Each Wednesday the campus Commandant – a man given to practising his tennis skills in full view of the classroom block on sunny afternoons – routinely took a moment out of his hectic schedule to ‘inspect’ the intakes. He was, I’m sorry to say, a rather pompous figure, and seemed to have been put out to grass for the remainder of his career. He spoke infrequently to mere mortals mostly because he had people of lesser ranks to do that kind of dirty work for him. As a result, any real contact with the nasty, smelly recruits, when it happened, was rather awkward. In his defence, we were probably smelly quite often due to the preponderance of physical training in our schedule and the lack of available showers.
One of the great characters amongst our number, and a man who became a good friend to both Bruce and I, was an intriguingly short and frighteningly hairy Scot who rejoiced in the highly improbable name of Bobby Watt. Varied height restrictions were still a reality among different forces in the mid-eighties, but the national minimum was five feet eight inches. Bobby had clearly bribed the person holding the measuring stick on the day in question. His vertical challenges only ever showed themselves in a parade environment when he was among – and a little below – his peers. In every other respect, Bobby’s charisma more than made up for his inability to grow any nearer to the sun.
He was in his late twenties, appeared to be in his early forties, and sported an impressive full beard and moustache of the kind that defied any human-devised cutting instruments. I envied him that beard. Bright, intelligent and mischievous eyes peeped out between his hairline and his exuberant moustache, his gleaming white teeth emerging every time he laughed or smiled, which was often. His rich Scottish brogue was a source of some amusement and occasional confusion to us ignorant Sassenachs, but despite the persistent fun-poking (albeit comradely), he proved to be one of the most delightfully level-headed and easy-going people that I had ever met.
Bobby was a proud native of the picturesque city of Stirling – apparently correctly pronounced ‘St’rrl’n’. If you almost swallow your tongue, you’ve just about got it. As the only Scot/Barbarian (it was surprisingly easy to picture him leaping over Hadrian’s wall painted blue, clad in animal skins and with a dagger in his teeth) in our midst, he added to the exotic nature of his presence by virtue of being the sole member on the campus of the Surrey Constabulary. I never got to the bottom of how he came to apply for a job so far away from his roots.
Imagine, then, the scene: it’s a cool Wednesday morning in our fifth week, and we’re stood to attention in our class formation while the commandant makes his weekly (or do I mean weakly?) inspection, with the course inspector and ‘Orrible’ following, as always. Their presence is necessary just in case anything untoward happens, such as a recruit beginning to ask awkward questions, for example, “Who are you?”. The great man approaches the front rank and slowly examines uniforms, taking great care not to linger too long (just long enough, of course) upon my female colleagues’ not inconsiderable bosoms, to which are – either the authorities had cunningly planned it, or more likely, hadn’t thought it through at all – rather tactlessly pinned their names. Along the line he ambles, studiously pretending to have the merest glimmer of interest in the proceedings. He is not fooling anyone.
He reaches Bobby, whose force helmet and crest, while a little lower to the ground than those surrounding him, is a different colour – dark blue/purple rather than black. To add to the confusion, it is also smaller and a slightly different shape from the rest. This – which he has never previously noticed despite five previous inspections – is clearly something worth pausing to talk about!
What follows I couldn’t make up, and neither can I ever forget;
Great Man (with friendly, posh gusto): “Good morning, constable!”
Bobby Watt: (with matching, if less posh, gusto) “Gud morrrrrrrnin’ sah!”
There is a pause while the Great Man, surprised by this unexpected turn of events, silently translates for himself…
GM: “…And…ah…which constabulary are you from?”
BW (with pride) “Surrrrrey, sah!”
GM (another, slightly longer and more puzzled pause) “I said which constabulary are you from?”
There is a spluttering cough from someone. People are already clenching things; we’ve been here before, but not with such an important figure.
BW: “Surrrrey, sah!” Bobby knew exactly what was happening. Oh yes, he knew! He was used to not being understood.
The Great Man slowly turns towards ‘Orrible’ Harrison, somewhat perplexed.
“Sergeant, is there something wrong with this man?”
‘Orrible, a man who, despite his terrifying reputation and appearance, is in possession of a fully functioning sense of humour, stands a short distance away and wrestles with his face. “Not that I’m aware of, SAH!”
Another cough, followed by two more from other members of the class. Sergeant Rumple, standing at attention at the front of the class next to the immobile Sgt Fosbury, is beginning to shake.
GM (bending a little and speaking slowly, as if to a lost child): “Listen to me carefully; which-po-leece-force-do-you-come-from?”
I have tears pouring down my face. Pain, lots of pain in my head. Ian Armstrong, our friendly neighbourhood twitcher, is standing absolutely still for the first time ever. Rumple is now leaning forwards and slowly folding at the waist.
Bobby (unable to keep a giggle out of his voice): “Surrrrey…SAH!”
GM (by now thoroughly irritated, having exhausted his questioning technique): “Oh for Christ’s sake! Your name, constable?”
Everyone knows what’s coming now; Sgt Rumple is beginning to bend at the knees, there are open sounds of giggling which ‘Orrible cannot deal with because he is himself purple-faced and biting his lower lip. I have wet myself just a tiny little bit.
BW: “Watt, sah!”
There is a snotty, spluttering noise to my left. The Great Man looks up to see our contorted faces. We seem to be living out a Python sketch.
GM (only just suppressing his rage): “I SAID…” He paused and leaned towards Bobby “…are you mocking me, constable?” All around me there are sounds of people trying to control themselves, with varying degrees of success. Sphincters are suffering, of this there can be no doubt.
“No’ me sirrr, no sirrr. Neverrrrr!”
‘Orrible arrives at the great man’s side with a lot of rather unnecessary stamping and saluting, temporarily unable to speak and stalling for time. “Sergeant! I want that…that man’s name after the parade!” This is despite the fact that Bobby, like the rest of us, is wearing a name tag.
The brave, purple sergeant begins to form the first letter of Bobby’s surname; “W…” and then, thank God thinks better of it. In a strangled squawk, he instead manages: “Right you are, sah!”
At this point, the intake inspector – who was a decent fellow with a streak of mercy running through him – thankfully intervened, and the Great Man was quietly persuaded to move quickly along to the next group. He was, to everyone’s relief, dissuaded from trying to inspect the rest of the red-faced and teary-eyed rabble that `Z` class had suddenly become. Many of us, instead of standing very straight, had by that time assumed the shape of question marks, temporarily unable to keep our thumbs anywhere near the seams of our trousiz. It took most of us a couple of hours to fully recover from the pressure we had built up in our heads during that conversation, and several days to stop talking about it.
Despite the veiled threat of retribution, Bobby never heard anything else about the incident, the most likely reason being that nobody in authority wanted to try to have a conversation with him.