Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The 12 inch remix of "And the beat goes on" is also not just a groovy disco tune...

Well, my last blog turned up some interesting results. One such revelation to me was that anyone bothered to read the bleedin' thing it. Secondly, that not only do some read it, but respond, either online or send me texts or phone me as a result.
I don't take praise well and to be honest, it wasn't written with anything other than admiration for those who do deal with domestic abuse, either as victims or those who are helping said victims.
Basically, it's my past, I have to deal with it as best.

My only concern came about after the response to this article: http://www.thisisplymouth.co.uk/news/Objectors-fail-stop-plan-abuse-refuge/article-3024923-detail/article.html which made me think whether I should've coughed up to my past and my opinions.

Now, as a reporter, I have to try and be without bias. That's the rules. Being a human being [no really, I am], that's not always easily achievable. Some of the comment responses were expected [yes, yours Mick, I could predict pretty easily, you little ray of eternal sunshine you].

I made what I thought was a sensible decision to not put in the address of the new refuge. By law, the planning committee have to know the location of any planning application and by law, all planning applications have to be made public.
Which in this case is a bit awkward, to say the least.
I made a point of warning the council, the Plymouth Domestic Abuse Service and the applicants that I was writing an article - which is in the public interest to know about and clearly has a lot of interest to the residents, certain councillors and other parties such as the various groups and charities involved - and that as a result of the article a bit of digging would result in the planning application being found by anyone who went looking.
My decision was to say it was in the city, was in a quiet area which included cul-de-sacs (a point emphasised by the concerned residents) and was to be at an ex-council depot (ie a brownfield site, not a greenfield site, and also important because of the amount of police call outs to the current refuge by comparison to the current disused council depot, also important in the arguments put forward by both the residents and the council officers)
If I put in too little or didn't write it at all, I could be accused of ignoring the residents fears, if I wrote it but put in too much information I would be revealing the location. I hoped to have found a balance, and having warned the authorities, hoped something could be done to avoid the Googlers in the reading audience. They can't remove or redact it because basically, that's the law. Frankly, either way, I knew I'd lose.

I'll side-step the catch 22 situation I found myself in for the mo' by highlighting this case which has recently come to light. http://www.sussexexpress.co.uk/news/abuse_awareness_training_call_for_magistrates_after_murder_1_2200144
The Karen Brookes story highlights what I was getting at on this blog the other week, in that everyone needs to recognise why this stuff is important. Recognition of what can happen when it's all-too-often poo-poohed as "oh, just another domestic".

Following my last blog post I had a conversation with a former senior police officer about the William Goad paedophile case and stressed how there were hundreds, possible even into a thousand or more young men in and around Plymouth who are still dealing with the childhood trauma of sexual abuse. Here's the parallel. Very often domestic abuse is seen in the light of "husband hits wife, wife calls police, police turn up, wife fails to make statement, police go away, husband hits wife, wife calls police... " ad infinitum. The bit that's forgotten is "child in room watches father hit mother, child sees police officers turn up (who, when you're a kid, are bloody scary), child sees police officers finally leave (with a confused mixture of relief and ominous fear) and child is left to deal with it in their own confused little head.
On the plus side, hopefully next month, I'm going to be able to tell you a truly wonderful story about a police officer who is hoping to tackle this very horrible scenario with a corking idea.

Meanwhile, for those of you who think domestic abuse only affects a certain class of woman, the 'lower orders', those who work 'downstairs', who can't countenance that proper, decent, law-abiding, well-educated people in good jobs need worry about this sort of criminal practice.

This was the awful case I covered back in Basildon. Here's the inquest http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/1641255.stm and story of the history of domestic violence which went on for years http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-69653/The-parents-war.html. (Yeah, sorry, I've actually done a link to the Daily Mail... only because I can't find a link to my stories in my old paper).

Jill was well regarded and well respected by senior members of the council. The Chief Executive at the time even told me he had her pegged to be a future Chief Executive herself in the near future, she was that good at her job. Her husband was considered a pillar of the community, even though it later transpired his colleagues were aware of his questionable and arrestable home life habits. A former council leader at the authority admitted off-the-record to me they and others suspected Jill was being assaulted, but they weren't sure, didn't know what to do and she would always explain it away.

After her murder, staff at the Basildon Women's Aid/Refuge ended up being invited into the council to give them advice and guidance in how to deal with people they suspected were victims of domestic abuse. Then the local magistrates asked them to give them advice as well. Then the local police. Then local schools (even primary schools) and then other organisations in and around Basildon, then other parts of Essex and even outside of Essex. Needless to say, I was well impressed with the awesome work the local refuge were doing and still do, but bloody hell, it was such a cost to get some people's arses in gear and get them to finally listen.

Scary fact to leave you with, one which I never tire of stating, and never stop wishing it would change to a smaller figure. Since being a reporter, which currently is at 13 years and counting, this figure has remained pretty static. According to Home Office statistics, every week, on average, in England and Wales, two women are killed by a partner or former partner.

Every week.

Sometimes that figures gets added to with men, but far more often, with children. Sometimes it's a baby, lying in a cot, repeatedly hit with a claw hammer after their three-year-old brother and mother has been slaughtered in front of their slightly older brother and sister.

Have a ponder the next time you hear someone say it's "just a domestic" or that a new refuge in a relatively quiet bit of Plymouth is more trouble than it's worth...

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

"And the beat goes on" isn't just a groovy disco tune.

