After my time in the Army I joined Customs and Excise and after doing my probation in uniform I went on to the Intelligence Team working in civvies, usually jeans and a bomber jacket with well-worn trainers. Although it was serious work, we still had a lot of laughs, considering we were after drugs, firearms, explosives and dodgy people. Bottles of liquor and cartons of cigarettes were considered blasé for our team, but they soon became a problem after the borders opened up and big money could be made by smuggling large quantities of Excise goods through the port, the money often used to finance drugs.
I was walking around one of the marinas in Southampton on a bright Sunday evening in summer and spotted something unusual on a gin palace which had recently moored alongside one of the pontoons. I walked down to the boat’s bridge, knocked on the superstructure and called out, ‘Customs.’
A red face appeared on deck and said in a very irritated manner, ‘I haven’t got time for you, I have to be back in London by eight.’
Now you just don’t talk to Customs officers like that, especially if you on board a vessel in that officer’s port, so I climbed aboard and asked for his documents. And his insurance. And his personal identification. And his address in London. And a contact phone number. And his log book which hadn’t been filled in correctly so I took some time explaining how to do so. And his inside leg measurement
All were in order so I left the vessel and started to walk along the pontoon.
‘You did all this to make yourself feel good,’ shouted the owner. ‘Little Hitler.’
I turned back and quietly said to him, ‘Actually, I came to tell you that your anchor windlass has been left running and is smoking, but it doesn’t matter, it’ll be burnt out by now.’
Customs, Customs über alles.
Not mine, Guv.
The ferry used to arrive at ten in the evening so it was a nuisance if we had a ‘job’ as we would be doing paperwork until all hours. One evening we stopped a car full of young Frenchmen and the dog team with us indicated drugs in the car. We asked the lads to get out and the dog followed one of them so I asked him to come to the office for a chat. The office was up a short flight of metal stairs, prefabricated jobbies with no backing to the risers. As he climbed the stairs he threw something through the stairs to the floor below. Kev saw him do it, collected a wallet from the floor underneath the stairs and followed me into the office.
‘Is this yours?’ I asked the lad.
‘No it’s not!’ he replied.
I opened it and said,’ That’s strange as it has your ID card, driving licence and credit card in it.’
‘You must have put them in there,’ he said. Oh-oh, silly boy.
‘There’s a bit of blow in here as well,’ I told him. It was about two grammes and not worth bothering about but he was wasting our time and accusing us of planting stuff on him.
‘There’s also a fifty pound note in your wallet,’ I said.
‘That’s all the money I have for my stay in UK,’ he cried.
‘You can either pay the statutory fine of fifty pounds, or go into the cells and talk to a magistrate tomorrow,’ I said, getting a little annoyed with him wasting my time.
There followed a string of French oaths and he signed the relevant paperwork and left. Idiot, if he hadn’t wasted our time I would have thrown the MJ into the dock, given him a warning and had an early night. Now I had to go to the Customs House and log the miniscule amount of stuff into the lock-up, do the paperwork and wouldn’t be home well after midnight. Some people need to know when to put their hands up and admit, ‘It’s a fair cop, Guv.’
We’d heard the crew on the ferry were bringing cannabis resin into the country. It was always difficult to search the ferry properly as it had a one-hour turn-around before it set sail for France again. To help us we took three dogs with us and determined to do as much as we could in the time permitted. When the crew are involved it is always more difficult as they have the run of the whole ship and the stuff could be stashed anywhere. We were waiting like assault troops on the dockside and as soon as the gangplank was attached we boarded. We went into the main corridor and immediately all three dogs went berserk, doing somersaults, climbing the walls and threatening to do themselves harm by catching their legs in the handrails. The handlers didn’t know what was going on and neither did we, but time being of the essence we sent them ashore and went into the crew’s recreational area and started to search. Apart from my team we had with us the notorious ‘Black Hand Gang,’ very experienced ship searchers, dressed in overalls and boots and well aware of where the naughty boys hid drugs. They would descend into the bilges and coffer dams, if necessary using breathing apparatus and certainly knew what they were about. We let them get on with their stuff while we did the crew accommodation. We lifted the false ceilngs and had a look in all the usual places. The difference between the crew’s quarters and the rest of the ship was that there were very few bulkheads and panelling which needed removing and this made searching easier. One of the lads unscrewed a ventilation hatch and there was the problem, a kilo of cannabis resin. The fans had carried the scent of the resin all around the ship, confusing the dogs and thereby allowing the handlers to save face. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but it was a good ploy. We circulated the information around all the other ports in case they had mad dogs on their hands at some time in the future. It was lucky that we’d had a tip-off of the whereabouts of the haul, or we would have had to go around the ship looking in all the air conditioning conduits. And in case you are thinking of doing the same to mess Customs about, measures have been taken and ways devised to quickly isolate the area of the stowage and you will certainly lose your stash if you try it.
