Andrew Vine: Unnerving encounter with a Man in Uniform

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HAVING been the subject of varying degrees of abuse over the years, I’ve developed a fairly thick skin when it comes to being insulted.

Even so, I was rather hurt to be taken as a possible violent offender bent on terrorising shop staff and emptying the tills at the point of a weapon whilst doing something as innocent as buying a couple of lightbulbs and a length of lagging for a pipe.

I’ve unwittingly taken on the mantle of a villain, an object of suspicion to be accosted, halted and questioned, the sort who skulks about furtively on street corners and might just try to snatch your granny’s handbag – and all because I don’t like rain trickling down the back of my neck.

This being the most sodden, gale-lashed, cheerless winter for years, and me having no wish to return home soaked, windblown and miserable, like the rest of the population I’ve hardly ventured out without a waterproof on.

And like everybody else whose waterproof has a hood, I’ve had it up – without realising I might just have well put on a mask and slung a sack with “swag” written on it over my shoulder.

That’s because just as I was reaching up to take the hood down as I stepped over the threshold of a large DIY chain store after a bracing sprint across a car park rapidly turning into a lagoon, Man in Uniform appeared with hand raised and uttered the words: “Hold it right there.”

Hold it right there? I didn’t think anybody had said that since John Wayne rode off into his final sunset. This is Leeds, not Dodge City. What’s going on?

“Remove your hood. It’s company policy.” I already had, but Man in Uniform wasn’t bending. “You went past the CCTV camera with your hood up. We’ve had trouble with hoodies in here before.”

Oh, thanks. Cold, damp and now insulted. Get many anti-social hoodies in with grey hair and middle-aged spread, do you? Come slouching in bent on mischief wearing a suit, tie and carrying an eco-friendly shopping bag, do they? By the way, that’s my car over there, parked as close as possible to the door because it’s bouncing down. You’ll notice it doesn’t have a personalised number plate that reads ASB0 K1D.

Of course, I didn’t say that, mumbling apologies instead. Sorry to all you fellow hoodies out there for letting the side down with a total absence of sneering insolence, but being at least 30 years beyond the obligatory acne that goes with membership of your particular club, I don’t think I’m really cut out for it.

What I did ask him though was the company policy on hats. “Hats?” he barked. “What do you mean, hats?” Well, it is raining, and if I’d been wearing a hat and kept my head down, the CCTV wouldn’t have been able to see my face either, which means I’d have been able to run amok amongst the emulsion paint and sandpaper without fear of being identified.

That would presumably have meant he told me to hold it right there on the grounds I was a hattie instead of a hoodie.

Man in Uniform lost interest at that point because an elderly man with two walking sticks and his hood up was making his way gingerly through the puddles towards the entrance. The imminent arrival of the oldest juvenile delinquent in town – armed with a brace of lethal weapons – was too good an opportunity to miss so he gave me a hard stare and left me to the lightbulbs and lagging.

It’s one of the immutable laws of nature that if you put certain blokes in a uniform and give them a tiny piece of power, they’ll start behaving like they’re running North Korea.

There must be a training school somewhere that does lessons in flaring the nostrils and glaring, because they all have the same look.

All sense of proportion vanishes 
when the clip-on tie is put in place, being replaced by an air of hostile suspicion.

And woe betide if a peaked cap goes with the uniform, because then the transformation into the sort of stone-faced, merciless Russian general who used to stand on the Kremlin balcony to watch the nuclear missiles trundling by is complete.

Airports in particular have become their spiritual home, the happiest hunting grounds of the lot for exercising the licence to muck the blameless about.

This was demonstrated to the point of farce at Heathrow last week when Man in Uniform confiscated a miniature “gun” from a child’s Woody cowboy figure from the Toy Story animated films, on the grounds that a three-quarters-of-an-inch long bit of plastic represented a security threat.

Come along chaps, do have a bit of common sense. Children with cowboy dolls aren’t threats to security any more than people with hoods up scurrying for shelter when near-freezing rain is coming down like stair-rods are armed robbers.

So lay off behaving like East German secret policemen. Or, to put it another way, just hold it right there.