So, Domestic Abuse Awareness Weeks has been and gone and I didn't really write anything for my patch.

I say this as every year I try to do something to highlight the issue. But as I (repeatedly) say to my contacts in this field, particularly the Plymouth Domestic Abuse Service, "domestic abuse isn't just for domestic abuse awareness week".

No-one seems to get my joke, mainly because I say it through clenched teeth. In my old patch of Basildon, I'd be down at the Women's Refuge, chatting with the manager, staff and current guests about how they are, what they need, what they're planning, who they're teaching about DV and how it needs to be countered, which court cases I need to know about and which bigot in the council is trying to give them a hard time.

Here? I'm person non grata, being a) a man and b) a bloody journalist. A combination which assures the view that I'm not to be trusted. So I don't write as many stories about DV as I'd like.

The irony for me being the Basildon Women's Aid group had me tagged from the first second. The manager there and outreach workers (most of whom were 'survivors' themselves) sussed my background before I'd opened my big gob.

I still recall hearing my mum's screams. I recall her black eyes, split lip, her fear as the door went and Dad'd come home in one of "those moods" which meant we should all run for cover unless we wanted a piece.

I can't find any pleasure in playing with Matchbox toys because the metre long track, usually orange, but occasionally the more stiff and unyielding yellow tracks, were not something of fun for me and my brothers. Kept on a little ledge above the fridge, we'd know that if Dad headed towards it, we'd be nursing welts for the rest of the night. I remember almost proudly being able to breathe through an ear after receiving a clout around the ear. I say clout, but that's rather a quaint old fashioned description. I was playing cricket with a tennis ball with my friend in our garden. The ball hit our back outhouse. Nothing broke, but I was hit around the ear so hard I couldn't hear the rest of the day and found if I held my nose I could push air out my ear. Strange really.

I had a regular nightmare (at least once a week for several years) of a steaming monster racing up the stairs if I dared venture out of the bedroom to go to the toilet. Only years later I clicked it was about my Dad who, if you heard him stomping up the stairs because me and my younger brother made a noise at night we'd cop a walloping. I remember lying in bed one night, listening to him getting hit and hit and hit, screaming "no, no, no" thinking to myself "if I call out, tell him to stop, I'll get it too" and hating myself for being a coward.

I got the same feeling of cowardice when I'd hear my mum, in the next room at night, making the same pointless appeal. She'd cry out, begging him to stop. I'd lie there, feeling sick, wondering how breakfast time would be, and whether school would be a kind of freedom.

Like I said, it's hearing your mum's screams which I'll recall for a long while yet.

This went on for years. I didn't even know it was wrong for a lot of it. I do recall sitting on my bed, in the room I shared with my younger brother. I was about 10, sitting there sobbing after being hit several times. Mum, who'd tried to protect me before I ran, came in and was sitting next to me, also in tears. She'd been hit after she'd stood between me and Dad. She sat, I sat, both crying. I eventually asked her in all sincerity "why can't we just leave him". She hugged me closer and after a long pause said: "where can we go? There's nowhere we can go... I'm sorry".

Here's the thing. I know full well it's all relative and I got off very very light. Since becoming a reporter I've made it a kind of point to do stories on domestic violence, or to give it it's current name, domestic abuse. I've heard far, far worse straight from the horses mouth as it were, cases in court, or from officers who've attended scenes. Some will make your jaw drop and shake your head. Like the one where the wife is kicked on the ground for daring to answer back, and then the guy got his seven-year-old son to keep kicking mum, so he learned that "that's what you do to a woman who answers you back".

One or two have made me well up, particularly when it's kids because I think back to the fear you feel, all the bloody time. The dread you feel on your way home from school, dawdling so you don't get home early, hoping he'll come home in a good mood or there will be Morecombe and Wise or Les Dawson on telly so he'll laugh in his chair, and we can watch and laugh and we can sit and act like a normal family for half an hour.

I had one of those moments today. I've heard this woman's story from a couple of other people in Plymouth. It was only a few seconds of conversation. I don't know her name. I was with Kerry Whincup, the co-ordinator for the Plymouth SEEDS (Survivors Empowering and Educating Domestic Abuse Services) for a meeting. Round table, different ages of women, different styles of hair, different outfits, different stories.
She'd come back in after a ciggie and a wee.

She'd left an 11 year relationship on New Years Day. She'd suffered lots of beatings. "After 11 years you leave with what you stand up in". She has two children. To get at her, to make her suffer, he took a pair of pliers to the children's teeth.

He's dead now, and - I am not surprised - she is pretty happy about that.

"You get so used to the daily beatings and everything which goes with it. I didn't even know what a Refuge was..."

I've thought for a while about writing this. About some of my past, why I want to write stories about domestic abuse, why I keep banging my head against some organisations to ensure the message gets out not just one week a year, but as many times as possible.

Meeting her today made my mind up. So bloody brave... and now joined with other victims (okay, survivors for the PC brigade) to help other women, to educate the authorities, the police, the magistrates, the judges, the lawyers, the councillors, the public about why it's so damned important that this - domestic abuse, domestic violence, 'another bloody domestic' as jaded cops sometimes say - should be dealt with, taken seriously, acted upon, spoken about out loud.


I f***ing ask you! Pliers!

And you know the worst thing?

That's not even the worst story I've heard so far, after 13 years as a reporter. Not by a mile. But it still makes me go very, very cold inside.

And also reminds me to call my mum and tell her that I love her because she took a lot of punches for me. So bloody brave...

