Written by Allan Hall
The body lay motionless on the road, feet at right angles, the head lolling to one side. The harsh metallic crack of studded boots sparking on concrete and asphalt provided a jarring soundtrack to the pulsing sea of blue strobe lights from the military police vehicles slewed every which way on the thoroughfare.
Something told me a day that began with such promise had taken a decidedly dodgy turn.
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It was a cold morning in November 1987 and I was glad to be in Herford, north-west Germany. I had joined The Sun barely weeks ago and was suffering from post Fleet Street depression. The Sun was, for a tabloid hack, undoubtedly a step up from the Daily Star, but it meant daily commutes to Murdoch’s new Ministry of Truth at Wapping with all its hideous wire, jowly gruppenfuehrer guards in too-tight padded security jumpers and a dearth of hostelries around and about. Fleet Street, with all its familiar clubbiness, it was not and I suspect that was what the Digger had in mind when he commissioned old S.S. architects to construct it.
It had all the frigid charm of a call centre in downtown Anchorage in winter. It even took about 12 minutes to walk from my desk to the front gate, seriously denting lunchtime.
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One day, shortly after arriving, the best news editor national periodicals ever created, one Tom Petrie, asked me to make the trek to the gate to see someone who, allegedly, had a story to tell.
Oh dear. Interacting with the would-be suppliers of tabloid tales is not recommended. They are often mad, sometimes lonely or broke, mostly all three. I trudged the lonely 12 minutes to the gate, wondering whether I should give the wretch claiming Margaret Thatcher was microwaving his brain a fiver to go away.
Happily, staggeringly, today’s arrival was the exception to the rule: educated, well dressed and spoken, he informed me of a story which, if true, would be right up The Sun’s alley.
It concerned a case of army bullying – and not the usual run-of-the-barrack-room shenanigans of squaddies abusing the platoon runt with bedknobs and broomsticks. This was a Flashman case of cruelty, a ring of cruel officers who had ganged up on a fellow toff to make his life hell.
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He wanted money. Tom told me to take him to lunch to hear the whole sordid affair. Fair enough.
We cabbed it to theatreland and Mon Plaisir in Monmouth Street, a fine French brassiere – London’s oldest in fact – whose star, I believe, burns less brightly now than it once did. The menu was solid bistro fare, the wine good and affordable, my companion certainly no nutter. The story had the whiff of success all over it, meaning the bateaux could be pushed well and truly out today.
My dining companion – let’s call him Mr. X – was an establishment figure with access to secrets. He needed money, but he was also outraged at what he perceived was a cover-up by the army brass to protect the ruling caste.
When he showed me paperwork which I had no doubt was genuine, I switched from the house red to a rather fine bottle of Pommard to go with my main course of pink duck breast. The Mon Plaisir duck breast was served with a reduced jus; but try this one for extra flavour:
To finish I enjoyed pears cooked in red wine. The vivid purple of the sauce and the pale green of the fruit is particularly pleasing. And oh so simple to make.
I departed for the dismal wastes of Wapping in a far better frame of mind than I had walked to its Arbeit Macht Frei gates in a few short hours earlier. Equipped with the paperwork, there was literally nothing to do but write the story; it was all there.
But loopfruit editor Mackenzie had other ideas. He wanted the ringleader of this bunch of posh bullies named and shamed. The next day he ordered me and a photographer to Herford, home to over 10,000 British soldiers and officers, to find the errant Major – galloping; Majors are always galloping in tabloid tales – put the allegations to him and get his photo.
This seemed to me a rather tall order; these were pre-Good Friday agreement days, the IRA had earmarked British bases overseas as prime targets, security would surely be high. Actually, I was 100 percent wrong. In Herford the armoured division which the major served in was quartered in old WW2 Nazi barracks mostly on public roads. As was the officer’s mess where he lived. Where he was breakfasting when I showed up on a Saturday morning.
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Outside in our parked hire car sat Duncan Ridgley, amiable and talented photographer. He was equipped with a rather large lens and a determination to ‘hose ‘Im dahn’ – photographic speak for capturing the subject – with his motor-driven camera.
Entering the mess in a suit and tie telegraphed to the soldiers acting as stewards that I, too, was in the service. ‘Would sir like a cup of tea?’ Sir would. ‘Would Sir like to take a seat while I look for the major?’ Sir did.
