The day I met The Beast
Updated: Jun 12
There’s a US Presidential visit to the UK happening right now, which means British journalists get to recycle one of their favourite stories. Yes, it’s a profile of The Beast, the US President’s monstrous limousine. This year it’s having problems navigating winding Cornish roads, apparently. Except it isn’t, as the US Secret Service will have done forensically-detailed advance reconnaissance covering every centimetre of POTUS’ visit, choosing the most mission-appropriate vehicle, but why let that interrupt a good story? British journalists who get excited about stupidly large cars getting stuck in small roads have obviously never done a school run in a London suburb, or been to a Waitrose carpark.
The Beast: good luck with the electric hybrid version
Anyway, The Beast is an automotive Imperial battle cruiser, an impregnable dreadnought that defies attack. America on wheels, Freedom billowing from the exhaust pipes. And once upon a time, in a Galaxy far, far away, I saw The Beast. For real. So pull up a sandbag, and I'll spin you a dit.
It was a chilly day in November 1995. I was a constable sent to protect Winfield House, the US Ambassador’s London residence. Well, I say ‘protect’ figuratively, as I was sent to patrol a tiny culvert in order to spot any ‘enemy frogmen’. Nobody told me who the frogmen might be, although Clinton was in London en route to Belfast, kicking off the process ultimately leading to the Good Friday Agreement. I suppose someone was worried the Red Hand Commando wing of the Navy SEALS might try to inveigle their way onto the estate. Given I was armed with only a baton and a pair of handcuffs, I doubt I’d have put up much of a defence. Call me cynical, but I suspect my job was to be an agreeable piece of scenery, a classic British bobby wearing a silly helmet. Unsurprisingly, the real security was made up of Secret Service snipers. Equally exciting were the dangerous-looking US Marines patrolling the grounds in combat gear; it was dusk, a helicopter lurking beneath a camouflage net, radios crackling while marines swept the perimeter with night-vision gear.
Pc Adler (left) spots an intruder fleeing the culvert outside Winfield House
I liked the Secret Service men and women, who were cheery and friendly and Very, Very American. A surprising number were diminutive men of Latino descent, moustachioed and wearing fawn-coloured raincoats and paperboy caps (it was like being surrounded by a platoon of heavily-armed Joe Pesci lookalikes). Sharing a heated marquee, we were all provided with an endless supply of coffee and donuts. The Secret Service agents wanted to chat about what it was like being a London cop. This was, of course, a buttering-up exercise before they tried to persuade you to part with your British ‘Custodian’ police helmet. I was offered Secret Service lapel pins, and a surprising amount of cash, for mine. Sadly, I only had one and (a) it was on my head, and (b) it belonged to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service.
In the early evening someone decided my culvert was clear of frogmen, and I was reassigned to be a piece of street furniture outside Winfield House. The President and First Lady were having dinner with the Prime Minister, John Major, their convoy headed for Westminster.
Which was when I saw the Beasts.
The USA in 1995 was still a bona fide hyper-power, flush from its Cold War victory over the USSR. It was the End of History, right? The twenty-something me couldn’t help but be impressed that the Americans had TWO convoys – a real one and… a decoy, to baffle any would-be attackers. Each convoy was identical, entourages fit for a 20th Century Xerxes; motorcyclists, advance protection vehicles, counter-ambush teams, field ambulances, support trucks, 40-seater minibuses loaded with flunkies, courtiers and journalists…
One convoy turned left and the other turned right, an immovable force of highly-polished coachwork, each with a gleaming Beast flying the Stars-and-Stripes under Regents Park's golden streetlights. I was next to the convoy turning right, away from the natural route you’d take to Westminster. That would have to be the real convoy, surely? Or was it a double bluff?
Bill and Hilary in 1995, on the top of the world
The Beast drove by, close enough for me to touch. And visible through the passenger’s window, not as tinted as I expected, was Hilary. She looked happy. Smiling. Her hair was, I remember, very blonde. Bill was looking in the other direction, pale and steely-haired.
At least I think it was them.