Stevyn Colgan is an oddly-spelled Cornishman, the author of eight books and the co-writer of Saving Bletchley Park with Professor Sue Black OBE. He’s been a chef, a comics publisher, a monster maker, an artist, a university lecturer, a brewer and, for 30 years, a London police officer. He’s spoken at TED, the Ig Nobel Prizes, Latitude, Hay, Nudgestock and many other events. He’s been set on fire twice, kissed by a royal, been told to f*** off by a different royal and once let Freddie Mercury try his helmet on for size. Most recently, he spent 10 years as one of the ‘elves’ that research and write the multi award-winning BBC TV series QI, and he was on the writing team that won the Rose D’Or for Radio 4’s The Museum of Curiosity. He now concentrates on writing comedy novels, guesting on podcasts and radio shows, speaking at public events, and co-hosting (with Paul Waters) the writers’ podcast We’d Like A Word.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
I’m genuinely amazed that there are 21st century people who think the world is flat. How has that happened? We’ve known it to be a slightly squashed ball for millennia – Eratosthenes worked it out with a well and some sticks over 2000 years ago. And yet there is a growing number of people who watch a couple of YouTube and then take it as incontrovertible fact that we live on a plate. It’s madness. And you can’t argue with them because they fall back on the equally ridiculous claim that the last 2000 years of science and discovery is all fake. It makes me fume.
Sadly, it’s the tip of an iceberg and we can’t simply ignore it because, further down the slippery slope, past the Moon landing deniers and chem trail believers, we find people putting their kids and the kids around them at risk by not vaccinating them, and others who honestly believe that there are cures for cancer being withheld so that big pharma companies can make more money. What possible reason, what possible advantage, would there be for a worldwide collusion of governments just to keep us in the dark about what shape planet we’re on? And why would big pharma suppress a cancer cure? The longer we live, the more drugs we need to keep us going, surely? No one earns a penny from dead people. And, as for the Moon landing deniers, do these people not realise that it was a space race? Apollo 11 was watched every inch of the way by the Russians, the Chinese and every other country that would have LOVED to kick America up the arse. But have any of them ever made the allegation? No. Despite this it’s apparently easier for some people to believe that the tens of thousands of people involved in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes are all liars than to accept the much simpler fact that men walked on the Moon. And not just once. Six times. That’s twelve astronauts. And not one hint of whistleblowing from America’s rivals. Wilful ignorance. That’s what amazes me more than anything else right now. And it makes me sad and angry in equal measure.
On a more positive note, I’m constantly amazed by 3D printing. It’s like some kind of magic. I recently saw a surgeon practice for an operation on a 3D printed replica of someone’s damaged skull that was generated from MRI scans. I’ve seen Tutankhamun’s tomb replicated life size by a 3D printer that copied the walls. I’ve seen items printed in titanium, ceramics, even food. Imagine being able to print a jet engine with no seams or points of weakness. Imagine printing beef burgers grown from stem cell cultures so we don’t have to destroy rain forest for cattle pasture. The possibilities are almost unlimited.
You’ve stacked up 30 years of experience as a police officer. Would you say that has made you more curious?
I was always curious. I was always that annoying kid that asked ‘Why?’ I loved school and I read voraciously. My mother loves to tell the story about how, when I was 10 or 11, I challenged my teacher over his knowledge of dinosaurs. Basically, he’d completely misidentified a couple of species on a poster. After pointing this out I was told, ‘If you’re so damned clever, Colgan, why don’t you teach the class?’ So I did, happily (after all, who knows more about dinosaurs than nerdy 10 year olds?). I was precocious and challenging and I must have been a nightmare to teach. That said, I’ve recently been through the process of having my granddaughter diagnosed with autism and I now realise that I’m probably somewhere on the spectrum myself. In some subjects I excelled – one school report actually used the word ‘genius’. But in others I flopped miserably. Suffice to say I left school with hardly any qualifications but with a burning desire to know everything.
Since then I’ve done a lot of academic work and come to realise that those poor 1960s and early 1970s teachers just didn’t know how to teach such an awkward kid. As I said, I loved school but I don’t think it loved me. I’m still a bookaholic. I read at least two a week in a ratio of around 5/1 non-fiction to fiction. But has policing made me more curious? It’s certainly got me more interested in people and how they ‘work’. There is no subject more fascinating than human behaviour.
On a similar note… Are police officers better at paying attention to their surroundings? Are there any tips for being a better at noticing?
