While some colleagues were at home with their families, I had received email instructions to report to the police station at 5.30pm New Years Eve. I was timetabled for a pleasant week off work, but in reality my blessed week off was interrupted by my having to freeze my backside off for many hours under a mountain of heavy and badly-designed police uniform.
Standing outside the entrance to Piccadilly Circus underground station, the night was long, cold and tedious, interrupted only by a premature cheer rising from the city a couple of minutes before midnight then the sound of fireworks. I couldn’t see the fireworks, but the narrow section of sky above me was stained red and the air was full of man-made thunder.
Everywhere I looked there were steel barriers cordoning the crowd into lanes. I understood how confused the public must be – how the multiple cordons, formed into loops and concertinas, lacked any clues as to where people needed to go to find the underground station at the centre of this labyrinth. The controlled zone almost seemed designed to create such an unpleasant experience for the revellers that they might be persuaded to spend the event at home in front of their televisions next year.
For three hours after midnight I was hemmed in on all sides by dense crowds desperate to get into the underground station. If a fight had broken out there is little that police officers could have done. We offered little more than a superficial presence.
I was pressed hard by a queue into the subway ten people wide. The queue moved glacially and looped upon itself several times. People joined it without realising it, later asking me “Officer, where is the queue to the underground?”
The head of the queue, descending below street level, was behind me on the other side of the steel barriers at my back, only yards away, and so confusing was it, with no signs and seemingly endless metal barriers, that these people also repeatedly asked me the same question.
Bizarrely, other nearby underground stations, including Green Park and Leicester Square, were closed. Therefore much of the pedestrian traffic from Trafalgar Square made their way to where I was, so Piccadilly and Regent street were caught in the middle of a pincer movement, filled by thousands of celebrants desperate to get home. I wonder which bumbling public servant could possibly have thought it a good idea to close key underground stations on the busiest night of the year.
After enjoyably celebrating New Year, people were now frustrated and miserable, and frequently attempted to jump the barrier. I would then grab them and escort them back to their proper place in the queue.
Some tried my patience “Come on officer, just turn a blind eye and I’ll hop over. You won’t even notice. Go on, please, please…” and had to be firmly reminded that everybody else has to wait and so must they. Outraging the people patiently queuing near me, a skinny white girl and her boyfriend hopped over the barrier when they thought I wasn’t looking. I grabbed their arms and escorted them back through the barrier. I held on to them until the queue had significantly moved on, costing them time instead of gleefully saving an hour at the expense of everybody else. Angrily the girl told me “You fucking cunt” at which I explained to her “I might be, but at least I don’t have to look at one in the mirror every day. Call me that again and you’ll spend the rest of the night in a cell.” That changed her attitude a little.
There were a few tense moments, us being only a dozen police officers amidst literally thousands of revellers. Standing there from 8pm to 4am, I lost sensation in my legs and my back hurt from wearing the heavy belt kit and stab-vest under my overcoat and that universal symbol of oppression – the high-visibility jacket. I am a slim guy, but I literally resembled a bright yellow barrel.
One loud drunken idiot laughed inanely while wishing me a Happy New Year. I returned his festive greeting but he continued drooling drunkenly at me. Half an hour later he passed behind me on the other side of the barrier, near the descent into the underground station. Half an hour after that he again passed me in the queue. “Shum-one…an offisher told mee to queue again…”
Before we deployed to the street, we were given our ‘Force-Feeding’ at New Scotland Yard. ‘Force-Feeding’ is a witty police pun, presumably intended to lessen the offence of the filthy greasy slop we are expected to eat before Aid commitments. After the ‘meal’ we given our instructions – told where to stand and what to do.
Given the ongoing concern with terrorism, we were also helpfully told that “Somewhere in the world there exists a group capable of exploding a bomb in central London.” Amazing. I could never have worked that out by myself. Thank god the Met counter-terrorism unit exists!
The terrorism paranoia now justifies the modern desire of government to micromanage, so on New Years Eve what we have is a Central London suffocated by police cordons, with army vans on every street and police marksmen on the roofs. It was very clear to me from the public’s confusion around Piccadilly Circus that the police presence simply made the going-home experience far worse for the New Years Eve revellers than it needed to be. If there had been no barriers, effectively blocking the obvious pedestrian routes like plaque in arteries, I have no doubt that people would naturally have found their way into the subways, queuing orderly like the British are born to do.
Oh, but everything has to be micromanaged nowadays.