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Beware of Plymouth scorned...

I've been doing a bit of reading recently and by chance it's been a lot of history material. Primo Levi's account of his time in concentration camps as well as John Van Der Kiste's history book on Plymouth have been on the go the most.

In many ways, both books confirm for me my dislike of people who acquire or seize power and then wield it very badly indeed. (We've all met them, haven't we. Usually at work, which makes for a right laugh between the hours of 9am and 5pm every bleedin' day of the week, eh?)

For instance, in the spring of 1596 an expedition (read raiding party) was put together by Sir Walter Raleigh, a nephew of Drake, in concert with the Earl of Essex, Lord High Admiral Howard and Sir Thomas Howard. According to Van Der Kiste's book they gathered four squadrons, twenty-four Dutch ships and nearly 150 ships.
"To muster a sufficient force of men the press gangs went round the town [of Plymouth], and Essex executed several conscripted landlubbers on the Hoe who tried to escape, as an example to others"

Charming, eh?

Earl of Essex: 'You there! Yes you - the oik with the facial boils and rickets... get on board that boat and do as I say so I can earn a shed-load of money pillaging foreigners while I eat like the fat pig I am in the safety of a spacious cabin at the back of the vessel'

Plymouth Oik: "How about you lick my left testicle mate, I've got proper work to do sorting through all this cow shite to find something of value for the wife and seven kids."

Earl of Essex: "How dare you disobey me? Master at Arms?

Master at Arms: "Sah!"

Earl of Essex: "Have this man's giblets and spleen ripped out and boil what remains in oil as a warning to others..."

Plymouth Oik, muttering: "Just you wait until Cromwell comes along... you'll get yours sunshine... aaaaaaarrrrrrrrggghhh, my giblets!"

Needless to say, it's no great surprise that along came the civil war and unlike a lot of neighbouring towns Plymouth actually bucked the trend and sided with the Parliamentarians. Various mistreatments of Plymouth by King James and then the "hapless King Charles" [as described by Van Der Kiste] resulted in the Royalists taking it for granted the oiky Plymothians would be a walkover. Oops.
I do like the bit about when Oliver Cromwell and General Sir Thomas Fairfax arrived in Plymouth as the Civil War ended they received a 300-gun salute. Not even the Queen Mum ever got that.

However, I particularly found this section illuminating for a number of reasons: "Charles II's main purpose in building the Citadel was ostensibly because he recognise the strategic importance of Plymouth as a coastal town when it came to war on England's enemies. A belief persisted for many years that he had taken ill its unfriendly attitude towards his father and therefore sought some kind of revenge, or at least wished to 'overawe' the town as well as foes across the Channel, though there is little evidence to support this view.
"The only argument to advance such an idea is a passage from the writings of Cosmo de Medici III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who visited the King's court in 1669 and visited Plymouth the same year. In it he referred to the Citadel 'which the King built to be a check on the inhabitants who showed themselves on a former occasion to be open to sedition'."
According to Van Der Kiste's book, the construction of the Citadel began in 1666, designed by Sir Bernard de Gomme, the King's Engineer General. He writes: "Cannon were set both facing out to sea and into the town, a reminder to residents not to oppose the Crown."

How great it that? The Establishment was as afraid of the residents of Plymouth as they were of warring foreign nations who were itching to invade and take England's spoils! Can there be any greater accolade for the residents of Plymouth?

Can you imagine a modern equivalent?

Cameron: "Right, when 29 Commandos get back from their latest tour of the Afghanistan, I want them sited along Union Street and Mutley Plain..."

Flunkey: "Prime Minister... are you sure?"

Cameron: "Am I sure? Have you BEEN down there on a Friday night? Frankly, the war on Terror would have been over within a Bank Holiday Weekend if we'd risked setting down four tanked up Swilly boys in the middle of Helmand province and told them 'see that lot over there, the ones with towels on their heads and CIA-approved Stinger missiles on their back... they shagged your mum last night and she loved it..."

Which brings me to my final point... probably my only point really. With regard to Devonport, the much feared move of the Royal Navy's historical home and the Herald's campaign to get the new Government fully aware of how much Plymouth people are justifiably sick to the back teeth of being shafted time after time after time.

And my point to MPs (at home and in London... yes, you Alison, because over the past decade your party didn't come out with flying colours as far as Plymouth is concerned and you Oliver because it won't go well for your party if they choose to do the dirty on the city yet again) is this:

Don't mess with Plymouth... because - historically speaking - you really do run the risk of Plymouth messing with you.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

"Not telling you, nah nah nyah, nah, thrrrppp!"

Occasionally, I get asked by Devon and Cornwall police's press office to travel up to the force headquarters at Middlemoor, in Exeter, to chat to newly formed Detectives Constables.

Sometimes they're even Detective Sergeants, which means more paperwork, more responsibility and an well-established level of cynicism about the media who they affectionately refer to as "the scum".

Of course, they're rather taken aback when I remind them of their affectionate term for me as I walk in the door and are confronted by about 20 of them sitting in a semi-circle, noting that I too have an affectionate term for them and it's "the filth".

As a stand-up audience, they're a pretty tough crowd, I can assure you. I only thank Parliament we don't have a fully armed police force or I'd be dead by now.

(Quick aside: It’s funny how times change. Years ago, if you had a moat round your village, you felt safe...)

