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Death of the Bobby

The bobby, that stalwart and beloved emblem of the British national character, is on the way out. 

Fewer and fewer policemen are now wearing those distinctive domed helmets.  Those who drive around in cars – a growing number, it seems – can’t wear them for ergonomic reasons, of course, but even the boys on the beat, the Mr. Plods of affectionate memory, the greatly admired Dixons of Dock Green, are taking to wearing flat caps.  One police authority, in South Yorkshire if memory serves, has just announced that its foot patrolmen will no longer be issued with helmets, which are described as an anachronism that no longer affords the necessary protection. 

Fair enough, but I wonder if they ever did provide protection.  The purpose of the helmet, I’ve always assumed, was to make policemen look taller, in doing so endowing them with greater authority.  They were taller and more authoritative before the removal of height qualifications a few years back. Some coppers I’ve encountered lately, strictly in passing I might add, barely come up to my shoulders, and I’m no giant. 

I for one shall be sad to see the familiar helmet go, even if it does remind American tourists of Keystone Cops, even if it does hark back to a bygone age of whistle-tooting peelers.  The helmet was distinctive, and policemen need something to make them stand out from the crowd.  Over the years, we came to respect that helmet as part of the visible apparatus of the law in action, perhaps even more than we respected the bloke underneath it.

Caps, on the other hand, are anonymous.  Hundreds of uniformed jobs require the wearing of caps, from railway employees to hotel doormen to members of the Salvation Army.  Such people, worthy as they are, go about their business largely unnoticed.  Policemen ought to be noticed.  It is after all the whole point of them.

The argument is put forward that most other countries discarded police helmets decades ago, without any harmful effects.  In some countries, Sweden for one, France for another, the police don’t even wear peaked caps, but army-style forage caps.  Only in Italy have I seen British-style helmets on policemen, though perhaps only while on traffic duty.

Well, I dare say that Britain will be none the worse a place if police helmets go.  Call me old fashioned, but for some of us of a certain age it will mark another passing of an era, yet another whittling down of what gave this country its famously distinguishing physical quirks.  The red telephone boxes have gone.  London’s boxy black taxis are disappearing in favour of Mercedes Benz people-carriers.  The pillar boxes will be next.  And soon enough, the army will announce, after yet another round of defence spending cuts, that it can no longer justify the pointless exercise of mounting the guard at Buckingham Palace.  We are marching relentlessly to conformity in all things, the physical trappings of the community becoming as blandly featureless as the new glass tower blocks that surround us, as intellectually purposeless as the media of communication that obsess us.

Coppers no longer call us sir, or say “Evening all” or “Hello, hello, hello ….”, but I wish they would.  At least for the few years left of my lifetime.

After that, they and all the other conformists of the world can do what they please.

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