The life and times of policeman turned novelist Mark Chappell Newberry
Interview: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Portrait: Orlando Gili
I was born in Paignton, a seaside town on the coast of Torbay, Devon, but spent much of my childhood in Wiltshire. In late 1960, I took off to join the newly formed Metropolitan Police Cadet Corps—and so began my next life.
The commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Noel Croft, was quite a character. He was an Arctic explorer, a former SOE man and just perfect for the job. After my initial training at Hendon I was sent on what they called ‘second phase’, in my case to Bow Road police station in the East End, and then onto the third phase at Limehouse just down the road. I was attested in March 1963.
I remained at Limehouse police station until 1969. Limehouse covered a large expanse, taking in both the Isle of Dogs and much of the East End. We witnessed the last hoorah of the docks, with Jack Dash and his union still going on strike and causing lots of problems. We were there when the Krays were making problems and a pal of mine was in the team that nicked Ronnie Kray out of his bed.
There was the odd bit of excitement, for example, Walter ‘Angel Face’ Probyn getting ambushed by a squad team operation, with his wife chasing him up the road shouting “shoot them Wally”—or words to that effect. A young lad got in the way of a truncheon being thrown at the fleeing culprit and became a local hero. There were times when you just had to laugh, even when it got a bit rough and tumble, but it was a good place to learn how to be a policeman.
Widow Twankey’s cottage
I then moved to Marylebone Lane, a tiny Victorian police station. I referred to it as ‘Widow Twankey’s cottage’. If you walked in off the street and turned to the right you arrived at the tiny counter and front office where you found me, the station officer.
I remember being at Marylebone Lane when the IRA detonated the bomb outside Selfridges. We had received a warning and managed to clear the street. There was this initial ‘woomph’ sound rather than a blast and a few seconds later there was the tinkling of glass as it fell onto the scaffolding behind the nick.
This was during the height of the IRA campaign of the seventies and eighties. We were actually having our Christmas meal at Paddington Green Police Station, with the Irish comedian Frank Carson as our guest, when we received word that the Balcombe Street Siege had been lifted. Then it became a double celebration.
The move to Seymour Street didn’t happen until the early 1980s. It was a new development—they were building the police station from the basement up—and occasionally we’d pop along to see how the work was going.
Royal racehorse trainer
I remember various well-known personalities coming to the counter during my years in Marylebone, including the commentator Peter O’Sullivan, in the company of a certain royal racehorse trainer whose car had been clamped. There was a film star arrested for drink driving and the wife of a well-known Hollywood script writer—an Oscar winner no less—who was arrested for shoplifting.
One example of the downsides of my job was the discovery one night that a prisoner had defecated so hard that it had gone straight up his back and into his hair. I spent the first half hour of my late shift getting him cleaned up and then putting his soiled suit into a property bag, which his wife was most upset to be handed. That was the sort of thing you faced as a custody officer.
During my early years at Marylebone Lane I was on night duty when I heard the most almighty ruckus coming from the charge room. Opening the door, I was met by a scene from a horror film. On his hands and knees in a rapidly spreading pool of blood was a CID officer with his nose hanging away from his face. Beyond him, being held against the barred window by officers brandishing chairs and truncheons, was another man struggling violently.
I managed to guide the injured man to a nearby detention room and used bedding to staunch the flow of blood, while listening to his vocal fears of being unable to see. I too feared the worst. Apparently two men had been brought in with a range of cleaver or machete-style weapons. Without warning one of them had grabbed a weapon and lashed out, striking the injured officer in the face.
Years later I was enjoying a pint in my local, The Windsor Castle on Crawford Place, when a stranger approached me asking if I’d worked at the old Marylebone Lane police station. He had been the victim of that bloody attack, a faintly visible horizontal scar across the bridge of his nose testifying to his injury. Miraculously, the blade had missed both eyes and it was the congealing blood sealing his eyes that made him fear that his sight was lost. Lucky indeed.
I have always enjoyed a punt and was in my local bookies one afternoon when two young guys burst in wearing balaclavas. One was armed with a knife and the other held an imitation pistol. There was a bit of a fracas between me and the guy with the gun, whom I managed to hold onto until help arrived. He subsequently got three years. But the guy with the knife legged it out the door and was never brought to justice.
I retired in April 1992. Last year I self-published a comic crime novel. The title, November Uniform, is taken from the phonetic alphabet and the book is set in 1992. Drawing inspiration from my own background, my lead character Arthur Moe is an East End police sergeant approaching retirement who receives the news that his father, a racing-mad punter, has died of a heart attack. Arthur heads back to Devon to arrange the funeral. There he meets the rather attractive traffic warden, Marie Mee, and the local detective sergeant, Ernie Swift. Arthur also encounters a local lowlife, in the form of a dodgy bookmaker, who is smuggling drugs. That’s the plot in a nutshell.
Back in the early nineties I was lamenting the lack of tuneful classical British composers to a friend of mine, Peter Morris, a composer in his own right. Peter asked if I’d ever come across George Lloyd, which I hadn’t, so he lent me a tape of Lloyd’s fourth symphony. I was so impressed that I started doing some research and discovered that George actually lived in Marylebone.
A modern Elgar
I then attended a concert featuring one of his pieces at the Royal Festival Hall. Not long after, I saw George passing the bookies and so ran down the street and accosted him. We had a good chat before he went on his way. Here was one of Britain’s premier unknown composers, a modern Elgar, toddling off to the supermarket with his carrier bag. Anyway, we began corresponding and he once invited me to tea with his wife and himself at their home in Clarence Gate Gardens. I last met him a few months before his passing in July 1998.
Ever since then I’ve been pushing for Proms performances of his work, without much success. But the amateur orchestral scene in London has been more than positive, the latest development being that the Ealing Symphony Orchestra has undertaken to perform all 12 of his symphonies over the next year or two. So things are finally looking up.