My last St. Patrick’s Day

This is not quite what is sounds like; we’re talking 1987 here

My last St Patrick’s Day in the East End ended eventfully. It was just weeks before our family decamped from Wapping to the West Country.

A teacher friend and I and another journalist colleague, all of us of Irish extraction, had agreed to meet for a late pint to celebrate. It has to be late because the other journalist was on a late shift. We made our way to The Britannia (ironically a popular Irish tavern) in Cable Street, not long before closing time. There was only time for a pint and a chaser before “last orders” were called. 

As we left we noticed that a young black guy in a car had been stopped by two young white policemen. Familiar with how this sort of thing often played out, we stopped to observe. You never knew whe witnesses might come in handy.

The driver did not have all his papers with him but he lived in nearby Shearsmith House further along the one-way street. Both he and police moved off and we followed as it was on our way home. By the time we caught up with them, it was clear a party was going on in his ground floor flat. A good-natured crowd of young black people milling around on the forecourt. The officers were standing nervously at a distance waiting for him to bring his papers.

One of the officers noticed we were still observing the scene. “What are you looking at?” He challenged.  “Just watching British justice in action,” I offered, perhaps rather incautiously, and we moved on. 

Moments later the police car passed us at speed, and we thought nothing more of it. But as we crossed Dock Street into Royal Mint Street, a ‘Black Maria’, actually a brown windowless van, hurtled towards us. It was coming the wrong way up a one-way street and mounted the pavement in front of us just before the turning into John Fisher Street.

Leman Street Nick Pic by Carol Bassi (McLaughlin)

Out jumped a posse of coppers who grabbed us, manhandling us into the back of the ‘Paddy wagon’ (the irony was not lost on us.) It then sped off up Leman Street, left into Prescot Street, right int St Mark Street, right again into South Tenter street and down into the back entrance of the notorious Leman Street ‘Nick’. That gave me time to jot down the numbers we noticed on the police uniforms.

We were led into the charge room and dumped on a bench together. Opposite us sat a bemused Sergeant behind his desk.

At each of the three entrances to the room, officers of the law peered in, evidently keen to see we three stroppy ‘Paddies’ got our come-uppance.

We were alleged to have been drunk and disorderly, but it was quite evident that we were neither. When the Sergeant realised that his zealous underlings had nicked two journalists and a well-known local teacher you could see he realised he was in a bit of a jam.

It did not help when I asked, quite properly, to see the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act Code of Practice, which is supposed to be available in such circumstances. He went through his desk drawers and it was nowhere to be found.

Confounded, and not a little embarrassed in front of his men, he led us to individual cells while the search went. Sometime later he came back to my cell with a copy of the handbook, and admitted his chagrin. 

“I’ve got to do something,’ he explained. “We need to check your details, so my men have to visit the addresses you gave us. But one of your friends says his wife has just had a baby and he doesn’t want her to be disturbed in the middle of the night. This was true and perfectly understandable.

The Sergeants solution to his dilemma was to ask if we would all accept a caution. That would keep his men happy, and then we could all be on our way.

To save his blushes we agreed. And so I left London with a blemish on my character, making this particular St Patrick’s Day if not one to savour then one not to forget.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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