Karen Lewis, 23, is taking part in a two-day inter-personal skills course with 12 other London traffic wardens. The service is undergoing a velvet revolution. Under a programme organised by the Traffic Warden Training Centre of the Metropolitan Police, wardens are being taught for the first time how to defuse confrontations and manage their own stress through role-play situations and workshops on the inner voice.
'My beat is Hammersmith and it's full of slag,' Karen says wearily. 'Someone tried to stab me with a needle the other day. I've been pushed and spat at, one bloke chased me in his car and tried to run me over. I come home at the end of the day and take it out on someone else.'
Every warden has a similar tale. Eggs and tomatoes thrown from passing cars, feet run over, a block of concrete dropped from a building site . . . the comedy starts to wear thin. 'A girl on my unit had a nervous breakdown,' says Joanne. 'Lots of people leave because they can't hack it, they can't take the abuse.'
Of London's 1,650 wardens, 190 were assaulted on duty last year, a figure that does not account for the numerous pushes and shoves which go unreported. Several wardens take medical retirement each year because of injuries sustained on duty or trauma following assault.
In September, Britain's traffic warden's powers are set to increase, with legislative changes that will allow them to handle offences that up to now have been the responsibility of the police. They will be able to order the clamping and removal of vehicles and deal with cars parked on pedestrian crossings, an endorsable offence leading to three penalty points on the driver's licence.
Some wardens welcome the new powers; it will make them more effective and release valuable police time. Others are filled with foreboding. 'I can see a few black eyes coming my way,' says one. By March, every warden in the capital will have attended an inter-personal skills course in psychological preparation; the problem of warden abuse is apparently greatest in London.
Julie Devitt, the group's trainer, has more than 10 years' experience as a warden. Like everyone else in the group, aged from 20 to 60, she knows that the most wearing aspect of the job is the relentless abuse and ridicule, often dealt out by passers-by.
'There's a very posh man on my rounds,' says Jacqui, who works in Knightsbridge. 'Every time he sees me he says 'Why don't you get a proper job, or better still, why don't you go and have babies?' The funny thing about him is, he doesn't even have a car.'
Julie gets the group - every member of which admits to having wanted to take a ticket back - to identify aggressive, passive and assertive behaviour types. Not just how they behave, but why. 'How do aggressive people feel about themselves?' she asks. Pause. Not very good, suggests Charlie, a warden at Heathrow. Pretty awful - lonely, bitter, insecure, says Julie.
Even sceptical members of the group start listening. Julie has a point. Maybe a lot of the abuse they receive is because Joe Public is consumed by deep self-loathing.
Which brings us on to assertive behaviour. 'It's all about feeling good about yourself,' says Julie, handing out a list of 'every person's bill of rights', including the right to say 'no' without feeling guilty. 'A lot of people have a problem with that one.'
Julie whisks out a wall chart inscribed with the words 'I am a worm'. There's an uncomfortable silence. 'You set off for work and a passer-by insults you. It can ruin your day. Listen to the inner voice,' she urges the group. 'The tape's running constantly, like a Walkman stereo. If you think 'I am a worm', you'll start behaving like one, and people will start treating you like one. It's a circular thing.'
Simon wants to make a point. 'When you're at school, how many people say they want to be a traffic warden? It's not something you set out to do. It's a job you fall into. I used to tell people what I do and got all the crap. I don't tell them any more. My outside life's separate.'
'Hang on,' says Julie. 'You're doing a worthwhile job. People benefit from it. Without us the city would grind to a halt. I don't feel sad, I don't feel hurt, I don't feel that I want to keep it a secret.'
Julie has a battery of practical techniques for disarming difficult members of the public. 'Capture them with the tone of your voice; they may not like what you're saying, but you have calmed them down. Listening is important; watch for posture and maintain eye contact. How would you feel if someone stood there with their arms folded? Nobody deserves to be attacked, but we set ourselves up a lot. We need to acknowledge that and examine ourselves.'
If a confrontation looks likely, Julie recommends the 'fogging technique'. 'Say something like, 'Yes Sir/Madam, you may have a point, you may be right. I'll make a note of that'. It worked beautifully for me.' And when all else fails there is always the 'broken record technique'. 'Just keep repeating yourself again and again in a calm tone of voice. Don't give way,' says Julie.
The group is divided up and sent into different rooms for role-plays of typical confrontations. After a few minutes, a terrible howl rents the air, sending Julie running in alarm to the next room.
'I was just getting into it,' says Karen, who was playing a ranting shopper being treated to a spot of fogging and broken record by Joanne. 'She was so calm, she was irritating me. I wanted to get a reaction.'
More than half the class felt the course had been useful, and probably others will agree later. 'I get people ringing up a few weeks afterwards to say thanks, because it's not until they've gone away and it's sunk in that they realise it's worked for them,' says Julie.
For any warden still feeling like an urban pariah at the end of the two days, the final hand-out is a photocopy of the poem 'Desiderata' ('Go placidly amid the noise and haste . . .'), with the following reminder; 'You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars . . . in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.'Reuse content