The gist of the short training session is to remind detectives why we reporters badger them every day (to let you know what's going on in your own city), where the law stands in regards to journalists and what we can and can't write (you'd be amazed at how restricted we are), and perhaps finding a way of not treating reporters as you would the stuff you tread in down the local park where the dogs have free reign of the entire field and our children are left with a fenced-in playground.

Now, I do have a lot of respect for The Plod. It's a thankless task most of the time, they frequently have to deal with the kind of people you wouldn't want to see outside of an episode of Eastenders or Jeremy Kyle and suffer immense daily frustration of seeing crooks, thugs and worse boogie their way around the criminal justice system - on legal aid - to a slap-on-the-wrist and another notch on the "I-got-away-with-it"-engraved baseball bat they keep in the boot of their BMW "for when the Wii's broken".

Sadly, this means they invariably end up cynical, right-wing, moaning, growling, hard-arsed buggers who consider anyone left of Genghis Khan to be a wishy-washy, wet-liberal, namby-pampy Guardian-reading, feckless, human-rights-wittering bell-end. Which is where I come in through the door. Hello!

Like I said, tough crowd. Getting them to laugh is a task. Actually, getting them to stop sneering is a task, getting them to laugh is a bit of a bonus.

My best comeback came after one officer suggested that instead of phoning up police for a story, why didn't I just do what all journalists always do and just make it up?

"Well, why don't you do what the police always do and just arrest the first person you find, fit them up and say you've sold the case already...", I joshed back

A lead balloon never was so beaten in the race to the floor by that gag, I can tell you.

Point is, there's stuff they don't tell me, for a host of reasons - they don't trust anyone in the media, they don't trust anyone outside the police force, they don't trust anyone, it's no-one's business what they are doing, the public don't need to know, what's the point anyway we'll just end up being blamed as we always do for everything, you're only trying to find out something so you can give us a kicking in the newspaper, because that's all newspapers do, moan, moan, moan.

Did I say tough crowd? Would you be surprised that after a couple of hours of me explaining to them, often using quite inventive swear-words (we'll, it's not like they're going to nick me in the training room is it?) why the public do need to know, why it is worth highlighting an arrest because it's proof of them doing their job (which, as they hate to be reminded of, is what "we" pay "them" for), that it reassures the public that some scrote has had his collar felt and is off the street if only for as long as a magistrate can release them back into the wild again, they realise that yes, yes, they should be telling us what they're doing?

Well, I'm surprised when it does work, and it has on many occasions where officers call me up having listened to my spiel. But it doesn't always work and on some officers nothing will ever work.

There's a lot of crime which goes on in Plymouth that I don't know about, there's some I know about but for a variety of reasons can't tell you and there's the stuff I do know and can and do tell you.

And I'm constantly trying to make sure there's a lot more of the last one than the first two. And that, dear reader (note the singular, not the plural... I'm a realist) is my day to day life as a crime reporter at the glass ship.


Meanwhile...I found this on a police officer's blog site (not from Plymouth) which I thought you might like to read. You probably can rejig it to where you work as well.

Police management

A man in a hot air balloon realised he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below.

He descended a bit more and shouted, "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don't know where I am".The woman below replied, "You are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You are between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude".

"You must be an engineer", said the balloonist."I am" replied the woman, "How did you know?"

"Well, answered the balloonist, everything you told me is, technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost. Frankly, you've not been much help so far".

The woman below responded, "You must be in Police Management"."I am", replied the balloonist, "but how did you know"?

"Well", said the woman, "you don't know where you are going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise that you have no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, its my fault".

Monday, 17 May 2010

It's like I've never been away

I know, I know, I know. I've been a lazy good-for-nothing so-and-so and haven't been in touch for a while. Yes, yes, I know, I should've written, I'm sorry, okay?

God, you're starting sounding like my mother.

Look, I'll go and have a quick look at the papers over the past month and see what's been happening... can't have been much, can it?

*mutters, grumbles, ooh have a look at that... 'bigot' eh?... oh, 'eck*


What a difference a month makes, eh?

So, last time we spoke, there was a dour Scotsman in charge of the country and everything was doom, gloom and financial dire straits.

But now, if you believe our delightful national press, it's all onwards, upwards and hey, ho, hey ho, it's off to work we all go...



*wipes tear of laughter from eye*

Sorry 'bout that. Well it's good to know we have a couple of new leaders, only one of which was chosen by his holiness, St Murdoch of the Everlasting Media Empire.

Meanwhile, in other news, I was recently at an awards event to praise youngsters in Plympton who had made the new posters for a Stay Safe campaign. The campaign had been organised by two rather dynamic PCSOs who threatened to set me alight with a Zippo if I didn't attend. Lots of positive stuff was said about the efforts being made to keep Plympton off the top-10-most-dangerous-places-to-live chart.

While there I was collared by a member of the city's safety partnership who, like many of their partner agencies - particularly those in the city council - reminded me that the fear of crime in Plymouth was mainly, if not solely, down to The Herald's coverage of crime.

Basically, their argument goes that everything would be rosy in the city if only I stopped writing those horrible stories about crimes that occur, and my colleagues stopped going to magistrates or crown court and writing about people who got done. Or not, depending on how well the CPS were doing that week...

Needless to say, this argument appears well thought out and is clearly scientifically proven.


However, I believe it only works on the basis of certain factors...

