Saturday, 10 January 2009

Very Special Branch

I was speaking with an acquaintance on Wednesday as he thanked me for sending a congrats note about his MBE in the New Year’s Honours, something which I’ll waffle about in my next entry probably (eg what it was like going to the Palace for his induction when my ex- got an MBE himself), and said acquaintance, who lives at a respectable central London address, complained about the residence of Tony Blair down the street—his Connaught Square home, I presume. Not that Tone left his bins out on the wrong days or had loud all-night raves that kept the neighbours up, but that he was never there, only about one month for every six or something, and yet there were four—or, to quote him, “not one, not two, not three, but four!—two out front and two ‘round the back” special police officers guarding the house 24 hours a day, even whilst it lay empty all that time. “Just think of the cost to the taxpayer!” he groaned. “He’s never even there!”

I pointed it out that it wouldn’t really do to let terrorists pop in and leave devices to welcome Tony & Cherie home when they returned from their travels, even though he was no longer in office, and I supposed that it took four officers to cover all the entrances. It did seem a lot for us to fund, but I’d rather pay for that than the tens of thousands of our tax dollars that go toward protecting, say, Jamie Bulger’s killers. But let’s not yank the mood downward…..

My friend also sympathised with these policemen keeping watch at Tony’s, who had to stand outside for hours and hours during these recent extremely cold nights, when it had reached -10 degrees and even snowed. (I like how the English always use centigrade to emphasise the tremendous cold, as negative figures sound so much more impressive than just ‘20’, but they resort to Fahrenheit during summer heat waves so they can exclaim that the heat hit 95 degrees!)

I told my friend that, if he really cared, he would pop out and offer them a cup of tea. I recounted a tale of when I first moved to Kennington in 1990 as a newlywed. Our street, part of the Duchy of Cornwall then, which technically meant that Prince Charles was our landlord, was full of retired palace staff and the occasional MP, as it was convenient for the Houses of Parliament. George Younger, who until the previous year had been the Secretary of State for Defence, lived across the street, which afforded us glimpses of a former cabinet minister often in unusual attire. It also meant that, for some years, a Special Branch officer had been posted outside his door night and day, and their trademark red cars with giant numbers on the roof, I guess to help police helicopters identify them, were frequently parked outside.

One morning shortly after we moved in, my husband and I were awoken by the sound of police radio noise—serious broadcast voices and reports punctuated by that sort of ‘over and out’ abrupt static hiss one gets through these fancy walky-talkies. We peered outside the bedroom window onto the garden of our downstairs neighbour, dear elderly Nell, to find it crawling with police wearing these radios and guns, which was a terribly unusual site then in England. They were all bent over and digging, their guns in waist holsters seeming to glare up at us, and we both froze. We concluded that they must be digging Nell’s garden up because they’d found a body.

Frightened, we lay still and listened, trying to make out their words in between the radio noise. Then one policeman’s voice came booming over the background din.

“Where do you want these petunias, Nell?”

That wasn’t quite what we had expected to hear. We pulled back the curtains a bit more and had another good look at the body-dig site we had seen moments before. We realised that most of the police officers, whilst definitely wearing guns and other armoury, were not digging in a forensic search but rather popping in plants from a garden centre, then packing compost around them. We carried on watching this odd but fascinating sight with dropped jaws.

Later, after they had gone and Nell was grumbling about the hateful sunflower they had put in (which oddly suggested that the policemen weren’t just digging holes to plant things Nell had bought, but that they were selecting and shopping for the plants themselves), she explained that she used to take cups of tea to the Special Branch officers who had been constantly outside, assigned to protect George Younger. They had been so very appreciative of the gesture that they now would pop in and do the odd job for Nell before moving onto their next Government assignment.

So, I told my newly MBE’d friend that really, rather than groaning about the cost of Tony’s poor protection officers or merely sympathising with them, stuck out in the freezing cold, he should take them a nice warm cuppa. It could help with the gardening in future.

Incidentally, I see that our kind neighbour George a few years later became George Kenneth Hotson Younger, 4th Viscount Younger of Leckie KT KCVO TD PC, and sadly died from cancer in 2003. I shall always have fond memories of him nodding hello as he passed by with the Sunday paper tucked under his arm on his way back from the newsagents, wearing very casual shorts and flip flops--delightfully unusual attire for an MP, bless him. It all still makes me smile to think.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Recycle Your Cards for the Woodland Trust

I have loads to mention but have had no time recently, so for now I will just refer to a good cause.....

Please do not just throw out your Christmas cards, or even put them in your Council's wastepaper recycling scheme. The Woodland Trust always runs a special Christmas card recycling scheme this time of year, and your cards will end up doing much more good if you recycle them that way.

Just take them with you to WH Smith, Marks & Spencer's, Tesco or TK Maxx, where they all have a special cardboard bin for them. The bins will remain there until 31 January. Your cards will act like donations to help the Trust create 'the largest new native forest in England', Heartwood Forest, or enable the Trust, who will recycle your cards, to plant thousands of trees in four other UK sites, such as Low Burnhall and Cefn Ila.

It's a wonderful scheme, and such an easy gesture to accomplish so much. Go to to read more (or to watch a message in support of the campaign from Clive Anderson wearing a Santa hat).

Alternatively, if there are a few cards that you find really pretty and can't bear to part with yet, but might manage it in another year, you could recycle in the style of my Grandmother, who has always saved the fronts of cards and used them as gift cards the following year, taping the main part of the card to the top of a gift and scribbling on it the gift recipient's name and her signature. Thrifty, but it doesn't plant trees.