Wednesday 29 March 2017

A Reason to Write by Matt Johnson

I’ve spoken many times on how a form of therapy that included writing helped with my treatment for PTSD. And I’ve explained that it was a comment made by my counsellor that first planted the idea in my mind that I might write a book.

What I’ve never explained is why I agreed with the suggestion to the degree that I was sufficiently motivated to go along with the suggestion.

PC Blakelock
To explain, I need to take you back to 1985. I was a PC in those days, and had just passed the promotion examination to become a sergeant. I was posted to Tottenham and Hornsey police stations for a short period to work as an ‘acting sergeant’. I met a sergeant called David Pengelly. David introduced me to some of his community beat officers, we called them ‘homebeats’ in those days, including PCs Keith Blakelock and Richard Coombes.

I left Tottenham when my course started. As I did so, I was aware that trouble was brewing in the local area. Mobile car patrols had been stopped on certain estates and foot patrolling in those area was only being done by well-known local PCs and, even then, they were always in pairs. It seemed that the area was a powder keg just waiting to explode.

On 5th October 1985, the Broadwater Farm riots started. David Pengelly was deployed with several of his homebeat officers into the fray. They were ill-prepared, inadequately equipped and completely unaware of what they were going into.

That evening, in the darkness and confusion on an estate they were unfamiliar with, they
Police during rioting on the Broadwater Estate 
were stoned, petrol bombed and, eventually their position was over-run and they were isolated. Keith Blakelock fell to the ground and was set upon by the rioters. Armed with ridiculously inadequate wooden truncheons, PC Coombes and others attempted to rescue PC Blakelock while Sergeant Pengelly fought alone with the rioters to try and buy some time for his colleagues.

There were many other police officers at Broadwater Farm that night. They were also ill prepared for what they faced. Many were injured, all were traumatised.

In the aftermath of the riot, an enquiry team was set up and all officers who had been present were told to write statements including as much information as they could about what had happened to them, what they had seen and any evidence they could include to help bring rioters to justice.

In many cases, the statements produced by the officers were woefully inadequate. Often they said no more than “I went with my serial to an estate in Tottenham. We stood behind plastic shields while hundreds of people tried to kill us with petrol bombs, knives and rocks.”

I was given the job of obtaining better statements from these officers. It wasn’t easy. Many simply didn’t want to talk about it, let alone write a statement.

I remember one particular PC, I’ll call him Andy. Andy was in his early twenties. In the months that followed the riot, Andy steadfastly refused to write a full statement. He was interviewed by senior officers and even threatened with disciplinary action but nothing could persuade him. He had started drinking, often to excess and was regularly late turning up for work. He seemed to have an ‘attitude problem’ was insubordinate to senior officers and surly. One day, he was arrested for drink-driving. He was disciplined and sacked. Nobody missed him.

I forgot about Andy until many years later. I was undergoing counselling for PTSD and I began to realise that young Andy had been displaying similar symptoms to my own. I hadn’t recognised it. Nothing was done for them by way of counselling or post-trauma care. They were simply left to fend for themselves.

I promised myself then that I would do my level best to make amends for that failure.

But I knew I had neither the power or the influence to bring about change, to try and help bring about change. It occurred to me that whereas people might not be inclined to pick up and read a book on PTSD, they might be prepared to pick up and read a thriller.

And so … I began to write.

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