It was hardly an uplifting sight that met me when I left home on Easter Saturday afternoon. A very tall man with dreadlocks dismounted from a yellow bike and proceeded to urinate in the doorway of the boarded-up pub opposite. I told him I thought it was disgusting. He told me it was none of my business. I said it was, because I lived there. He pedalled off, with two fingers up.
In the next 100 yards, I encountered someone begging from smokers outside one of the open pubs, and two groups of drinkers. At which point, it's worth pointing out, first, that street drinking is banned by a local by-law, and, second, that this is not my usual experience of walking around this backwater of Westminster on a weekend afternoon. So I called the antisocial behaviour hotline – no, I didn't know it existed either until I called the non-urgent crime number and was redirected.
By then, though, I'd got into a sort of conversation with the less aggressive quartet of drinkers, or rather they'd got into a sort of conversation with me. Yes, they said, they knew they shouldn't be out drinking. But one of their number was being bullied at his hostel and they'd come down from Notting Hill to help him out. One insisted – accurately, I think – that he had no drink on him, though he accepted the others did.
They then claimed, in mitigation, that they'd fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, putting their lives on the line, when – as they rightly presumed – I'd done nothing of the kind. There was no way to verify what they said, and an out-and-out cynic might say they'd observed that veterans' status was a sure way to drum up sympathy – and cash.
But let's give them the benefit of the doubt. In his Budget, George Osborne looked forward – without using the actual words – to the "peace dividend" we would enjoy, once operations in Afghanistan were at an end. It would go, he said, towards, among other things, better housing for the military. I fear it may not be so simple. The costs of mental illness, addiction and homelessness among those returning from our wars are only going to mount – even if my little bit of Westminster moves them on.
Remembering dear old Dixon
Pruning shelves recently, I came across my old Ladybird books, including one called The Policeman in a series "People at Work", dated 1962.
In some ways it's surprising how little the basics have changed: the whistle, the truncheon, the handcuffs and the notebook remain essential kit. But still this little volume betrays its age. And it's not just the muted illustrations, with their all-white families, antique-looking blue police telephone boxes, and the kindly-but-stern expressions of the officers that really date it, nor yet the bulky cars. It was also quite enlightened about women, who – the authors (Vera Southgate and J Havenhand) wrote – "can do the same jobs as men".
For me, though, this is how The Policeman positively shouts its age. "A lot of policemen's time is taken up with controlling traffic. They try to prevent traffic jams by seeing that cars are not parked too long on busy streets. Policemen stand at busy crossroads and direct traffic. If they did not do this, traffic would often be brought to a standstill at the busiest times of day." How true. That's exactly what happens now the police have abandoned point duty.