Serving as a Royal Military Police NCO in the British Sector of West Berlin was still quite something, even in the early eighties. For a start, compared to other postings, we went on duty mob handed – which was a novelty. There were two NCOs to patrol the Berlin Wall, two more to patrol “The Wire” which had been replaced by a continuation of the wall that stretched all around the outer perimeter of the city. Then, there was a briefing NCO for Allied Checkpoint Bravo (the gateway to the Berlin road corridor and West Germany,) and another for Allied Checkpoint Charlie (the gateway to and from East Berlin.) One more NCO staffed Tiergarten Police Post, which controlled access to and from the Soviet War Memorial that was just inside the British Sector, beside the famous Brandenburg Gate, and manned by a ceremonial guard from the Red army, and then, there were three general police duties patrols, an RAF police patrol, a Desk NCO, an East/West briefing NCO, the Orderly Sergeant and the Platoon Commander. In short, we enjoyed a good variety of employment and we were usually also well placed to cope with even a decent sized brawl – as was often the case on a Friday night.
Since Berlin was still technically, an occupied city, we enjoyed primacy over the Berlin Police and could thus exercise the power of arrest over civilians too if necessary, but in practice I only once used my authority to bring a particularly obnoxious Berliner to heel – and then not without some trepidation (I knobbled him for making an obscene gesture at a member of the occupying powers.) However, when even the most minor traffic accident had to be visited and investigated with the attendant (pre Information Technology era) paperwork to be diligently completed, we were, needless to say, busy boys and girls.
I thus didn’t take at all kindly to being called back in off patrol one afternoon to find that my Officer Commanding wanted me to run the subs for the Berlin Golf Club (of which he was Treasurer) down to the Paymaster of the Grenadier Guards in Spandau.
I had outstanding investigations which I needed to keep on top of and a visit to the Guards barracks was always a miserable exercise in walking on eggshells. I was all for a smart turnout, efficient conduct and respectful behaviour, but the Grenadiers thrived on bull manure (Harrods bull manure of course) and it was almost impossible to visit their barracks without becoming involved in some dispute over the most inane and trivial nonsense. To Guards officers and Senior NCOs, our red hats were like rags to a bull. All the way from our Headquarters in the Olympic Stadium to Spandau Barracks, I cursed freely and steeled myself to be calm and composed in the face of whatever provocation lay ahead.
Funnily enough – there was none! I could hardly believe it, but we negotiated the gate okay, I got into the HQ building without difficulty and even into the Pay Office itself, no problem. Finding myself in front of the closed door of the Paymaster’s office, I rapped on it smartly and upon hearing the command “Enter!” I duly marched in clutching my money sack in my left hand, came to a halt in front of his desk and threw up my most enthusiastic salute before remaining at attention, eyes front, to explain the reason for my presence. I laid the sack on his desk as instructed and waited hopefully, but vainly for him to dismiss me.
As he emptied the contents of the sack onto his desk, the thought then occurred that he intended me to wait until he’d checked and tallied all the cash. It was completely understandable, of course, but as he sorted through the papers and notes, I saw the loose coins and realised that I wasn’t going to be going anywhere, anytime soon. German banks didn’t use plastic bags to separate their coins; instead they would roll stacks of coins up into different coloured sheets of paper. These had to be rolled tight and crimped at the ends, if not, the roll would come loose and the coins would spill out. Evidently, my OC was pretty crap at rolling coins. What really niggled though was the Paymaster’s evident disregard for my comfort. Knowing that he was going to be a while, he might at least have had the courtesy to have me stand at ease, but no, he was going to make me wait at attention, and I could just imagine it in the Officer’s Mess later.
“Oh yes, he was quite wobbly after the first ten minutes, eh what? Chortle, chortle.”
What a Spangle.
The more I thought about it – and it seemed that I was going to have plenty time for that – the more it rankled. Then, he opened his desk drawer and withdrew his pipe and his tobacco pouch. In true Guards fashion, there was something almost practiced and ceremonial about the slow and precise manner in which he cleaned the bowl out into the waste paper bin on his left, before refilling it and taking a casual sniff as if to savour the aroma of a particularly expensive tobacco. Glenfiddich and Grouse Feather? Or Hunting Saddle and Horse Droppings, perhaps? I didn’t know, but he seemed to approve as he tamped it down and struck his first match. He evidently needed a sticking plaster on the back of his neck to help him draw, because it never stayed in on the first attempt, so discarding the match in the bin, he tried again and was at last, successful. Ah, the wearisome business of counting and calculating cash was clearly made so much more tolerable with the benefit of a good pipe full of tobacco. I could have leapt onto his desk and booted his blinking pipe straight through his window!
Now, I don’t know. Maybe, way, way back in the mists of time, I had a surly Welsh ancestor running around the mountains practising the old magic and I had unwittingly retained some skill that only surfaced when I was emotionally focussed enough, or maybe, my Guardian Angel was an old Tom with an Old Tom’s wicked sense of humour. Whatever the case, the arrogant Paymaster was in for some payback. My malevolence towards him suddenly appeared to manifest itself when my attention was suddenly drawn to a movement on his left side. A sort of jagged, orangey yellow flicker that just reached above the desk. Oh dear, his waste paper bin was alight.
It’s extraordinarily difficult not to react instinctively. Fire in a building makes you want to run around shouting and pressing alarms, but on that occasion, the imp on my shoulder whispered “Whoa there. Don’t be so hasty, Robert. Let him find out for himself.” It didn’t take long.
His outer thigh must have been getting a bit warm because he went to rub it and when his hand passed by the flame and he suddenly realized the danger, he leapt from his seat like a scalded cat exclaiming “Jesus Christ!” Amen to that, I thought. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. Panic makes you do silly things and he was definitely flapping when without hesitation, he tried to stamp out the fire. He was wearing expensive and extremely shiny brown brogues with leather soles. Saville Row jobs, I should think. Not much flex in the soles though and a metal waste paper bin tapers towards the bottom, so just like a Chinese finger puzzle, it trapped his foot nicely. The spectacle of him dancing around behind his desk with his foot stuck in the bin was pure Monty Python. Previously, my face had remained a mask of concerned sympathy, but the jaw clenching, eye popping effort of remaining respectfully silent under those new circumstances was pure torture. Fortunately, he couldn’t have had much in his bin because the fire died out fairly rapidly, allowing him to extricate his foot and so, with a quiff of his hair having strayed out of place across his forehead, and with one very dull brogue and the other still very shiny, he struggled to re-muster his dignity and gruffly ordered me to “Dismiss!”
I dared not try to speak, but quickly threw one up, turned right and got through his door, closing it behind me as swiftly as I could. I tried to evacuate the Pay Office first, but I was hopelessly overwhelmed by a great gust of laughter which bent me double, and leaving a startled office staff behind me, I hightailed it from the building. Have you ever tried communicating to anyone, the urgent need to p*** off quickly when you’re completely unintelligible and convulsed with mirth? It’s difficult, I can assure you, but my mucker got the gist and with a bemused grin on his mush, he drove us quickly from the barracks.
I think that I learned an important lesson that day, which was, that if you start getting above yourself, then sooner or later, life will find a way of cutting you down to size. Thereafter, whenever I came up against a “plastic snob” I only had to think to myself “You just wait, mate. One day, you’ll put your foot in it good and proper and then we’ll see who has the last laugh!”