Last week former police chief Malcolm Bell appeared in one of his new roles, as honorary sheriff. It was his first venture into a different career after the early retirement forced upon him by a spectacular bout of ill-health which started with a football injury.
The honorary sheriff’s role went well, he thought – it was a “great honour” to be asked – and the dispensing of justice would fit well with the background of criminal justice in which he has been steeped for the last 30 years. He knows he has a lot to learn but would serve to the best of his ability, he said, using all the experience he had gained in his policing years, the last three – “the best of my career” – as chief inspector Malcolm Bell, Shetland’s top policeman.
The unpaid position is just one of the ways in which (now untitled) Mr Bell will be filling his time now that illness has forced him to give up the job he loved, so soon after attaining it. Not only had he achieved his goal of becoming Shetland’s area commander, but he had, in 2008, been appointed as deputy divisional commander for North Division with responsibility for Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney, as well as Shetland.
Retirement in his mid-40s was not what he had planned – he would have gone on until 2012 at least – but he realised during a four-month stint in hospital in Aberdeen last year, the most recent of many periods of hospitalisation, that “the game was up”.
His ill-health started with a cruciate ligament injury after a knockabout game of football seven years ago, but the routine surgery which followed went horribly wrong. It led to a series of more than 20 operations, nine in the last year alone. Massive infection of the bone, osteomylitis, set in and became deep-seated. Events ended with the removal of the knee joint. “It’s a pretty useless leg but at least it’s mine,” he said, adding that it was thanks to a wonderful surgeon, Alastair Sutherland at Woodend, that had enabled him to recover so well.
His walking is now limited and travelling by plane is difficult as he has to arrange an aisle seat (only fully fit people are allowed to sit by the emergency exits) although he is able to drive.
But in spite of his physical disabilities he is now ready to work again. He has always been community minded, he said, and now is looking to use his skills in management. “At 46 I’m far too young to be put out to grass. I still feel I’ve got a lot to offer an employer and the community.”
However being a house husband is definitely out. He has been doing the household chores since returning from hospital early last summer, very frail at first, after the last of his operations. Looking after the house – he has become an “expert” – is not for him, although he felt he needed to keep busy after the demands of the 50 or 60 hour weeks in the police force.
He said: “It took a lot of adjustment for all of us [his wife and 15-year-old son; his elder son, 24, lives in Edinburgh] from being an absent dad and husband to being under everyone’s feet 24/7.” He has, however, discovered a talent for cooking – on Tuesday it was lasagne.
And daytime TV does not compare with the “buzz” of life in the police force. “It was all I knew for 30 years.” Those years started when he joined the police in 1980 at the age of 16 after hearing a talk at the Anderson High School. It was strange, he said, going straight from school onto the beat in his home town, knowing many of the people he had to arrest and looking very obvious in his cadet’s blue trim. The highlight of that year was the IRA bomb in the Sullom Voe power station during the Queen’s visit.
A move to Dornoch followed, but then came the more lively posting of Easter Ross, where the aluminium smelter at Invergordon and the fabrication yard at Nigg had attracted workers from the central belt – and industrial disputes.
It was all exciting stuff for a young, enthusiastic policeman attracted to the action. “I never looked back, I had no wish to do anything else.”
He was a detective for 15 years and there was more drama in a murder case in Aviemore in 1995 when two died in a hotel fire (no-one was ever convicted), and he developed an interest in fire investigation. The constant moves impinged on family life, however, with his wife’s nursing career playing “second fiddle” to his own and his sons attending numerous schools. But he felt it was important to move as a family, to “buy in” to the community where he served. He was back in Shetland in 2000 and achieved his goal of becoming chief inspector in 2006. The three years at the top “seemed like 10 minutes”, he said. He felt he had a “first class” team around him and loved the unpredictability of the work, which provided great times such as meeting the Royals in their 2007 visit but which also saw him out of the house all weekend during incidents such as the Bourbon Dolphin disaster and the house fire in Brae. “I was constantly on call. If I went home at 5pm I felt I was cheating someone. You never knew when the phone would ring. I’ve had a year to get the variety out of my system but I still miss it.”
He used to love his work at Up-Helly-A’: “It was so well-organised [by the committee] and it worked like clockwork.” This year was the first time since the early 1990s he watched it as a spectator. He enjoyed other links with the community too – he was on the Community Planning Partnership and chaired the Shetland Child Protection Committee for four years.
And he loved the autonomy of working in Shetland – the best performing command area within Northern Constabulary, which is itself the best in the UK. He was, and still is, very proud of the clear-up rate of 75 per cent and the fact that police seized £200,000 worth of heroin from Shetland last year, thanks in part of the assistance of partner agencies and the public. Shetland remains, he said, an incredibly safe place to live and work and he was glad of the opportunity to play a key role in keeping it that way.
There was “unfinished business”, however, as he would have liked to have continued helping education into the problem of substance abuse – law enforcement being only one aspect of this, albeit an important one.
But he did go some way to achieving his wish of getting more Shetland residents into the force, and looks forward to a time when chief constables can appoint someone local without it making headline news.
Mr Bell is now looking for other areas of interest. He enjoys reading history books, currently Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britian, and “dabbles” in watercolours. And he still loves sport, following football and rugby on TV.
Another positive is that he has just had laser surgery to his eyes after getting into the position of needing two pairs of glasses. It worked wonderfully, he said. “After 24 hours I had 20/20 vision. It’s the first time since I was a teenager I can see clearly without glasses. I would recommend it to anyone thinking about having it done, I wish I’d done it years ago.”
As no stranger to hospital in Aberdeen Mr Bell now feels he wants to give something back. He has already had the customary set of drinking glasses and certificate presented by the chief constable on retirement and does not need a big clock or a fishing rod – instead money collected for him from the force will go to the CLAN cancer appeal. He said he and his family were very well looked after by the chief constable and the force in general throughout his illness.
He said he wished to pay tribute to the SIC, NHS Shetland, those in the voluntary sector, the public in general and the media for their support during his period in post. “The police really cannot be successful without such support.”