Words can jolt and, for me, an armed policeman’s reply did just that. This story, which is about his riposte, has three key strands; my conversation with the officer as he patrolled London’s City Airport; my dress sense, or lack of it; my habit of exchanging pleasantries with those in authority.
When walking in busy public spaces in London, as in many other cities, it is common to rub shoulders with flak-jacketed, armed security guards. With their guns held high across their chests, their fingers pressed on triggers and their eyes busy scanning for trouble, they have become a part of the normal city landscape. As they patrol, many see them as more scary than reassuring. For me, however, such guards are a part of the community and are simply doing their job keeping law and order which, at railway stations and airports mainly involves looking out for terrorists.
Being a watchful guard is no easy matter as no one quite knows what to look for. Those who want to commit an atrocity are devilishly difficult to identify in advance. They, after all, wish to remain incognito. So when guards scan the crowd for suspects, there is little on which to base their search; terrorists rarely declare themselves. Even so, amongst the clues, the guards will surely use people’s attire.
When it comes to my own clothes, I am not particularly interested in how I look; I certainly make no attempt to be fashionable. If others like what I wear I am pleased, if they don’t, so be it. In keeping, rather than my clothes being chosen by me, many come as gifts and some as hand-me-downs. Ultimately, the choice of what I wear is dominated by colour and comfort. In addition, what was worn on the previous day plays a large part – change is not a priority.
Even though my choice is limited, I still have to decide each morning what to wear and that was certainly so on the day, earlier this summer, when we flew to London. It was hot – we were in the middle of August’s heat wave – and were going for a week. My top half was easy; a rust-coloured Breton jacket (a ‘vareuse’) given me by my wife, Rohan. Next there were a pair of dark grey shorts left behind by my son Joshua after his recent stay! Finally, to my legs. Following a deep vein thrombosis years ago I wear support stockings when flying and, inevitably, these poke up above my socks. Whether or not my attire (see blog illustration) made me look unusual, and so noticed, didn’t cross my mind.
On our arrival in City Airport, I noticed two armed officers – one a tall man, the other a shorter woman – standing in the shadows at the back of the customs area. Once we had passed through the customs, my wife, Rohan, left me to buy an English newspaper saying – “Please stay here, don’t move; I’ll be back in two minutes.”. Standing on my designated spot I suddenly realised that the self-same armed officers whom I had spotted earlier were now standing just behind me in the reception area. I turned to face them and, as is my way, to ask a question. Both scrutinised me closely and, with my background, that was an invitation to speak .
Talking with the police is what my parents would do and was reinforced in me later on demonstrations. On Aldermaston marches campaigning for nuclear disarmamen we would see it as our duty to chat with the police lining the road as a ‘protective’ cordon. They should not be seen as the enemy but as allies to be courted, even persuaded. Talking with police, armed or otherwise, is still what I do whenever an opportunity to engage arises.
My question to the guards that day was simple: “From my observation you seem to have followed me from one side of the customs barrier to the other. Is there something about me that has raised your suspicion? Are you worried that I might be a terrorist?” The male officer’s riposte was quick and surprising. “Honestly Sir, with those socks, you a terrorist? …. No!”. I was silenced.
At that moment Rohan returned and we left to catch our train. She agreed with the police officer – in terrorist terms, my socks were a giveaway.
The police officer’s response said so much. He was happy to engage with a member of the public and the answer he gave was quick, amusing – it was said with a hint of a smile – and, no doubt, honestly reflected how he worked. For me, that my sock arrangement was such as to stand out in a busy airport seemed extraordinary. Interestingly, his comment could lead to problems. Might terrorists now start to dress eccentrically just to go unnoticed?
The illustration shows a photo of me in my travelling gear with black support stockings very much in evidence.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Carolyn, Sarah, Rohan and Vivien.