Real Things

Barbara Wootton

  • McNee’s Law: The Memoirs of Sir David McNee by David McNee
    Collins, 256 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 00 217007 8
  • Police and People in London. Vol. I: A Survey of Londoners by David Smith
    Policy Studies Institute, 386 pp, £7.40, November 1983, ISBN 0 85374 223 5
  • Police and People in London. Vol. II: A Group of Young Black People by Stephen Small
    Policy Studies Institute, 192 pp, £4.60, November 1983, ISBN 0 85374 224 3
  • Police and People in London. Vol. III: A Survey of Police Officers by David Smith
    Policy Studies Institute, 216 pp, £6.20, November 1983, ISBN 0 85374 225 1
  • Police and People in London. Vol. IV: The Police in Action by David Smith and Jeremy Gray
    Policy Studies Institute, 368 pp, £7.40, November 1983, ISBN 0 85374 226 X

Fifty-eight years ago the man we now know as Sir David McNee was born in dire poverty in a Glasgow tenement. His father was a railwayman, and a staunch tradeunionist who rose ‘through a variety of jobs’ to be driver of many famous trains, including the ‘Royal Scot’. His mother was the daughter of a railwayman. In this book Sir David reports how he has often had occasion to refer with pride to these facts in later life, in face of suggestions that, as Metropolitan Commissioner of Police, he had no real insight into the problems of working-class life with which that office so often brought him into contact: ‘the lessons learned in Glasgow streets and tenements ... taught me a lot about human nature which a more affluent and protected childhood might not have done.’

At the age of 11 the boy David gained entry by competitive examination into a local secondary school; but, against parental protests, he insisted on leaving at the age of 15 as a ‘headstrong youngster seeking only to get ... as quickly as possible into the outside world’, where he thought ‘real things’ were to be found. His first contact with those ‘real things’ was a job at a bank for which he had to lick stamps and run errands for 15s a week. Those, he says, were happy days; but they came to an end when, in March 1943, he was called up to join the Royal Navy. He served in several ships and travelled widely, in the course of which at some stage he must have made up his mind that, when peace had been restored, he would like to be a policeman. How this choice was related to his unwavering faith in the Christian religion, which he shared with the wife whom he married in 1952, is not mentioned. What we do know is that during his most impressionable years that faith had been fostered by the many religious institutions and missions in which Glasgow abounded, and that throughout his life he has claimed that for him the Christian religion ‘has set standards of living based on truth, integrity and peace’.

On demobilisation McNee applied for two police jobs, one in London and one in Glasgow. London did not reply, but Glasgow accepted him. The next chapters in the story are somewhat confused, as the author does not adhere to strict chronological order. In Chapter One (‘Early Life’), we find McNee attending a reception at Scotland Yard arranged by the then retiring Commissioner in order to introduce him as the new ‘Commissioner designate’ to some of his future colleagues. On this occasion McNee is said to have met the late Lord Mountbatten for the first time, and Mountbatten is quoted as claiming that he himself had ‘got the job’ of Metropolitan Commissioner for McNee. Chapter Two (‘From Coppering to Command’) then takes us back to Glasgow, giving some account of McNee’s progress up the police ladder there. In the course of this, he observes that the ‘apprehensive solitude’ of a ‘large city beat’ at night is ‘an abiding memory that a policeman never loses – no matter how senior he becomes’. Meanwhile the reader may be somewhat puzzled to know, first, how Mountbatten came to believe that the post of Commissioner of police for London was in his personal gift, and secondly why, if so, he decided to bestow it on a man whom he had never previously met.

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