Editor-at-Large: Tomlinson was no saint, but he deserved better

Janet Street-Porter
Sunday 12 April 2009 00:00 BST

The circumstances surrounding the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests on 1 April are only gradually becoming clearer. What has emerged, however, is that Mr Tomlinson was a troubled man with quite a few problems. I am not trying to diminish his death, and the sad loss felt by his family and friends, but before we put the police in the dock, it might be worth considering what Mr Tomlinson was doing that night, and what state of mind he might have been in.

At first, the police put out a statement which subsequently turned out to be misleading. It said that officers sent two medics to help a man who had stopped breathing, and on arrival at hospital he was pronounced dead. We now know, as more people come forward with pictures of that evening, that events were a great deal more complicated, and that Mr Tomlinson had been involved with the police on several occasions before he collapsed.

Mr Tomlinson was an alcoholic who lived in a bail hostel around the corner from me in the City of London. He'd tried and failed to stay away from booze, but I make no judgement about that. How many of us are just an inch from going down that path, where alcohol takes over your life to the point where your family don't want you around? It's all too common. There are dozens of people like Ian Tomlinson in the City every day, hanging around in churchyards, sitting on park benches, selling The Big Issue. They turn up at the AA meetings held in the City every night of the week, where rich and poor talk freely about their struggle to stay sober. By the way, there are plenty of salaried alcoholics holding down good jobs in the City, disguising their addiction.

Mr Tomlinson did not have that opportunity, having started out as a scaffolder and shifting from job to job, to the point where he ended up in a hostel for the homeless in Smithfield. Mr Tomlinson probably sold me a newspaper when he had a pitch outside Blackfriars station for a while and I worked in Fleet Street.

One columnist has said that the "steady drip" of information about his background is designed to denigrate an ordinary man. I disagree. Knowing that he was an alcoholic is critical to understanding his sense of disorientation and his attitude towards the police, which might on first viewing of the video footage, seem a bit stroppy.

Mr Tomlinson was wearing a Millwall shirt, smoking a cigarette, and he'd had a few drinks. He didn't look anything like the people the police had corralled into a confined space around the Bank of England that night. They were mostly younger, middle class, and worlds apart from a working-class bloke whose face seemed older than his years after a life on the street. One perfunctory glance ought to have shown officers that he was completely harmless. Witnesses say Mr Tomlinson appeared to be drunk, he wasn't coherent and couldn't move very well. Over an hour later, footage shows a police officer wearing a balaclava aiming at his legs with a baton, and he falls to the ground.

It had been a long and trying day for the police. Mr Tomlinson wound them up when he didn't get out of the way. But he wasn't a 20-something anarchist with a placard. The fact he didn't swiftly jump to attention when ordered to do so should have been just a mild irritant, not something requiring physical manhandling. The police have been trained to deal with drunks, just as they are trained to deal with demonstrators. This man was not a threat to public order. His life story demonstrates that the only person he ever harmed was himself. I can understand how annoying he might have been, but I can't understand why anyone would want to hit him, especially not an officer who is paid to protect ordinary citizens.

Ian Tomlinson deserved some respect and understanding, and he clearly didn't get any that night.

Golden oldie: Only Caine could make a must-see movie out of dementia

Look out for Michael Caine's next film Is Anybody There?, opening in a couple of weeks' time – he gives a remarkable performance as a retired magician who arrives at a care home and gradually succumbs to dementia. Sounds depressing, but Caine is on top form, supported by excellent performances from fellow veterans Sylvia Syms, Elizabeth Spriggs and Leslie Phillips playing the other residents.

Care homes rarely receive good press, and generally only make news when there's been a death or a fire. To make them the subject for a feature film was a bold choice for writer Peter Harness and director John Crowley. Michael Caine's character befriends Edward, the 10-year-old son of the owners, who is thoroughly fed up at having his home taken over by the deranged and incontinent.

It could be mawkish, but isn't, and Caine's portrayal of a difficult old man is thoroughly unsentimental.

I first met Michael with the tailor Doug Hayward in the 1970s, and at 76, he's still on top form. He always makes me laugh, and certainly doesn't suffer fools.

Have a cabbage. It's five quid

The Home Secretary was embarrassed by revelations that her husband watched adult movies while she toiled in London, but can I suggest something less controversial to help him through those lonely nights? Middle-class households don't bother with X–rated channels, they thumb through the Lakeland catalogue, spending hours drooling over pages of gadgets you never knew you needed, from egg-poaching pouches to deep root trainers for runner beans.

This weekend Lakeland will be packed with shoppers – growing your own fruit and veg has become the fashionable way to pretend to friends you are being sensible in the recession, but guaranteed success requires tools, composts, cloches and gadgets. The notion that this constitutes thrifty living is misplaced. The cost of producing your own beans and potatoes renders them as expensive as those £195 baskets of cherries which Harrods are flogging. My spring cabbages attract every slug in the neighbourhood, and I've already spent £4 on slug pellets. Lakeland offer something called a Plant Guard Electric Slug Fence, a snip at just £29.94, so each cabbage will have cost me approximately £5 before it's even got six leaves. Truly, the caviar of brassicas.

The boat that rocked my career

Perfect bank holiday fare, The Boat That Rocked, Richard Curtis's affectionate portrayal of the golden era of pirate radio has received mixed reviews from critics, but the public likes it. The music is great, and there's a splendid cast, but is it accurate? In 1978, I presented a telly series for young people and we made a documentary about illegal radio stations. Radio Caroline had been closed down once, but was broadcasting from outside British waters in the North Sea. We chartered a trawler out of Ramsgate and set off to find Caroline at 4am in relatively calm seas. The skipper cooked us a massive Full English, but when the weather broke, everyone was sick. All my pieces to camera about the allocation of European broadcasting wavelengths were written on a roll of paper that flew away. I puked over the side, but it blew back, and I had to be hosed down. When I arrived at the pirate boat, British security services hovered overhead in a helicopter and told us we would be breaking the law if I went aboard.

I interviewed a couple of unshaven DJs through a loud hailer, as both boats rose and fell about 20 feet. Not the highlight of my telly career, but I can still recite the terms of the 1948 Strasbourg Agreement, so unnerving was the whole experience. It's all on YouTube.

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