They are that:

a) eveyone in the city can read,

b) they read The Herald and nothing else,

c) they think that every time there's a crime in Plymouth, no such crime ever occurs anywhere else in the UK,

d) there is no other crime in the rest of the UK,

e) crime in Plymouth is clearly worse than anywhere else in the UK,

f) someone getting assaulted by a drunk chavette in the city centre on a Saturday night means they will get assaulted as they go to post a letter tomorrow morning and every morning for the rest of their lives,

g) every time they read about someone being arrested, charged, sent to court and convicted it proves the criminal justice system just doesn't work, and

h) the criminal justice system clearly doesn't work because crime - like sexually transmitted diseases - still hasn't gone away.

My retort is the same:

a) not writing about crime does not make it go away

b) the public have a right to know what's going on in its city - both the good and the bad

c) if you're only looking for the "bad" stories, they're easy to find

d) if you're only looking for the "bad" stories, you'll ignore, miss or skip the "good" ones. Like this one or this one which has been busy everyday since, or this which made me smile or this which shows that people in Plymouth aren't apathetic, they just need the right cause to get passionate about.

e) Sisyphus...

f) what do you mean you've never heard of him? Dead Greek guy? Ordered to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity?

h) yeah, it's an analogy about crime always being around since Abel and Cain and no matter how much police do, it'll always be there.

i) okay, so it's not a perfect analogy. Sometimes the boulder is either bigger or smaller and sometimes Sisyphus may be actually causing it to roll down again by being rubbish, or bent or too fluffy, or too much the tough guy.

j) alright then, it's like the bloody rain in Plymouth - never-ending, but not so bad if you prepare yourself with a brolly, a raincoat and a pair of wellies. That better?

By this stage, the person telling me that the fear of crime is caused by my reports in The Herald is looking at me as if I've just put my John Thomas in their cup of coffee. Even before I've let it go cold.

I'd be interested to know what you lot think. (No, not about what I do with other people's coffee... just about whether reading about crimes and appeals for witnesses in the paper means you think we live in a crime-ridden city)

Take into account:

a) I don't know about every crime in the city,

b) I don't write about every one I do know about, and

c) I would like to paraphrase Bill Hicks, 'this [Plymouth] is Hobbitown and I am Bilbo Eve, okay? This is a land of fairies and elves, and sailors and people with funny 'ooh-arr' pirate-like accents. You do not have crime like I had crime back in south Essex.'

Answers on a boulder please to the usual address.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

“Sometimes, I don’t hate it here. You - yes. But here? Not always”

Of course, there will be blood. There is always a little bit of aggro, a bit of violence and tragedy on the front pages. Crime reporting and bad news – for someone at least – always seems to go hand in hand.

And of course, there is the understandable assumption that the world, or at least the little bit that you inhabit, is a terrible place.

(Well, probably for “Boris Napper, Eddystone Lighthouse” and “Mick, the Barbican” it probably is, because you constantly inhabit your little bit of it. So that’s a given.)

But for the rest of you, I’m sure there are times when you just cry out “for the love of Cliff Richard at Wimbledon in the rain – is there no good news out there to rescue my aching soul?”

And of course, there is.

Remember the old dear who appeared on our front page the other week? Looked like everyone’s treasured nan, had her face battered and bruised thanks to some ne’er do well?

Well, since then, I’ve had a letter from one woman, asking me to forward £20 she had enclosed, ideally turning it into flowers first.

Another woman, who wrote with such eloquence and reserve, enclosed a card which, it turned out, held £50. Both were formally taken off my hands by the police who – having signed for it’s contents – assured me it would be handed to the woman (I checked later… it was). In addition we had the manager of a residential care home who offered the old dear a night’s stay, a meet up with others of a similar age and a spa day at their place. All for free.

Added to which, the photo on the front page elicited enough phone calls of a similar nature for the police to make an arrest.

So, that was nice.

The Haiti earthquake was undoubtedly a sad affair. But as a reporter, I cannot begin to count the amount of ‘cheque presentations’ I and my colleagues at The Herald wrote about schoolchildren of all ages raising enough funds through a variety of activities to help buy Shelterboxes (a relatively local charity which provides something solid in the way of help) for the Haitians. While the bitter among our readers (yes, you Boris and Mick, you moaning, whinging maggots) constantly lament the respect of youngsters today, painting them all as feral filth, there in our pages were kids doing everything they could to provide shelter, materials and hope to others thousands of miles away.

Which was heartening.

For my part I enjoyed a exceptionally rare treat – a press freebie. I and a couple of workmates were invited to the newly opened Seco Lounge down at Royal William Yard in Stonehouse. Where there was a free bar for two hours…

Needless to say, I drank alcohol to the point where the next day I promised I would never drink alcohol again. But what I certainly do recall is looking out from the bar, across the water to Mount Edgcumbe, taking in the fantastic architecture of the Yard and the bar itself (it’s in the old bakery building) and saying to anyone in earshot… “why do Plymouth people moan about how ugly their city it… this is bloody AMAZING!”

Which it is.

I know it rains a lot (I spent three years in the valleys of south Wales, so I know what I’m talking about) and the builders of a lot of Plymouth’s houses had the same mentality as Mr Ford (‘you can have any colour house you like, as long as it’s dark grey’) but honestly, you’ve got a lovely looking town.

Take into account, I’m from south Essex. It’s flat as a pancake there and the view opposite from Southend beach is of a power station on the Isle of Sheppey and the gas storage facility at Coryton, next to Canvey Island. You get ruddy great oil tankers lumbering up and down the Thames as you whisper sweet nothings into your bird’s ear as you both lick a Rossi ice-cream. So I know what good scenery is by living with a lack of it.

