Today I am going to share my thoughts on Blue: A Memoir by John Sutherland. It’s not often I read memoirs but having heard John Sutherland speaking to Matt Johnson last year at the Crickhowell Literature Festival, I was immediately taken by John’s story and really wanted to hear more. Rather shockingly it has been nearly a year since I bought the book and I’ve only just read it but so glad that I finally have. Before I share my thoughts, here is what the book is all about.
About the Book
‘This is a remarkable book . . . profound and deeply moving . . . It has as much to tell us about mental illness as it does about policing’ Alastair Stewart
John Sutherland joined the Met in 1992, having dreamed of being a police officer since his teens. Rising quickly through the ranks, he experienced all that is extraordinary about a life in blue: saving lives, finding the lost, comforting the broken and helping to take dangerous people off the streets. But for every case with a happy ending, there were others that ended in desperate sadness, and in 2013 John suffered a major breakdown.
Blue is his memoir of crime and calamity, of adventure and achievement, of friendship and failure, of serious illness and slow recovery. With searing honesty, it offers an immensely moving and personal insight into what it is to be a police officer in Britain today.
If I were to be honest, I’d have to admit that this is possibly one of the hardest reviews I have had to write. Sometimes I struggle because I enjoyed the book too much, sometimes because it is hard to convey my thoughts without giving away vital parts to the plot. With this book it is hard, not just because this is a memoir and I have little experience in reading and reviewing them, but because there is just such an honest, candid and quite often moving element to this book that makes it really difficult to put my thoughts into words, but makes me want to tell everyone to just read it.
There – I’ve said it. Is that enough do you think? Yeah. You’re right. Probably not.
This is the story of John Sutherland, a man who in seemingly the blink of an eye (in my mind at least) rose through the ranks from Probationary PC through to the role of Commander of one of the largest London Police boroughs. It is a completely open account of his life from an unsuccessful and extremely short-lived foray into the world of the criminal, his absolute certainty that he wanted to be a Police Officer, and through to the position which would ultimately be one of the last he held in the Police. We relive the highs, the lows, the joys and the devastation that John Sutherland experienced in his career, and the events which ultimately led to his eventual decline in mental health and the breakdown which ended his time with the Police.
Now this book will not be unique, not because of the subject matter and not because of what John Sutherland did for a living. It won’t be unique in the completely honest way in which he has depicted his life and his illness and he has certainly done that. There are many books which handle the subject of mental health and do so well, as John Sutherland has also done. For me, what made this book a compelling, if somewhat heartbreaking read, is that many of the experiences he talks about, the crimes which he had to attend, the devastation he witnessed around him, were cases which were sadly very familiar to me. All too often a name would be mentioned that I had heard upon the news and which gave me that extra reason to pause and reflect. Because people (me included) always consider the victim when they hear a news report. We often feel sympathy toward the family and perhaps consider how we might cope in similar circumstances. Seldom do we look to the man or woman sat just to the side of the bereaved family member we see in televised appeals, the person, or persons, tasked with bringing justice for the family, and wonder how it is affecting them.
Well – that is this book in a nutshell, although to simplify it that way would be to do it an injustice. But this book does take us on a journey, John Sutherland’s journey, one which I don’t think I could have coped with for as well and as long as he did before it would have taken its toll. It is not just about his time in the Police Service, the book also covers his family life, one which in itself was not without drama. He shows us both the harder elements of his family life such as his father’s unexpected departure from the family home, coping with family illness and through to the happier times when he met his wife and started a family of his own. And it is a truly beautiful thing the way in which he has shown the love he has for his family, and his openness about his father’s death was perhaps one of the most moving parts of the book for me.
Don’t for one minute think that this book is all doom and gloom. There are so many moments which will make you smile, giving you that well needed dose of humour to break the tension or the downbeat nature of some of the stories John Sutherland has to tell. His constant desire to get involved in a decent car chase, often thwarted before they really begin, did bring a smile to my face. And there is one scene, completely cringe inducing, which typifies that kind of gallows humour you associate with the emergency services, and while I’m not going to elaborate here, it is safe to say you will not look at a rotisserie chicken in quite the same way again …
Even if you are not a Police Officer or linked to the Emergency Services in any way, and I am so very, very not, I would still recommend that you read this book. It is written in fluent and engaging style which is accessible to all. It is not simply about a career in the Service but also about the way in which those hidden stresses and pressures can slowly build to a point of total mental breakdown. Mental health still has such a stigma attached to it in all walks of life but especially in a service like the Police where it was once anticipated that they would just ‘suck it up’, and that high divorce rates were just part of the job. There is a reason that a lot of crime writers in the eighties, nineties (and even now) fell back on the old cliché of the world-weary, moderate/high functioning alcoholic, divorced Detective after all …
Thankfully things like PTSD and depression are being taken far more seriously than they once were amongst all of the Emergency Services, but there is still a long way to go to fully understand and support the impact that the pressure of the job can have on the very people we all rely upon and often take for granted. The wonderful folk off all of the Emergency Services deal in the most extreme of circumstances, much of which we general Joe Public cannot begin to fathom, but they are not alone in suffering from issues relating to mental health and so much of this book, especially the final few chapters, resonated with me. John Sutherland has written so eloquently on how his breakdown affected him, of the crippling impact it had upon his health, but also about how the acceptance of his condition and the support he received from those who loved him made the journey back to health slow but achievable.
I wish I could be half as eloquent in telling you why you should read this book because you really should. Funny, moving, candid and often heartbreaking, this is the story of one man in thousands, who sacrificed so much of himself to keep our streets safe and is now finding a way to put himself back together. Much respect felt here and such a well written, absorbing and engaging style of writing that I couldn’t put the book down. If you are a serving Officer yourself, if you are struggling with life in general, if you have mental health issues yourself or you know someone who is one or all of the above, then I’d recommend you read this. You may learn a little about yourself along the way too.
If you’d like to read Blue then it is available from the following retailers: