- This Small Cloud: A Personal Memoir by Harry Daley
Weidenfeld, 241 pp, £12.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 297 78999 6
‘We are not concerned with the very poor,’ wrote E.M. Forster, with heavy irony. ‘They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.’ He was almost thirty when he wrote this, thinking about the unthinkable, in Howards End. Some fifteen years later he met (and apparently fell in love with) Police Constable Harry Daley, twenty years his junior. Forster’s ironic paragraph of 1910 had continued: ‘The story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.’ He was introducing an imagined character, Leonard Bast, who ‘stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the Abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more’: therefore, the unlucky Bast ‘was obliged to assert gentility, lest he slipped into the Abyss where nothing counts’. Blundering through the ironies, we gather that the Abyss means the world of the working class, the world of most people, and that Forster was suggesting that it was impossible in 1910 for gentlefolk and novelists to connect with that large world – ‘that huge body of individuals that generally goes by the name of the People’, as Hazlitt put it. For some reason Forster was unable (or so he posed) to connect with anyone ‘lower’ than Leonard Bast, low-class, anxious for promotion, fearful that he might drop into the Abyss. It may have come as a relief from all these ironies when Forster connected with PC Daley in the Twenties – for Daley was a working-class man, quite as cultivated and artistic as Leonard Bast, but not at all anxious for promotion, quite happy with the Abyss, where all the good-looking people are. Daley was not a capitalist or a monetarist (nor, of course, a racist or a sexist): he was a looksist.
It is probably because of Daley’s connection with Forster that his memoir of a working-class policeman’s life has been published and quite heavily promoted. In a foreword P.N. Furbank discusses Daley’s connections with Forster and other gay writers, but literary readers may be disappointed to discover that Daley’s book does not refer to these connections at all. Daley mentions Forster’s name only once, when he is discussing his own reluctance to join the CID. ‘E.M. Forster somewhere says that if put to the test he hopes he would betray his country before betraying his friend.’ Echoing the phrase, Daley says: ‘I preferred to leave the pumping and spying to the CID, whose job it was, but I often told my friends that I would arrest them if I actually caught them committing crimes – which they agreed was fair enough. Whether I would have done so in practice is another matter – it was never put to the test.’ Some of Daley’s best friends were inclined to commit crimes.
Daley quotes the potent Forster dictum about loyalty twice more in his book. There is an anecdote about a CID man who had been collaborating with burglars: he was shuffled out of the Metropolitan Police pretty quickly – but with a nice lump sum, a good character, and all his sins covered up. ‘It seems there are endless variations on the “before I betray my friend” theme,’ Daley observes. ‘And though I am all for it, I am not sure that truth and honour don’t get a bit of a bashing in the process.’ Another good anecdote is about the reckless Inspector Hughes who prevailed upon the reluctant Daley to go out with him, drinking after hours: they were tipped off that their pub was going to be raided and Hughes and Daley were to be caught red-handed. They assumed that the raiders would be ordinary ‘rubber-heel’ men (the low-grade sneaks generally employed to catch out other policemen) and amused themselves by driving round the pub, on a rainy night, but not stopping, so that the rubber-heels would get wet. It was a surprise to find at the police station that the soaking-wet sneaks were of high rank, the Chief Inspector and the Sub-Division Inspector. Daley remarks that he was ‘glad not to have fallen by the wayside for drinking liquor I didn’t want in the company of a publican I didn’t want to know’ – and then he adds: ‘It was possible that the SDI himself had given the tip-off. Such things did happen, connected with that strange thing called loyalty about which, cropping up through my life, and mostly working against me, I have never been able to decide whether it is good or evil.’
These anecdotes give the flavour of Daley’s reminiscences of his Police service – twenty-five years of it, before he joined the Merchant Navy at the age of 49. Clive Emsley, described as ‘historian of the police’, offers a troubled Afterword, looking on the bright side, explaining that the ‘British bobby’ had to help people and ‘that he had to be unbiased, non-political and work within a peculiarly English legal framework. This attitude permeates Daley’s autobiography, however much he also draws attention to the warts on the Metropolitan Police’ – which Daley most certainly does. Furbank’s Foreword tells us that he met Daley and that he was not ‘quite the sunny, easy-going and benevolent figure that he depicts’. I would never have described Daley’s self-portrait in those terms. Daley is quite ferocious and unforgiving in his account of other policemen, especially those who taunted him about his homosexuality:
Sergeant Hunter was a rat ... Without a friend in the world and incapable of any action that was not mean and underhanded ... His end seemed a triumph for justice. At a celebration – a 21st birthday or something – his whole family was assembled under one roof when there was a raid, a lucky hit by a German bomber, and the whole lot were blown sky high. Apart from Churchill’s ‘on the beaches’ speech, this, to a great number of defenceless people, was the most heartening event of the war.
