in here I've always wanted to race through the streets with a siren blaring
"The thing is," says PC Ian Dunsmore, "you never know what you're going to find. It could be just a couple of drunks having an argument, or the whole place could be covered in blood."

The Metropolitan Police receive reports of 11,000 to 12,000 "incidents" a day. Most are tawdry nothings - but they have to be treated seriously, because some are not. At parade at Whitechapel Police Station on Tuesday last, the main events of the past 24 hours included a suspected murder, a homecoming waiter who'd been robbed with the aid of a hammer, a girl's nose broken by a schoolmate, and a schoolboy GBH- ed in Neath Street. Also, the owner of the chicken slaughterhouse in Leyden Street had found his car scratched with the letters ALF and the phrase grerty murder. If anyone knows what "grerty" means, I'd be grateful to know.

Going round in a cop car for a day in the company of PC Dunsmore and Inspector Mick Roulston was an eye-opener. I've always wanted to race through the streets with a siren blaring, so that experience would have been quite exciting enough. But it was an uncomfortable lesson in social realities for an old lefty like myself. The middle-class colonists of the East End talk a lot about the advantages of the area and how it's cleaning itself up. Projection, kids. Pure fantasy.

There are levels of grime and degradation in London that would make the middle-class mind boggle. There are Jakartan shanties more hygienic and more lovingly decorated. And I'm not talking the sort of poverty-is-ghastly degradation over which one wrings one's hands: Hogarth is alive and well and hiding behind the reinforced doors of Globe Town. London Labour and the London Poor gives you some idea of it.

So we were just exiting the station yard when someone made a 999 call about a fight. On went the blue light, and we screamed from start to stop as some pedestrians caught Roulston's eye and crossed the road anyway. By the time we arrived, it was all over bar the drinking. In the hallway of this flat was an old man with no trousers and yellow eyes. Two people sat in the back room, ignoring our presence with shaky dignity as they supped something cloudy from pint glasses. A middle-aged woman with matted hair and indeterminate clothing grinned blearily at us from the kitchen. "It's OK," said the old man. "He's gone." When I took a step, the carpet stuck to the soles of my shoes. A sweet black dog wagged its tail and came up for a pat. It obviously never went out for a walk; it had relieved itself in piles about the place. No one seemed to mind. My two companions let no flicker of disdain cross their faces. They chatted matily with these unwashed specimens, then left with friendly goodbyes.

The police, of course, had had a pretty good idea of what to expect. The Krays liked to claim that they knew their manor, but the constabulary's knowledge of local history and local felons would have put the old racketeers to shame. As we cruised the grimy backstreets, a report came over the radio that someone had robbed an off-licence with what "looked like a kebab knife, between ten and 12 inches long". A description came through: age, skin and hair colour, clothing. "That," said Roulston, "sounds like that druggie twat. What's his name? Oh, yes, ______"

Later, there was a neighbour dispute which had been going on for some time and had ended in fisticuffs. The source of the argument was that upstairs neighbour had set fire to downstairs neighbour's kitchen, presumably by having a barbecue on the floor. Downstairs neighbour had ended up with a cut hand and was accusing upstairs neighbour of stabbing him. The place was filled with waving arms and Bengali curses and four coppers telling everyone calmly to talk slowly and in English. It's amazing how much room a policeman can take up; it must be something in the training. Like work, they expand to fill the space available. It quickly transpired that everyone, but everyone, was lying. The hand, once washed, revealed a small scratch of the sort you get from falling over. When this was pointed out, everyone started swearing about the police instead.

Dinner was a takeaway curry bought at 5.30 and eaten at 7.30 because a commuter crashed on the Commercial Road. He had rammed a traffic island head-on, totalling the car, a bollard and two yards of railings. It was pouring with rain, which at least cuts down on robberies: muggers don't like getting wet. As the driver sat in the back of the car and spun a yarn about swerving to avoid some boy racers, the saga of the kebab knife was playing on the radio. Half the force was on his heels, closing in on him and his stabber in a network of Huguenot back alleys. They finally grabbed him at 7 o'clock as we were discussing AA Homestart and the auction value of Ford Scorpios in a fug of cooling chicken tikka.

If this were my job I'd espouse misanthropy within days and move to a bothy in the Outer Hebrides. PC Dunsmore was a bit apologetic that I'd been out on a quiet night, and hadn't even been in on the arrest of the knifeman, but I reckon it was enough ghastliness to be going on with. Everyone I spoke to had tales of black eyes and stabbings and bottles over heads, but they were told with the jocularity of a remembered rugby match. How can they do this, day after day, year after year? "Well," Inspector Roulston shrugs, "it's better than riding the sardine special to an office, isn't it?"