On the Line by Alice Vinten
We are all fascinated by other peoples’ lives these days. Narrative non-fiction as publishers call the mixture that includes history, politics, biography and memoir – any non-fiction that tells a story. Doctors and surgeons’ memoirs, have been joined by nurses, midwives, chefs, firemen, barristers and more, and now by a policewoman. Alice Vinten’s memoir of her ten years as a WPC in the Metropolitan Police was published last year and is now out in paperback.
Vinten’s memoir takes us from her first days at Hendon, the Met’s training college, through to her resignation, ten years later. Each chapter takes a particular police case as its focus, but she doesn’t shy away from telling us about what happens off duty too, about her own life’s dramas, one of which occurs in the first chapter at Hendon.
Tears well in my eyes as I look down at the stick. Nine weeks into my training and I’m pregnant. Pregnant and sitting in the urine-scented toilets at Metropolitan Police training college, Hendon. …
‘We’ll say you’ve had a family emergency.’
‘One more thing.’ He leans forward, his elbows resting on his pressed black trousers, silver sergeant stripes glinting on his shoulders. ‘I don’t think you should tell your parents.’
‘Why?’ I hear myself ask, my voice claggy and wet.
‘I just think it will be easier if you don’t.’
And just like that, I make a decision that I will regret for another twelve years of my life.
Trying to put her abortion behind her, she throws herself into learning about the job she’s always wanted to do. She is honest about the gritty reality of modern policing – for every shout that gets the adrenaline racing, requiring physical resilience and eyes in the back of your head – there are countless encounters with those who are powerless to help their own lives. There is constant verbal abuse, often threats, repeat offenders, victims, and dead bodies lain undiscovered in houses. The daily stress of the job is immense, and when she goes home at night the day’s events will replay over and over, sleep is hard to come by. It’s grueling, it’s draining – but there are positive moments too when you can help people – it’s not totally grim. She really does love the job – at least at the start.
A few years later, Vinten is in a steady relationship with another police officer – as many doctors marry other doctors or nurses, the unique pressures of the job often preclude finding partners from outside of the profession. Pregnant again, this time, her partner is overjoyed. Returning to the job after maternity leave is difficult though, and now, having a young son, she started to find that that affected the job. Being able to be there for her son, but also understanding what it is like to be a parent – and a repeat encounter with a young girl she’d met several years earlier proves to be the breaking point. She was then able to pursue her other dream – to be a writer.
I came away from this book with a new-found respect for the work of the police, and even more for the WPCs who are overcoming the legacy of the institutionalised sexism that used to dominate the Met. Although, of course, names and locations have been changed to protect identities, (Brixley, the station she is assigned to is the name given to the Hendon in-house training complex), everything she recounts feels very real, from having to conduct a search on an unwilling female in the cells, to being out in the panda car and putting on the ‘blues and twos’. It’s not a life that I would ever have chosen, but it makes for a truly gripping, eye-opening and rather emotional read. (9/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you.
Alice Vinten, On the Line (Two Roads, 2019) paperback, 338 pages.