But seriously, you gaff is gorgeous. Look out from parts of Jennycliff and you can see from the Eddystone lighthouse, across to Cawsand/Kingsand, to Drake’s island, to the Hoe and up over to the moors themselves.

Even up in the city itself you are rarely anywhere where you can’t see a view of green hills or the sea. Some of the city’s buildings are fantastic (particularly near Stonehouse barracks, the Hoe, Barbican and bit of the city centre. Out at Millfields, Royal William Yard and other hidden areas you have the remains of military buildings which reek of charm, splendid moustaches and bloody campaigns.

Admittedly, a lot of the young men look as gormless as a hillbilly born of a drooling moron and a badger that’s had a stroke, but you’ve got some pretty fit birds to compensate.

So, chin up eh? Open your eyes a bit and take heart at the lovely little city you’ve got.

It’s such a shame you spend all your time whining like a planefull of Australians who lost the Ashes when really you should be strutting around, chest out, head high at the lovely town you inhabit.

After all… you could be living in Basildon. Trust me - you’d kiss the bloody ground on your return.


Finally, as an aside, a fun time was had by me recently at a public meeting at Mutley Baptist church about the road closures on Mutley Plain. A nice gent had a good old venting of spleen about The Herald's appalling coverage, full of inaccuracies, hyped up to the max. He said it knowing full well I was in the room and I endured the glares of the crowd of people for my paper's terrible reporting. He positively glowed in the limelight as the crowd applauded his brave and honest stance.

So when I approached him, brandishing the aforementioned article and asking him to point out the inaccuracies for me, he at first declined. I insisted, quite forcefully for me, I must say.

After taking the piece away, he returned after the majority of people had gone home.

He meekly mumbled an apology, recognising the article had actually been, having read it again, completely accurate and without any kind of exaggeration.

I stuck out my hand and said "no harm done... except that everyone in the room has gone home thinking my paper's full of it. Cheers"

He took my proffered hand and toddled off home.

Monday, 22 February 2010

I think its time we had a bit of a chat

THERE'S been a couple of "freedom of speech" issues going on this week I wish to gently touch on.

Firstly, those who were unhappy with Jan Moir's article in The Mail about the death of Stephen Gately, were equally unhappy with the Press Complaints Commission finding that she was perfectly entitled to hint that the reason he died was not, as a coroner found, because he had died of natural causes, but that he was queer and well, probably died because that's what queer people do isn't it, especially if they go about picking up strange men...
Needless to say, my own feeling is there's a circle of hell found by Dante set aside for columnists. I have a map and will make my own way there, don't you worry.
A chappie on the radio (he was on the Jeremy Vine show, some sort of web editor for an online publication) suggested this was an example of free speech and fair comment, and - completely missing the irony of what he was saying - the bile which poured forth (aimed at Moir, as opposed to the bile that originally came from her) was unfair.
So, according to this chappie, the free speech afforded Moir to offer up comment (I won't say "fair" as to be classed as "fair comment" it has to be based on fact, and not much of what she wrote was based on fact) should not be afforded to those who took umbrage at what she said and then went posting comments in reply. Often with rather a lot of passion.
Whereas my feeling is if a) let he who is without sin cast the first stone and b) if you do think you're sinless and do start casting stones, don't be surprised if you're knocked out cold when a hail of stones comes back at you from very unhappy greenhouse owners who are sick to the back teeth of you throwing your bloody stones at their greenhouses and ruining their prize tomatoes...
Free speech is all well and good, but if you can't be responsible about it, then you can't complain when others go "oi, that's not nice, you slag".

Secondly, you whining, whinging, bitter and twisted folk of Plymouth and the absolute guttural tosh you come out with sometimes. All under the banner of "freedom of speech"

Oh, okay - so not all of you. The very large majority of you are rather lovely and I'd love to have you lot to tea and biscuits with maybe a sherry trifle afterwards.

But the rest of you, the ones who endlessly post on the Herald website at the end of every story you can, you really do get me hunting for my hob-nailed boots, gum-shield and lead-lined mittens.

I swear, there should be some kind of test which you must pass to be given a renewable license to post comments. It should start with spelling and include basic humanity.

Case in point - and take into account I've read comments on stories in the past about firms who've shut down losing jobs galore and seen heartfelt comments showing empathy and concern for those workers and their families - we had a story about the printing works shutting down at the glass ship here and talk about bile! Frankly, if there was a real market for bile to power cars, then the next ten drilling platforms will be dotted around this city.

I can't get over the level of complete ****-wittery shown. Such as the one where the Herald was described as "xenophobic", which made me laugh considering last year the amount of negative emails we got from locals after a reporter did a number sensitive pieces about Nigerian families and Kurdish men who had their final application for asylum turned down and were being nabbed in the middle of the night and sent home on the next flight, regardless of the kind of roots they'd put down over the past decade they'd lived here. One year we're liberal-lefty wets, the next year, xenophobes. Marvellous.

Then there's those who said good, the paper won't be missed, because there's no local news in it anyway...