The encounter when it came was briefer than a Playboy Playmate’s thong. “Get out now!” was the world exclusive interview from the major who led the bullies who shaved the head, tied up, bloodied and otherwise humiliated their fellow officer. To make certain I exited the premises he saw me off them, holding the door open and standing on the step just long enough for me to make hand signals to Duncan and silently mouth; “THAT’S HIM!” as I walked down the road leaving him to do his bit.
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I did not look back. I walked for a bit around the block, waited for a few minutes, then returned to the road where I had left Duncan. Which was when I saw the prostrate form of the major lying in the middle of it, military police running hither and thither and no sign of Duncan or our hire car.
I managed to break into some kind of trot which ended on a parallel road when Duncan suddenly appeared at high speed, braking hard to let me in. There was a squeal of tyres, a crunch of gears and a revving of the engine which, briefly, drowned out the sirens of the military police cars.
“What happened there then?” I asked.
Duncan shrugged. “‘E came down the steps, saw me, stood in front of the car, crossed his arms and just stood there.”
“And I hosed ‘im dahn.”
“And he wouldn’t move. So I put him on the bonnet. Then he was hanging on so I braked hard and he fell off. That’s when all hell broke loose with the Redcaps.”
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I saw my career with Britain’s biggest selling newspaper curtailed before it had even begun. Worse: I saw myself and Duncan in the dock for manslaughter. Even murder. Or was he just paralysed, doomed to gallop no more, to be wheeled around by carers for the rest of his life? The prone figure was not moving when I looked at it.
It was barely 9.00am. Duncan – these were pre-mobile phone and pre-digital camera days – dropped me in the centre of town while he went off to process his film. It was a nail-bitingly long day, which would end in incarceration for one of us. Luckily, though, not for homicide.
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Come noon I had checked in with London and kept an ear on local radio news reports. Nothing running on a dead army bloke. Phew. Time for lunch.
Herford sits in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous and industrialised state. Culinarily speaking it is famous for ham, certain potato dishes and veal. It also has lots of Turkish immigrants, who have brought their splendid culinary repitoire with them to the Fatherland. Try this one if you are worried; it certainly helped to take my mind off the major:
Westphalians – and Turks – generally drink beer with this dish, as did I. Quite a lot of it. And a bottle of crisp Mosel. Well, I was worried, wasn’t I?
Later I met up with Duncan. The pictures were developed and pin-sharp. There was the bully, standing in all his arrogant glory before his car. I hoped he could still stand now.
Around 6.00pm we had an early supper of lentil stew witth Frankfurter sausages. I thoroughly recommend this dish any time of year.
More beer and wine was taken, the major faded more and more from my thoughts. At some late, lost hour, I remember we found ourselves in a bar playing pool with English squaddies. Not unnaturally they asked what we did. Probably because it was the trade my school careers master suggested when I said I wanted to be a journalist, I told them we were plumbers.
Remember I mentioned this was the time of the IRA attacking military targets in Europe? One of the pool players took himself off to call the military police, suspicious of my U-bend qualifications. Sure enough, we were hauled outside, subjected to questions I was not prepared to answer. “I am not in your *?&%$§” army,” or words to that effect, were drawled.
The German civvy police were called. More paperwork was checked but we were allowed to go on our way; impersonating a plumber is, apparently, one of the few acceptable charades in Germany.
Our hire car was parked nearby. The hotel was only 750 yards away. I wanted to walk, Duncan said I should drive. The German police were waiting.
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When I emerged rather crumpled from the holding cell the next morning, just in time to check in with a blissfully ignorant newsdesk in London, I was told the story was going on part of page one with a whole page inside too. There was no mention of a dead or otherwise harmed British officer.
Next day, after the paper dropped and the Ministry of Defence phones started ringing off the hook, I was invited for a drink by an army press officer in Herford. Oh oh, I thought. Here comes the compensation claim and writ for myself and Duncan. But it turned out that the major was intact, if a little bruised, and I got the impression that the army didn’t care much for him either.
All’s well that ends well. Duncan and I deported ourselves for a well-earned lunch before driving on to another job in Berlin.