As the spring of 1981 arrived, the end of my general surgery ordeal came into sight. My spirits lifted, because the second three months of my surgical house job was to be in orthopaedics, which I expected to be dull but civilised. Easter fell at the beginning of April, and it included Steve Hammond’s birthday. On Saturday 11th April 1981, four of us boarded the fast train to Victoria from Bromley South station. We were meeting a third couple, friends of Steve’s, in a Thai restaurant near Marble Arch. It was a warm spring afternoon, and we noisily bantered in anticipation of a good night out.
The journey usually took about 20 minutes, but the train came to a halt on the raised section of track between Herne Hill and Brixton. Staring out of the window, I spotted a column of smoke rising a little way ahead. The train moved forwards a few yards at a time, and we started to notice more and more columns of smoke. It was obvious that something was happening. As the train came into Brixton, it stopped just outside of the station. Suddenly, we had a grandstand view of the huge civil disturbance that is known as the Brixton Riot or the Brixton Uprising, depending on your point of view. It was an astonishing sight. On the street below, at the junction of Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane, there were several hundred riot police with shields and batons drawn, confronted by an even larger number of youths throwing bricks and bits of scaffolding. Cars were ablaze, there was debris everywhere and missiles were flying. Scenes like this were familiar in TV reports from Northern Ireland, but in London, my home town, the scale of the conflict was unprecedented. None of us had ever seen anything like it, and it was taking place right in front of us, at a location that we knew well.
Although the conflict was led by a large number of young Black men, there were many White youths confronting the police alongside them. It looked to me at the time as if the whole local community had risen up against the police. This solidarity was not a surprise. There is no doubt that the Met as a whole considered young Black men to be intrinsically criminal, and behaved accordingly, part of a pattern of ingrained racism in London that affected the lives of many of my Black friends and colleagues. Local police in Brixton had long adopted an aggressive stance that affected the whole community: Black and White, young and old. Years of oppressive policing of the area had been finessed by a zero-tolerance campaign called Swamp ‘81, effectively a programme of street harassment of local people as they tried to go about their lives. Everyone expected the operation to go wrong, albeit not quite in the way it did.
Just behind the deep line of riot police, there was a large number of non-participants standing and watching. Scattered amongst them there were photographers and film crews. It had never occurred to me before that street conflict is a media event as well as a political one, and that it is almost certain that the presence of a large number of journalists affects the way that disturbances unfold. What we witnessed was just the beginning. Later, buses were stolen, many buildings were set on fire and shops were looted. Petrol bombs were thrown. We did not witness this, but it was plain to see that the police were struggling and that the violence was likely to escalate.
Eventually, the train sprinted through Brixton station and we arrived at Victoria Station very late. It was bizarre to find that it was business as usual in central London and that all was calm. We made our way to the restaurant, where Steve’s friends had waited patiently for us. This was long before the advent of rolling news and mobile phones. No one had a clue what was unfolding just a few miles away. I had never eaten Thai food before. Although my sati was delicious, the experience was rather overshadowed by what we had just seen. The train home was redirected on a loop that avoided Brixton altogether. The disturbances raged through the night and the next day. The police did not regain control of the streets until late on Sunday.
I was on-call on Easter Monday. I left home at 8 a.m., trying to look respectable in a shirt, tie and sports jacket. I carried a change of clothes in a holdall. It did not occur to me to alter my usual route to work. I took the train to Brixton, where I walked round to the Underground in order to catch a tube train to Tooting Broadway. As I descended the railway station stairs, Brixton was a mess. There was smashed glass underfoot, there was a smell of burning, shops were boarded up and several were burnt out and smouldering. There were foot patrols of three police officers every 50 yards. There were an awful lot of police around. These streets had been part of my daily life for years, and now they felt like they were under occupation.
The main entrance to Brixton Underground is on the High Street, but there was a back entrance in a narrow throughfare called Electric Lane. I always went that way as a short cut. As I walked down the lane, a group of seven Black men of similar age to me passed in the opposite direction. Arriving at the back entrance of the tube, I was irritated to find that it was locked. I turned around and headed back towards the main entrance. I was now following the group of men that had passed me, and they noticed. They stopped, and spread themselves across the lane. As I walked towards them, one of them stepped forward. “I know you!” he said “You’re Detective Constable Hughes of Brixton Police Station. You arrested me in January.” There were no police foot patrols on Electric Lane.
Luckily, I did not blurt something pathetically weak like “Actually, I’m on your side” or “I’m not a policeman, I’m a doctor”, although I thought of saying both. Having consistently come last in the 100 metres at school, running away was not an option. There was little alternative but to fall back on atavistic chutzpah. I channelled my grandfather, Arthur Poole, who was skilled at talking his way out of a fight. I walked directly up to the man who had spoken to me and said, “Do you really think a fucking copper would come down here alone after what’s happened here this weekend?” Then I pushed past him. The seven of them followed me, one step behind, as I walked around to the main Underground entrance. They stood at the top of the escalator like the Magnificent Seven as I descended and disappeared towards the trains. Up until then I had been entirely calm. As soon as I was on the platform I started shaking. I still felt pretty shaky when I got to the hospital.