So - no daily reports from Plymouth Crown or Plymouth Magistrates Courts on drug dealers, perverts, wayward youths, violent thugs, dumb vandals, dangerous drink drivers. No council chamber debates about gypsy land, bus company sell-offs, life centre and incinerator building plans. No football/basketball/rugby reports at professional and amateur level. No interest in live bands such as yearly contests set up by one single reporter with a passion for music, entitling it Battle of the Bands and getting young musicians from across the South West to take part. No offering up supplement pages for local schools to create their own Herald reports about what's bothering them or what they want to show of. No stories about local schools/teachers/head teachers/pupils, no stories about local theatre groups and their productions, local charitable organisations raising funds for things like a box of helpful items to be sent to Haiti, no stories about local soldiers based in local barracks who fight in very un-local countries or go training in ice-cold and boiling hot conditions

And for me, no stories about elderly women who suffer awful injuries and their face is put on a front page and as a direct result ends up with people calling police to assist with their inquiry and a suspect arrested and others offering the elderly women special gifts to give her her dignity back...

Nope - never seen any of those stories in the Herald. Must've been that other paper I read.... The Basildon Echo.

*deep breath... hold for five seconds... and relax... sigh*

I take it those of you who said there's no local news, can. actually. read. and. live. in. Plymouth?


Thought not.

It's times like this I actually feel morally superior. And, I should remind you, with me being from south Essex, that happens very, very, very rarely.

Anyway. What do I know? I'm not local.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Getting the munchies with the fuzz…

Surreal moment the other night – standing outside a cannabis factory, with several police officers, all of us eating a slice of pizza each, with me thinking to myself “if I’d’ve taken a few leaves, would anyone a) notice and b) mind?”

It was late into the day and I should’ve gone home an hour or so earlier when I got a call from an officer who has an unerring habit of finding drugs in her patch.

The officer had got my name put on the warrant by a magistrate and I was invited on the bust and the search of the premises, a basement flat.

Quick aside here - apparently the magistrate had told police it was rather unusual for a reporter to be put on the warrant. My response to that nugget when told was ‘he needs to get out a lot more then’ because across the rest of the UK for the past couple of decades it’s actually regular practice.

So, the officers who’d been brought to the party had completed their shift and were a bit hungry, as was I. So after having a good mooch around the flat, marvelling at the care which had gone into growing the cannabis, or marijuana if you’re over 50, we decamped to the back garden for the pizza.

As I said to the officers, it was like being a student again – a huge pile of grass and then pizza for the munchies. To their credit they all laughed. But I think my reference to putting on a Crosby Stills and Nash LP went right over their heads.

The point of this story was I found out the next day that the officers who sniffed out the drugs were actually two PCSO’s - Chris Kinski and Tom Bayley - who work the Efford patch but were on their way back to the station via St Jude’s. They caught the scent, did some sensible checking, then called up the regulars to carry out the formal search. And hey presto, a few thousand pounds of drugs are taken out of circulation.

For me this incident highlights why PCSOs are a valuable resource to modern policing.

The days of Dixon are long gone. No regular officer has time to roll up his sleeves and play cricket with the local kids, before nipping around to catch a cat burglar red handed, and then chatting over a cup of tea with Mrs Miggins and her cat Charlie about her new neighbours who keep funny hours and have too many visitors for her liking. Patrol officers hair it about from 999 call to 999 call, leaving less than a handful of neighbourhood beat officers to pick up the pieces and attempt to solve the far more complex and enduring problems of every Plymouthonian.

Pc’s have one weapon left in their armour and it’s called arrest. They see a problem, they arrest someone. Guidelines, public opinion and circumstances mean they can’t have a friendly word or issue a clip around the ear – it’s either arrest or nothing else.

But the neighbourhood teams, which are largely populated by PCSO’s can be far more inventive, more lateral in their approach. Oh they can bring in the heavy mob to do arrests if they want, but many of the PCSOs I’ve dealt with in Plymouth have been amazingly creative.

While you may scoff – and have scoffed – at streetdance groups, boxing/football/martial arts sessions, community parties and climbing clubs, along with in-school safety sessions on everything from knives and guns to Chlamydia and cyber-bulling, it’s been working. I’ve met local PCSOs who have resuscitated dying men, snapped up information about major drug dealers, fronted up to violent thugs as well as those who’ve taken the time to chat at length to a group of old dears who really don’t believe that youths on their street corner are probably more bored than bad and really, if you got to talk to them like the PCSO had, you’d find they were rather decent youngsters, if only you didn’t bitch, swear and moan at them every time you see them.

So, the next time you guffaw and refer to all PCSOs as Blunkett’s bobbies, keep in mind that a good percentage of them take more time and effort to make their hometown a better place than you ever will.

Anyway, I didn’t pocket any grass and the pizza was delicious.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

I'm doing OK, you're doing OK

The Government has come up with a new measuring/whipping stick to gauge how well the fuzz are doing. Needless to say, after a decade of using crime stats, arrest rates, detections, sanction detections, convictions and taken-into-considerations (I wouldn’t dream of mentioning how the unsafe convictions don’t result in minus figures, that would be so churlish, wouldn’t it?) they found that the figures had gone a bit stale.

It’s a bit like a humungous person who decides that they were definitely, absolutely, undoubtedly going to lose weight this time. The first few stone pour off, but the closer you get to the ideal weight, the slower and harder it is to crack those last few grammes.

Crime is much the same. The police, with current resources and legislation - and a bar on returning to the days when a flight or two of custody stairs was so very influential in a suspect’s version of events – will only ever reduce the crime rate to a certain level. We’ll debate the "has crime truly gone down" argument another day, but currently the statistics show a decrease.

Let’s just say that like fire-fighters, the filth have hit on the idea of prevention being better than cure. So instead of just solving crimes, they've found it’s better to prevent them. Please note, particularly those of you who use the “comment first, think later” approach to The Herald’s website, that I didn’t say easier… just better.

