A Policeman’s Lot 22….All that glitters is not gold! 

Most of my work during my five years in the Diplomatic Protection Group was fairly mundane and was spent looking after various diplomatic premises in London. However, about half way through my time on the DPG I was offered the chance to do something just a little different.

Occasionally foreign diplomats and statesmen would visit London and the Home Office would decide that they were sufficiently important or sufficiently vulnerable to require personal protection during their visit….In other words they were given a bodyguard….This work was undertaken by selected officers from Special Branch and they all had to pass an intensive “Bodyguard” course during which they were instructed in all manner of exciting and glamorous things which included, advanced firearms training and defensive driving techniques…..The only problem was that Special Branch officers, at that time didn’t work night duties….Therefore, when the persons they were guarding finished their day’s work and returned to their hotel….they were to be left unguarded….This was quickly recognised to be a ridiculous situation and so it was agreed that a pair of DPG officers would take over from the Special Branch protection officers for the time when the person being guarded (or Principal) was in the hotel…..It was pointed out that the DPG officers had not had the extra training that the Special Branch officers had gone through….And It was agreed that although DPG officers did not have to undergo the full Bodyguard Course, a separate course should be devised that would give them the advanced firearms training they would require to possess in order to pass a three monthly advanced firearms reclassification…..The training course was commonly known as “The Corridor Course” because that’s where the DPG officers spent most of their nights….Sitting outside their “Principal’s” hotel door.

When offered the “Corridor Course” I jumped at the opportunity….It involved undergoing an intensive two week course at a police firing range in Epping Forest….In order to reach the firing range I had to cycle from my home each day which was a round trip of over 20 (somewhat hilly) miles….In those days I was a great deal fitter!

Firing a gun is like any other skill…It needs to be practised and some people take to it easier and quicker than others….Before I undertook the course I would have described myself as a ‘competent’ shot with a Smith and Wesson police revolver….I was always good enough to pass the regular reclassifications….But there were others who were better and more accurate than myself. However, during that intensive course I quickly saw my accuracy and speed improve and at the end of my fortnight course I qualified as a “Marksman.”

I wasn’t allocated “Hotel Jobs” on a frequent basis but I did do a fair number and during my time I met and I looked after a number of well known faces….Most of the people we looked after were appreciative and were polite and friendly to us….One or two were not quite so polite…..Olof Palme was the Prime Minister of Sweden….The Home Office decided that he should be given personal protection during his time in London but apparently he was not impressed and decided that if he didn’t need police protection at home, he certainly didn’t require it in London….An agreement was finally reached and when he was out in public his Special Branch officer accompanied him….But we were instructed that he DID NOT want to have officers outside his hotel door….Which would only draw attention….So we were instructed to remain out of sight on the floor above and make regular thirty minute ‘Walk by’ checks past his door….This was (of course) pretty much a waste of time….The hotel manager made things easier for us and opened up a small office for us to use so we did not attract too much attention….The hours there passed quietly without us ever even getting a look at Mr. Palme…..And after all….How much threat could the Swedish Prime Minister actually be under?…..In February 1986 Olof Palme was assassinated by a lone gunman in Stockholm as he walked unguarded in the street, less that two months after we had been looking after him.

Most of the “Principals” we looked after WERE however grateful for our work and it was not unusual for them to give gifts to their protection officers in appreciation of their efforts….The question of police officers accepting “Gratuities” from people has always been a thorny one for police authorities to come to grips with….For many years the instructions were that any such “Gifts” MUST be politely declined as they undermined the dignity and impartiality of an officer…..This stance actually caused diplomatic ripples and it was decided that the rules needed to be rewritten. It was then decided that officers COULD accept personal gifts (other than cash) providing the gifts were not above a certain value….And over my time I gained a nice collection of wallets and pens which always come in handy.

I did also meet some well known people…..Some of whom surprised me…..Some of whom didn’t.

One politician who most certainly surprised me was The Rev. Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Ulster…..When I heard that I was to be guarding him, I have to say that I feared the worst….He was the textbook “Fire Brand” Protestant Ulsterman….Whenever he was seen on television he was haranguing and shouting at his audiences and and opponents alike….When we turned up at his hotel and spoke to his Special Branch protection officer I asked him “Are we going to be in for an awkward time?”…..He just smiled and said “I think you might be pleasantly surprised.”