So much for Sergeant Hunter of Hammersmith. Turn now to Inspector Galloway of Vine Street, who ‘hated all homosexuals and disliked me enough to literally snarl and foam at the mouth when discussing me, a performance made more effective by his having two projecting fang-like teeth ... But in the end Galloway brought me great pleasure ...’ Daley’s pleasure was derived from the fact that Inspector Galloway was caught out by honest policemen over his dealings with ponces and other criminals. ‘It was nice to see him get whiter and thinner every day, more ferrety-eyed through lack of sleep ... To everyone’s surprise and to my delight, he kicked the bucket ... When I am feeling low, fortunately not very often, I think that if there is such a thing as everlasting hell-fire, I hope the rotten bastard is roasting in the middle of it.’
It may seem odd that Furbank should describe this candidly vindictive narrator as ‘sunny, easy-going and benevolent’ in his self-portrayal. Daley was a man of moods and sometimes he is quite smug about himself. When he joined the police he heard the Chief Constable say: ‘He’s a good type of chap.’ Daley reflects on this: ‘Let us see, then, what constitutes a good type of chap. I am 24 years old; uneducated, but possibly slightly above average intelligence for the period; well below average plain common sense; sexually both innocent and deplorable; honourable if not exactly honest; trusting; truthful; romantic and sentimental to the point of sloppiness. In a few weeks’ time numerous old ladies, and old gentlemen too come to that, will sleep more soundly in their beds because I am patrolling the streets outside.’ He presents himself as the sort of policeman who does not exert himself to arrest people, not a ‘snatcher’, but the type who carries the uniform around to deter crime. It is interesting to compare his account of the different types of policemen with that offered by C.H. Rolph, a more respectable officer and Daley’s near-contemporary.
Honest about his vengefulness, Daley is equally honest about the people he loved, or liked the look of. ‘Best of all I liked the gangsters ... Delight was my first sensation on seeing the groups of flashily dressed young men, so wideawake and humorous, so confident and insolent.’ One of these Hammersmith gangsters had a body ‘like a Michelangelo statue, with beautiful arms and shoulders’. When he was brought into the police station he suddenly pushed over a large table and attacked three policemen: the fight ended with the gangster underneath the upturned table and two policemen sitting on top. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Let me out. I know when I’m beat.’ He was fined half-a-crown. Daley remarks: ‘Naturally I was on the side of this beautiful bull charging his captors.’ Since childhood Daley had been attracted to those he called ‘the rough boys’, just as Forster and the other gay writers were attracted – though they might call them ‘rough trade’.
Another favourite of Daley’s was ‘the most delightful policeman in Beak Street, a young Welshman named Barry. He resembled a Greek statue of a beautiful youth, curls and everything, and though he was 21 he acted 16.’ Barry was ‘the leading light in our skating club but rugby was his real game.’ Unfortunately Barry got led astray by the Mosleyite policemen who infested the Beak Street section house in those pre-war days, though many other policemen were quite strongly anti-Mosley. Daley was one of those ordered to attend Mosley’s Olympia rally but forbidden to intervene when the Fascists beat up their opponents. ‘We were all shocked. These brutal scenes had been organised by a prominent Englishman and carried out in the most famous hall in the country under the noses of members of the Metropolitan Police, who three times had been ordered not to interfere under any circumstances ... Things I had seen with my own eyes were denied in officially Parliament and Mosley was left free to organise his mischief-making rallies in the Jewish districts of the East End.’ Among the watching policemen were several upright and stodgy men: they disliked Daley for his low-class, gangsterish associates – but they, ‘I confess, were equally shocked by what they saw. I could not resist remarking that, as the thugs were obviously middle-class, no doubt I could associate with them without adverse comment.’ Daley could be as ironical as Forster.
Furbank says that Daley was pretty glum when he began this book, intending to tell the world what a rotten life he had had, but when he got down to it he found that it was not too bad. On some pages he is in a very good mood, consistently witty and charming, and he never writes badly. His book could not be honestly serialised in the Daily Mirror or Daily Telegraph because too many asterisks would be needed for his censorable language. He describes his work as a delivery boy with pony and trap round Dorking, charming the ladies.
The idle rich were found among the woods and commons of Abinger. Here were the old-fashioned gentry and a sprinkling of Liberal intellectuals, all so consistently kind and gentle that when arrogance appeared it had to be given another name ... I waited while the farm boy milked the cows. The dimly-lit cowshed, the various smells and the physical act of milking easily led to a sexy conversation between us two boys. But he was too innocent or crafty to get down to a wanking session. Just as well perhaps. One day I heard a rustle in the hayloft and saw a pair of eyes spying down on us through the straw.
He was brought up in Lowestoft, a fisherman’s son, and he remarks on the censorable language and the rude jokes so common among his family and their friends, ‘innocent and clean-minded people’. His Uncle Willie, back from a fishing trip, sadly told his sisters: ‘The police met our boat when we came in and took one of our poor young chaps away. He got a nasty disease about him and put it up his young brother.’ Daley explains that many people believed that venereal disease would vanish ‘if passed on to a completely innocent person’: he thinks that the local magistrates who condemned the fisherman from the bench ‘were the very people, with their combined influence and narrow-mindedness, who prevented more enlightened people from bringing these subjects into the open.’ This is quite a strong point, relevant to current difficulties with advertisements warning against Aids. If gentlefolk want to defend and safeguard vulnerable boys in the Abyss, they will have to print and broadcast rude words.