The parakeet on the QE2
One morning, after I had boarded the QE2 at sparrers and done my bit by gathering information from the crew, the dockies and anyone else who would talk to me, I had a wander about and found myself on one of the open-air pool decks. The QE2 was doing round trips to the West Indies at the time and had just arrived from there. I was looking around and minding my own business when suddenly a parakeet landed on my shoulder. Immediately I thought of the problems this could cause with Port Health, so I caught hold of it and took it to the Purser’s cabin.
I told the pursers on duty what I had found and said that if Port Health got hold of it they would cause a rumpus, and told them to put it in a cage and not let it loose until they were back in the West Indies. I figured that if it was still on the ship it hadn’t been ashore and caused a health risk to Southampton and the pursers thanked me profusely and put it safely away. They didn’t want the ship quarantined and the passengers delayed because of a parakeet.
The following day I was in a pub in Southampton when I read an article saying that some animal rights activist had broken into an aviary in the town and set all the birds free and that they were turning up in odd places all over the city.
‘Not as odd as mine on the QE2,’ I thought.
I can just picture the parakeet when it was set free in the Caribbean.
‘Whew, it’s a bit hot here, and where’s all my mates?’
Fags and booze and the luck of the Devil.
The inspection hall in the Customs’ shed was part of an old warehouse. One end was for trucks and had unloading bays and freezer cabins if we had to unload frozen food or perishables and the other had the area for inspecting cars. It was dark, I had finished shift earlier and was a bit worried about a noise coming from the engine of my car so I drove it into the car shed, opened the boot to get my tools and opened the bonnet to start working on the engine. It took a bit longer than expected and the ferry arrived before I’d finished, so I left my car where it was and crossed to the other side of the car hall to sit on a bench and wait until the team on shift had finished their inspections. The driver of one of the cars they had pulled over saw me and crossed over to sit by me.
‘They’ve stopped you, too?’ he asked glumly. ‘I hope they don’t look under my spare wheel.’
‘Hey, Kevin!’ I shouted across the hall. ‘Look under his spare wheel.’
‘You bastard,’ the driver said, ‘that’s not fair.’
‘No-one ever said life was fair, mate,’ I replied as I watched Kevin empty his wheel well of fags and spirits.
I thought it best to get out of the shed while the bloke was being charged for the contraband, in case he smacked me one, so I went next door to the truck examination area. There were half-a-dozen trucks there in various states of inspection. I know most of the drivers and started chatting to one of them.
‘How’s tricks?’ I asked, ‘still pulling for your old firm?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘I changed companies, that’s my old truck over there in bay two. They would never let me sleep in the cab when I was tugging for them and now there’s a three-foot extension over the cab. I bet the driver has a bed up there.’
‘Let’s have a look, shall we?’ Again I shouted across the bay. ‘Raj, have a look in that extension above the cab in bay two!’
By the time they had finished stripping the truck they had a quarter of a million fags lying around the bay and my kudos had gone up incredibly. Oh, and I claimed a few hours overtime, too. It’s the way it pans out, sometimes you win, most times you lose.
Me dogs is barkin’
It was getting on for the end of our ten hour shift and waiting for the ferry to arrive, feet sore from having been on our feet all day. We were looking for a quiet night, but the first car down the ramp stopped in front of us, the driver wound down his window and said, ‘I heard a dog barking on the car deck before we disembarked.’ This was in the days before tagging and pet passports and rabies was a big scare in case it spread to the UK.
‘Thank you very much,’ I said. Now this is an old ploy whereby the naughty boys pretend to be giving you a tip-off hoping that you will think they are good citizens and not search them. ‘Can you pull your car in over there, please?’
Kevin and I then started on the rest of the cars. We stopped each and every one.
‘Could you open all your windows, please?’
Looks of puzzlement from the drivers.
Then even more puzzlement as we leaned in through the open windows and called,
‘Miaaooouuw,’ all the time keeping poker faces and cocking our heads to one side as if to listen, before saying to the drivers,
‘Thank you Sir/Madam, move along,’ and waving the next car towards us, without giving any kind of explanation as to what we were up to.
Childish, I know, but it made us laugh at the end of our shift and gave the punters something to talk about when they got home. Surprising enough, there were no complaints forthcoming and the informant turned out to be a good citizen, and a very nice bloke, too, even after we’d turned him over.