It turned out that Mr Paisley was a great actor….And all the shouting and aggression was saved for the press (and his political opponents, of course)….He was in London with his daughter on a private visit and as he was a bibliophile, he spent most of his days trawling through the bookshops of Charing Cross Road looking for additions to his large collection….Whenever he spoke to us, he was unfailingly gently spoken, polite and a complete gentleman.

On his last night, just after we had relieved the SB officer he came out and told us that he was expecting “Some gentlemen of the Press” and would we be kind enough to tell them when they arrived…..About thirty minutes later the journalists had gathered and I knocked in his door. “The Press are here, Sir”.

“Thank you Officer….Please ask them to wait for  a couple of minutes.”

A couple of minutes later his door flew open and he was in full “Firebrand” character as he yelled at the top of his voice….”COME IN, GENTLEMEN….COME IN!”

Many people were amazed when after the devolution of power from Westminster in May 2007, he joined forces with Martin McGuiness as Leader and Deputy Leader of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the two formerly bitter opponents became known jointly as “The Chuckle Brothers” …. I have to say that I had a wry smile on my face when I heard about it.

One person who DID NOT surprise me was the (then) Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, who proved to be every bit as unpleasant a character as I suspected he might be….However, he did unintentionally provide me with one of the best comic moments of my time on the DPG.

He visited London in the late 1980’s before he became President….So it was not deemed to be a State Visit….His entourage were booked into a hotel in St James’….I never actually got to speak to the man himself….All communications were delivered via his extremely loud and voluble wife, Grace (and surely never has a name been less appropriate?)…Not that she would actually demean herself by talking directly to us….So all communications went through their general manager and liaison officer a really charming young man called Bruce….And I have seldom felt as sorry for any man as I did for him….The abuse that those two heaped on him was a disgrace…..And yet, his broad and beaming grin never left his face….It became a regular occurrence that Grace would storm along the hotel corridor yelling his name and calling him all the names under the Sun….She had a habit of rolling her R’s when she got annoyed….So she would  shout “Where is Brrrrruce! Has anybody seen Brrrruce….He is completely useless!!!!”….But still he smiled….And the strange thing was that he genuinely believed that he was the luckiest man in the World to have such a wonderful job!

The end of the job could not come quickly enough for us but on our final night, Bruce came along the corridor with his usual broad grin on his face and announced “Mr Mugabe wishes me to thank you gentlemen on his behalf for all your efforts this week and he asks that you accept these gifts from him.” Bruce then handed each of us a cardboard box marked ‘Carriage Clock’…..We both thanked Bruce and asked him to convey our thanks to Mr. Mugabe.

As Bruce disappeared back toward his own room, we looked at each other in some surprise…..We both opened the cardboard boxes to find each box contained six over ripe bananas!…..We both burst out giggling……A few hours later we were relieved by the returning Special Branch officer. “Sarge, should we declare gratuities to you or on an official form?”

The Detective Sergeant replied “If it’s a similar bunch of over ripe bananas to the ones that I was given yesterday….Then don’t bother!”….And we all three broke out laughing.

After leaving the hotel I had to make my way back to Tottenham Court Road to book in my radio and firearm….I walked into the base at about 9.30am and the chief inspector was checking through the various books and registers. I was on friendly terms with him as we had both competed together in various sporting events in the past. “Good morning, Sir.”

“Morning Rob….Just back from your hotel? How did it go?”

“Fine thanks, Sir. No problems…..But I do need to report a gratuity received.”

“Erm….Not now, Rob, I’m busy here.”

“I DO think it needs reporting, Sir.” I then plonked the box marked ‘Carriage Clock’ down on the desk in front of him and took a couple of steps back.

He put down his pen and grunted “Well since you’ve now announced it to everybody in the room, I suppose I will have to deal with it then!”

He opened the box…..And the warm temperatures in the hotel had done little to improve the quality of the bananas which were by now well and truly past their sell by date!…..Fortunately I had ducked behind the door frame by the time he propelled the rapidly rotting fruit in my direction….”And you can clear that bloody mess up before you go home, too!”

“Yes, Sir. Right away, Sir!”

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  1. A wonderfully light hearted account of what, at the time, could have been a mundane part of your DPG experience. One thing I’ll say for Robert Mugabe, he had admirable consistency!

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