among themselves about air raids and watching the London docks burning from their ships on the Thames and their accents began to draw a crowd. The assembled sailors then addressed the throng for a hour or so about the blitz, Churchill, and other brave, stoic British stuff and received a round of applause at the end. As Granddad noted, "we should have taken a collection. It would have paid for more depth charges."

And the Statue of Liberty on the homeward leg? Granddad was asigned the starboard waist watch- the channel passed to the right of the Statue of Liberty, and as a consequence his parting view of New York Harbor consisted of New Jersey and Staten Island. I asked him why he didn't pop up to the bow or back to the stern for a look, but I was informed that would have been dereliction of duty. So no Statue of Liberty.

Now for arming British coppers. After leaving the Merchant Navy Granddad joined the police, first serving with London's Metropolitan Police and then moving up to the Norfolk Constabulary. He was a copper for about 25 years, rode a bike around the countryside armed with a truncheon and whistle, arrested a couple of villains caught stealing the lead off church roofs, acted as the sole representative of the law in a couple of villages, and got into Carrow Road for free- officially to police the crowd but mostly to watch the football. He never carried a gun in his whole service.

The reason the subject of arming the police came up was the shooting of two officers during a robbery in Bradford, one town over from where he retired in Yorkshire. Such occurences are still rare enough in Britain to provoke a national debate about law and order, and given that my Granddad is imbued with the typical ex-cop's cynical and depressed view on the state of humanity I was expecting him to come down in favour of arming the police. Not so, to my surprise.

After complaining about the ostentatious armament of anti-terrorism officers ("Swaggering through town with machine guns? At least American coppers are discreet and have pistols in holsters.") he pointed out that the country and the police forces have gone through this on numerous occasions. When he was a young officer in London, the famous Derek Bentley case took place: during a botched robbery a policeman was shot dead by Bentley's associate apparently at the urging of Bentley (the link above explains the case and Bentley's eventual pardon). Granddad and his colleagues were polled on whether they wanted guns or not- the suggestion was overwhelmingly rejected. Granddad explained it thus (and I paraphrase slightly, as I didn't transcribe the whole conversation):

"I was in the police, not the army. I didn't want the death of some poor sod on my hands just because they were breaking the law. The decision to shoot is too instant; even if I caught someone red-handed or I knew they were guilty, my job was to nick them, not punish them. That's what court is for."

Bless him. Jaded, cynical, and suspicious of most human beings he may be, but bloodthirsty he is not.


jamie said...

it's interesting that the cops in the UK wouldn't want guns, but i suppose it follows since guns aren't as freely available to the populace (and thus to criminals) as they are here.

by the way, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge was not in place until 1964. fun fact about the bridge: "Its monumental 693 foot high towers are 1 5/8 inches farther apart at their tops than at their bases because the 4,260 foot distance between them made it necessary to compensate for the earth's curvature."

weasel said...

There's my ignorance showing through- Granddad didn't mention or refer to the VN bridge but given that he only ever gives cursory reference to any of the sights he has seen (the pyramids, the Panama Canal, giant mountains of bird shit in the South Pacific) I assumed that he had missed it along with the SoL, the Manhattan skyline, etc.

As for arming the fuzz, much British sentiment is summed up by little brother, who suggests that any officer who volunteers for firearms duty should be quietly moved to desk bound administrative jobs as anyone who wants to fire a gun without joining the army is obviously psychotic. I don't think he has addressed this with his brother-in-law, who is a pursuit driver, firearms officer and who lives his life like the Sabotage video...

Weasel's little bruva said...

Speaking as an ex-resident of Bradford where the latest shootings took place, I would want to be armed for a trip to the supermarket let alone if I was a police man.

weasel said...

Bruvva, you just have an illogical fear of arsonists, muggers, yardies, and steamers. But If you wanted right 'ard bastards for neighbours you should have joined me in Tottenham, oi!

Although I will admit bits of the West Yorskhire Leeds/Bradford conurbation do resemble the sets from The Warriors

RPS said...

He was a copper for about 25 years, rode a bike around the countryside armed with a truncheon and whistle...

Don't forget the biscuit tin radar detector.

weasel said...

Or storing paint and gardening supplies in the cells at the police house. Career criminals would tremble at the sight of a can of matt emulsion.

I also forgot Sue the dog who once "arrested" a ne'r-do-well as Granddad chased his accomplice in the opposite direction on the trusty Raleigh 5-speed.

Listmaker said...

why are old people so much more interesting than us?

Debbie said...

I was going to mention the Verrazano fact but Jamie beat me to it!
It's my favorite bridge and just a hop, skip and a jump from my home. Too bad your grandad didn't get to see it. You should bring him to Brooklyn next time you visit.

weasel said...

My Granddparents alas won't be coming to visit America. A gypsy told my teenaged Nan that she would meet her maker either on an aeroplane or in the English county of Cornwall. She tempted death once, on a 30 minute short haul flight to see my uncle in Luxembourg, but seeing as to get to the States she would have to a) get on a plane and b) fly over Cornwall it's not going to happen. Granddad wouldn't make the trip for less prosaic reasons- no Nan to complain to about everything and no tea shops to stop in every 10 miles for a cuppa and a bun.