29 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 38

The brutal ruthlessness of the police is typical of modern Britain

Iwas on my way to dinner in London last week in the company of a bookseller friend of mine when I saw something happen that bodes deservedly ill for these wretched islands. I was in exceptionally good mood, for my friend had just sold me a delightful little work published in 1880, entitled The Enemies of Books, for £6. As soon as I saw the frontispiece, an engraving of John Bagford, Shoemaker and Biblioclast, I knew I should have to buy the book, for a thing of humour is a joy for ever. (Bagford, a founder of the Society of Antiquaries, tore out and collected the title pages of very rare works and put them in a folio, now in the British Library.)

How could I possibly resist the large fold-out reproduction of Robert Hooke's engraving of the bookworm, an engraving of a furtive charwoman (looking uncommonly like the devil) using pages tom from a Caxton to kindle a fire, as well as one of 'rain-water conducted by ivy into a library'? Would this book not serve to prove the justice of the sentiments of the author (himself the printer of the book), that 'the man . . . with a taste for books, who through the day has struggled in the battle of life with all its irritating rebuffs and anxieties, what a blessed season of pleasurable repose opens upon him as he enters his sanctum, where every article wafts to him a welcome, and every book is a personal friend'? Indeed, the little volume wafted that strange and characteristic smell of dust and mould that so excites the habitué of second-hand bookshops such as I. And I noted with pleasure in the table of contents the evolutionaiy ascent of the enemies of books: Fire, Water, Gas and Heat, Dust and Neglect, Ignorance, the Bookworm, Other Vermin, Bookbinders, and Collectors. Alas, the book had been rebound by a member of one of the highest classes of the enemies of books, namely bookbinders. Only the crassness of his efforts reduced slightly my pleasure in my purchase.

What man of even moderate cultivation could resist the story of William Blades's 'first visit to the Bodleian Library in the year 1858, Dr Badinel being the librarian'? In the course of Blades's bibliographical researches in the Bodleian, he 'came across a small grub, which, without a thought, I threw under foot and trod under foot. Soon after I found another, a fat glossy fellow. . . that I carefully preserved in a little paper box, intending to observe his habits and development. Seeing Dr Badinel near, I asked him to look at my curiosity. Hardly, however, had I turned the wriggling little victim out upon the leathercovered table, when down came the doctor's thumb-nail upon him, and an inch-long smear proved the tomb of all my hopes, while the great bibliographer, wiping his thumb upon his coat sleeve, passed on with the remark, "Oh, yes! They have black heads sometimes." That was something to know — another fact for the entomologist; for my little gentleman had a hard, shiny, white head, and I never heard of a black-headed bookworm before or since.' I am also deeply indebted to Blades for my knowledge of Dr Sib's (in the margins pedantically corrected in pencil to Dr Sibbes' by a previous owner of the book) great work of 1650, Bowels Opened in Diverse Sermons. It is the accumulation of such knowledge that makes life — at least, my life —worth living.

My heart filled with Bladesian joy, I then witnessed a horrible scene. On my way to the restaurant for dinner with my bibliographical friend, an unmarked van quite deliberately drove at a man on a bicycle with his dog on a lead running alongside him. The man, bicycle and dog became entangled, and the man was thrown to the ground. He could have been severely injured, or even killed: his head could have struck the kerb with great force. Then the man shouted out plaintively, 'What are you doing to me? I've been out of trouble for five years!' Plain-clothes men jumped out of the van, grabbed the man and held him against the nearest wall. Suddenly, as though from nowhere, a marked police van arrived, and uniformed police piled out. I know nothing of the innocence or guilt of the man, but the manner in which he was mowed down by the police was little short of murderous.

Two things appalled me about this: first that our increasingly militarised police should dare to behave in such a manner in full public view (the street was a large and important one, if not very much frequented by pedestrians at that time of night), a daring that suggests that they feel they can do so with impunity so long as no question of racial prejudice arises; and second, that it revealed the extent of my own cowardice, in that I was too afraid that the police would turn on me to have intervened on the man's behalf, as I most certainly ought to have done. If, after all, the police were prepared to behave like this in public, they were hardly likely to listen with equanimity to the protests of an outraged passer-by; and I preferred to get peacefully on with my own life than to protect the legal rights of another person. In effect, then, we have become subjects of the sovereign police, at least if my reaction was not dissimilar to how most of my fellow citizens would have reacted. This is well and truly the slippery slope, if not already halfway down it.

Needless to say, the brutal ruthlessness of the police does not mean that they are effective; on the contrary, they absolutely typify the increasingly officious bullying incompetence of the modern British state, the kind of officious, bullying incompetence that I witness even( week whenever I attempt to intervene with any public agency on behalf of my patients. What a terrible and horrible change has overcome our county! A people without virtue or charm, a government bloated but that fails to perform its elementary, indispensable tasks. What has happened? We have paid the price of reformers' hubris and vanity, and have reformed an ancient culture almost out of existence. Men who were so convinced of their own good intentions — and this after the universal spread of Freudian psychology! — were incapable of conceiving that they might do harm as well as good. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that those who think themselves born with original virtue are still hard at it. They cannot see an institution without wanting to remake it in their own image. The real problem for British conservatism nowadays is that there is so little left to conserve, and so few who want to conserve anything. The best we can hope for is low interest rates and taxes that do not rise.