So this new measuring stick is called… wait for it… “Public Confidence”. Ta daaa!

I know… inspiring, isn’t it? Roll it in glitter and you can make a turd glitter. It still smells like a turd, but hey, that’s politics.

Here’s the scenario:

Govt minister: “I say Sir Humphrey… we’re coming to the end of our time in office, got anything which we can use to prove to the public that we were indeed tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime?”

Civil servant: “Short of hanging Tony Blair as a war criminal sir, no sir.”

Minister: “No, suppose not. I mean how do we show that the public are happier with the constabulary – and thus us - than in the past?

Civil servant: “Indeed sir, it is all a question of confidence, is it not?”

Minister: “By Jove Sir Humphrey, I think you’re onto something… take a memo…”

And thus, the new measurement was created. A yearly gauge as to whether you were more confident in what the police did these last 365 days than the year before.

Basically, it’s the laundry detergent test: “Are you happy with your wash?”

However, these two questions quickly arise:

a) how do you measure public confidence?

b) how do you increase it?

And there’s the rub. Confidence is such an ethereal thing, can it be measured? I mean, it can undoubtedly be faked but how do we truly gauge it? When you argue with the Mrs, you may well be confident you’re right, but you’re obviously wrong. You’re arguing with the Mrs, after all. So your confidence is a hollow sham despite your thoughts to the contrary.

Up at police headquarters in Exeter, they appear to have their own theory as to how to increase public confidence. It includes the use of regular newsletters, micro-websites and door-to-door visits. Some are even working on the theory that a) reading about crime in local newspapers is making people fear crime, thus b) no crime stories in the paper means no fear of crime, therefore c) stop local papers know about crime in their town and happy days are here again.

Now, some of those who wear a uniform and don’t work at headquarters, and thus it could be rudely argued, actually work at being a police officer for a living, think that every time they nick some oily heap of effluvium and get them banged up, even if it’s only until a magistrate or judge lets them go again, it’ll play a big part in increasing public confidence. They are also happy to work alongside PCSOs who have a remarkably creative and inventive way of tackling crime, by getting those who commit it to - as the programme used to say - “do something less boring instead”. Between the two of them, and with a lot of free help from the Specials, they are undoubtedly at the coalface of increasing public confidence.

So, whether you feel happier and more confident in your local rozzers because they are out there feeling collars, bidding you good morning and keeping local scallywags out of trouble with a spot of footie or street dancing, or because you get a nice little newsletter three times a year through your front door and never read about another incident in your local paper, remains to be seen.

Either way, you’ll be hearing a lot more about public confidence in the future. I would advise you that when asked “do you feel confident in the police” you may as well ask yourself “is this a confidence trick?”

How about that, a whole blog and no Janner-bashing. Don’t worry, I’m saving meself…

Monday, 25 January 2010

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Needless to say, the title of this blog - assuming the webeditor has decided to use the one I suggested - makes all the statement I probably deserve.

I am not local.

I am not from round these parts.

I am not a born and raised Plymouthian/Janner/Westcountry-boy.

Understandably, that probably means a large percentage of you will feel that any opinion, observation, or views I have on Plymouth will be entirely without merit and can be dismissed as easily as you would any other drooling, retarded, gibbon-faced moron who comes to your fair city from they evil hinterlands of the East.

I must admit, I’ve done the same thing myself. Growing up in south Essex, where the dirt says hot but the label says either “fake” or “shoplifted” any Dartmoor-pony-molesting countryboy with an opinion about the flatlands above the Thames would be simply dismissed as being fit only to ride on a threshing machine as long as their fingers were first taped to their armpits.

But here I am and I must say I find the place quite enchanting.

No, really, I do.

So much so, I’m now living and working here, raising my three boys – one of whom was even born here – and getting to know more about the place.

My Mrs, who is a bona fide Janner, eventually had had enough of the badlands east of the M25 and could no longer resist the call of the West being placated by brief visits to her mum and brother.

So, in late 2006, we loaded up the van, filled up a full tank of gas and did that thing that everyone else in the UK does. Yes – we made it as far as Exeter and foolishly told the kids “we’re nearly there!” Yeah Gods, but doesn’t the journey go on and on! Who put Plymouth so far west? I checked on a map once – the only city you’ll find after Plymouth if you keep heading west is New York.

As the paper’s crime reporter, much of what I write is – obviously - about crime although I do get opportunity to write other stuff occasionally. Regardless, I’m hoping to use this blog as a chance to opine about all and sundry, not just crime matters.

Call it mouthing off, filling my boots, therapy – whatever – but like the rest of the bloggers on the site I certainly aim to get a few things off my chest.

While not all of it will be polite, or even nice, I do hope we can start a little dialogue. There will undoubtedly be disagreements, perhaps even a few fights and tears. That’s assuming anyone’s bothering to read this guff. Either way, let me know. Even the most devout priest occasionally wants to hear a voice back when he’s praying. I’ll probably be just as surprised.

Anyway, as I was saying, I’m not local. But much like yourselves – and yes, I do read the comments on the Herald’s website – I have an opinion on everything. Such as “While I often joke to Essex mates that I’ve landed on the set of ‘Hot Fuzz’ crossed with ‘Life on Mars’ do you really all have to live up to the worrying stereotype that you’re the last British city stuck in 1971 quite so much?”

Well, I did warn you some of it wouldn’t be nice, didn’t I?

Did I mention I wasn’t local..?