Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing PCSO Anthony Skidmore for the Strandlines Oral History project. Anthony is a native East Londoner (and proud: it’s ‘the best city in the world’ he says) who has been working as a PCSO (police community support officer) for the last ten years, covering the central Westminster area, including the Strand, for much of that time. He has worked on a ‘business team’, focusing on the needs of crime prevention and local business, and a latterly a ‘safer neighbourhoods team’, where a large part of his role is being a first contact for the public in the area—locals, commuting workers, and visitors or tourists, of whom Anthony is particularly fond. ‘You’ve got a lot of people coming and going’, Anthony says. ‘The tourists… love the British police, I think because we are so approachable.’ He has fielded many requests for photos with a British policeman, and many more requests for a recommendation for fish and chips. (Anthony notes that there is no traditional chippy in the area and thinks one would clean up—fast food entrepreneurs take note!)
A typical day sees Anthony on the street for eight and a half hours of a ten hour shift. The map here shows some of the areas on his beat, as he described it to me, although only covers some of the variations on this route he might take. Anthony averages ten to twelve miles a day, more than twice the distance shown here. He doesn’t think it helps his fitness, unfortunately: ‘You’re walking at a slow place, you can’t go bobbing around, you don’t see nothing!’ ‘When I first did the job,’ he adds, ‘I couldn’t get out of bed, my legs were aching so much.’ Now he is used to the perambulatory walking, and finds it hard to sit or stand still for long. Working in the spring is easier than in the winter: ‘if you get a cold, you notice it much more… It’s a hard slog sometimes’.
To ‘see’ is crucial. Anthony considers curiosity to be a key skill in his job working with the public (‘if someone asks me something, I try and find out.’), and working the area has certainly opened his eyes to a great deal, good and bad. He describes it in terms of a scene from the film The Matrix, where the main character is forced to choose between two pills, one of which will give him comforting illusion and the other an uncomfortable reality. (Listen to an extract from my interview with Anthony describing this below.) Many people who only work in the area, he feels, keep ‘the blinkers on’ rather than opening their eyes and ears. Sometimes this is at their own cost, not noticing threats to their own safety, or more often the security of their possessions. Sometimes it is at the cost of others, such as the homeless population of the area, who are used to being walked past with no apparent acknowledgement or recognition. Anthony sees more, however, although at times he almost wishes he did not. ‘I don’t like the aggression on some people’, he says, when they show ‘no concern, or no compassion’ for those around them. ‘Too wrapped up… I see that in abundance round here’; but then again, ‘you go anywhere, it’s the same’. ‘There’s plenty I’ve had to deal with which I didn’t think I’d have to deal with’, he adds. He found a dead body in a doorway in his first week, and has also prevented an attempted suicide.
But because he is always alert (‘my job is to be nosy’), Anthony often notices features of the area, old and new, which those people with their eyes fixed firmly downwards overlook, or fail to see. He mentions, among other things, the remains of the York House water gate in Embankment gardens, the Roman baths beneath King’s College and other subterranean curiosities, the area’s many tucked-away churches, and architectural features such as the masonry of the Royal Courts, or a fine art deco clock face on a shop front in the strand. Once Anthony approached a man loitering suspiciously by this clock in the middle of the night – listen to the audio excerpt below to find out why! Other late night encounters have included Rolf Harris painting a night scene at 2a.m. (‘you could smell the paint’, Anthony says; Rolf gave him an invitation to his next show) as well as a host of celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Samuel L. Jackson keeping the more regular hours of West End film premieres. On occasion he has been known to wind up unsuspecting tourists with a tall tale, such as telling them that the monument which gives Charing Cross its name is the spire of a submerged church.
Has he seen many changes in the area over the decade, I ask? Not much, he replies, although ‘nearly every week a shop changes’, and the recession has had its effects even here, at the centre of national political and economic power. The homeless and transient are a persistent presence in the area. Although there is variation across seasons, Anthony recognises the same faces leaving and then returning to life on the streets ‘all the time’. He knows many personally, and knows how difficult it can be for people to get off the streets. Many have problems with alcohol, and some part of Anthony’s day always seems to be spent ‘de-canning’ and dealing with the issues this can cause for local residents, businesses, and sometimes visitors. But others just sleep on the street at night while working or looking for work in the day. ‘I’m in my 50s now: I don’t judge people by where they are’, Anthony says, and agrees that he is sympathetic because of his own life experience. He became a PCSO when work for him as a skilled metal worker left London with the decline of the capital’s traditional industries and manufacture. He faced the prospect of becoming ‘more of an operator than a skilled man’, so chose to become skilled in people instead. In this respect he has to be ‘a social worker one day, a father another day, then you’re back to being a police officer, disciplining people—it’s hard.’ But ‘it’s a good job.’
The centre of London will always be ‘a magnet for things to happen’, Anthony thinks, both good and bad: for tourists, commuters, the homeless, or theatre-goers, revellers and drinkers. Day and night in the West End present ‘a different class of people’, he says, ‘the good side and the bad side’; ‘at night, a lot of the people you can’t reason with… they just talk themselves into trouble’. There are also the large public events which often proceed along the Strand. In recent times there have been many protestors, from Pride marches, skaters, and cycle demonstrations, to students and trade unionists—‘99 percent friendly, no problems…people are here for a reason’.
The area around the Strand and West End is an area which feels slightly apart from normal life, he thinks—‘you feel like you’re on holiday’—but ‘there is community’ here, despite the relatively few people living locally. Often it is small businessmen and women like the stallholders who ‘are the ones who’ve been here, year after year after year’, and with a lifelong lease on pitches, these stalls can change much less than the shops. Still, Antony adds, ‘you just get to know someone… and they’ve gone’. But he is ‘never isolated’, and indeed finds it hard to keep track of all the people who know him. ‘There’s people who don’t want to know you, and then when something goes wrong, they want to know you… but most people are pleased to see you’. I certainly found meeting Anthony a fascinating experience and I hope that by recording his experience for Strandlines, others in the future will be able to benefit in a similar way.