There were civil disturbances across England right through that summer. Toxteth, Chapeltown, Handsworth and Moss Side all had episodes similar to Brixton. Countless smaller disturbances were reported as riots in the news media, although it was doubtful that they would have been described as such during any other summer. There was a tense, paranoid mood around London that was perfectly captured by the Specials “Ghost Town”. It played woozily on the medical school bar jukebox continuously for months. One evening, the police warned the hospital that trouble was brewing in Tooting, so a consultant surgeon went around the wards, triaging patients and discharging dozens to make space for anticipated casualties. In the event, there was just one attendance, a police officer who had tripped and strained his wrist. There was no riot.
Orthopaedics was as boring as I had hoped. The two orthopaedic consultants wore beautifully tailored Savile Row suits. They had patrician manners: civil, impeccably well-spoken and aloof. They would do their ward rounds together, pausing at the end of each bed to tell patients that they were doing very well. One was a lot older than the other and they put me in mind of Lord Mountbatten and Prince Charles on a Commonwealth visit.
The work that I was involved in was a combination of acute trauma (mainly road traffic accidents and elderly people who had fallen) and joint replacements. The technology for the latter was still new, and there was a lot of enthusiasm about its possibilities. Hospital stays were lengthy, and traction or external fixation was endured to allow bones to heal. It was easy to avoid theatre sessions in orthopaedics, so I did. On those occasions when I could not get out of assisting, I was often left holding the patient’s leg in a fixed position, to allow their hip replacement cement to set. Everyone else went off for a cup of tea. Legs are quite heavy. As I stood, trying not to move, I had plenty of time to reflect on the value of the experience in my intended future as a psychiatrist.
I became friendly with an orthopaedic Senior House Officer. He was called Simon Fradd, and he was the co-chair of the Hospital Doctors Association. Under the name of the Junior Hospital Doctors Association, the organisation had led the successful junior doctors strike of 1976, but, five years later, it was fading. Simon persuaded me to get involved. The HDA was campaigning over excessive hours of work. Simon managed to arrange for a reporter from a Sunday tabloid to spend a weekend following one of the on-call doctors around the hospital. Unfortunately, this tested the journalist’s attention span to its limit. After about an hour, he said he was going to take a short break down the pub with his photographer. That was the last we ever saw of them. The subsequent double spread story bore the banner headline “I love this this job-I’d do it for free!” with a thumbs-up photo of our hapless colleague. This was seriously off-message. During his interrogation, he denied he had said any such thing. I was involved in junior doctor activism until I became a consultant. I was the vice-chair of the HDA for a while. The organisation was a registered trade union. My grandfathers would have been proud. Simon became a GP, rose through the BMA ranks and was such a successful negotiator that he was vilified by the Daily Mail a few years ago for securing major improvements in GPs working conditions.
Shortly after I started orthopaedics, the next phase of the new hospital opened, and we moved into state-of-the-art wards on the far side of the hospital site. There were plumbed-in medical gases and six-bed bays in place of Nightingale dormitories. The long Victorian corridor was redundant and empty. The junior doctors’ accommodation was close to the old buildings and when I was called, I had to walk through a car park, past the sad unlit corridor, to get to the orthopaedic ward. St George’s had more house jobs than graduates and some of our colleagues were previously unknown to us, having qualified from other London medical schools. One of these was Misha, a fast-talking young doctor who carried himself with an unmistakable air of intelligence and profound untrustworthiness. When Simon Gowers and I played poker with him one evening, some cards fell out of his sleeve. Misha did not appear embarrassed in the slightest. There were numerous little episodes like this involving Misha.
Late one evening I was called to see a patient. As I walked through the car park, I heard the loud roaring of an engine nearby. I could not work out where it was coming from. All of a sudden, a hatchback car with its headlights off shot out of the end of the dark corridor and screeched to a halt a few feet from me. The smoked glass window wound down, and Misha leaned out. “Come on, Rob, get in!”. He claimed that he had found the vehicle unlocked in the car park with the keys in the ignition. He was very excited. When I started to tell him I was not getting in, he lost interest, wound up the window, and drove at speed back into the corridor. The stunt was obviously potentially career-destroying, if not lethal, but no consequences appear to flow from this or any of Misha’s other little adventures.
The four of us from the house in Bromley had tickets to see Bruce Springsteen at Earls Court Arena in June. Springsteen was not yet a massive star, but he did have a reputation for impressive live shows. He was touring to promote his album the River. We had tickets close to the front, and it was one of the best performances that I have ever witnessed, up there with Bob Marley a year or two earlier. Springsteen was 31, he had huge energy and charisma, and the show was constructed with a knowing awareness of all of the popular music that had gone before. Just to top off a stunning evening, during the encore he brought on the great Link Wray and they played “I Fought the Law”. The show was so good that we were tempted to go back and buy tickets from touts the following evening. We saw Springsteen again four years later at the much larger Wembley Stadium. Stylishness had been displaced by bombast, and it was disappointing. The trouble with popular music is that its charm is fragile and transient. Once lost, it can rarely be recaptured.