In any job you become hyper-aware of certain things that pertain to your role. Cops are no different. Once you’ve seen a few people ‘looking shifty’ you learn to read people’s faces pretty well. You also get to recognise little signs and clues that suggest that a crime is taking place or has done so at a previous time. To be honest, I think I learned to be good at noticing things more from my art teachers than anyone else. They showed me how to see things properly. I’ve taught art classes myself and one of the first exercises I set my students is to draw a bicycle. It’s very rare that any of them can. But that’s because the human brain can’t process all of the input it receives. It takes shortcuts. So, even though you might have seen a million bicycles, all that’s stored in your head is just enough data to help you identify the next bicycle. It’s only when you really look at a bicycle that you get to understand the shape of the frame, how the gears and chain and pedals interconnect etc. It’s so ingrained in me now that, if I walk into a room, I subconsciously scan it and take in all the details. It’s a bit like having a photographic memory. My wife loves it because I always know where everything is in our house. She never misplaces her car keys.
You were part of the Met’s Problem Solving Unit. Can you tell me more about the remit and history of this department? Also, can you give some examples of counter intuitive policing strategies?
The remit was simple. All over London there were problems that didn’t respond to traditional policing solutions. Some were crimes. Some were instances of disorder. Some were community issues that affected quality of life or increased the fear of crime. Our little team had been pulled together to try to find sustainable solutions. We were all people selected for the job because we’d been running successful problem solving initiatives of our own. Instead of trying to tackle the symptoms of these issues we pulled them apart to find the causes. Then, once we’d identified them, we designed ways to tackle them. Many of our responses were fairly conventional. But, occasionally, we tried something a little bit left-field, if the situation demanded it.
For example, we were asked to look at disturbance problems when nightclubs kicked out. There were complaints of noise, fights, drunkenness and sexual assaults. The locals wanted the clubs closed down. The existing solution was to throw lots of cops at the problem, which was expensive, not always possible if it was a busy night and, every so often, simply heightened tensions and led to more disturbance. We did our research and identified that the most common complaint was noise. And the cause was identified mostly as women’s voices. There’s no sexism here – just science. Women’s voices are in a higher register and they carry further. And women tend to stay in groups more than men do which concentrated the volume. We therefore found a way to keep the volume down – we asked the door staff to give out lollipops. It’s hard to be loud with a lollipop in your mouth. Plus, it’s kind-of childish and one unexpected secondary benefit was that giving them to men as well made them less aggressive. It’s hard to be macho when you’re sucking a Chupa-Chup. Complaints fell drastically and the cost of this solution was minimal and absorbed by the club.
Despite this, certain tabloids chose to pillory us with headlines like ‘Police waste money on lollipops to yobs instead of catching crooks.’ Sigh. I loved my time with the Problem Solving Unit and we made a lot of Londoners’ lives better. And much of what we learned was fed back to the Home Office and is now incorporated into training for new police officers and PCSOs.
How has the discoveries of psychology and behavioural economics shaped the way we police?
It’s kind of stalled at the moment, which is frustrating. Unfortunately, just as we got some kind of momentum going, the government stripped the police force of over 20,000 officers and goodness knows how many millions of pounds of resources, which meant that they had to revert to response policing – being reactive instead of proactive – just to keep on top of things. What politicians never seem to get is that people don’t give a damn about arrest figures or government targets. Ask any group of people if they’d prefer that (a) cops are good at catching burglars or (b) that they don’t get burgled, they’re going to opt for (b) every time. No one wants to be the victim of a crime, so prevention is what’s needed. To use a medical analogy, it’s better to prevent a disease from spreading than to have to deal with the consequences of an epidemic. But crime prevention takes up a lot of time and resources. It’s expensive too and the effects are hard to measure. By comparison, counting the number of bad guys arrested is easy and the Home Secretary can say ‘Look at us! We’re the party of law and order!’ And it’s utter bollocks. Every person arrested for a crime is a mark of failure – failure to stop a crime from happening and failure to prevent someone becoming a victim of crime when they need not have been. And every failure has a knock-on effect. Victims need support, which puts pressure on the NHS and other professional bodies. Insurance premiums go up. No one wins. Except the MPs waving their ‘Party of Law and Order’ flags.
Back in the early 2000s we started to get it right. Extra funding and resources were ploughed into prevention. In London, we had a community policing team on every single ward consisting of a sergeant, two constables and three community support officers. We trained them in problem solving and behavioural insights. They engaged with communities. They ran prevention projects. They provided highly visible police patrols that made people feel safer. And, because they were additional staff, it didn’t affect our ability to respond to 999 calls. And guess what? Burglary dropped to its lowest rate since the 1970s. Many other crimes were reduced in number too. Extra officers on the ground meant more stop and search, which is a controversial tactic but effective – even as a threat. The numbers of searches have dropped – due to cuts and staffing levels – from over 1.5 million in England and Wales in 2009/10 to under 400,000 in 2017/18. And just look at the prevalence of knife crime now. People aren’t scared to carry a knife any more (and, lest you think it’s all about youths, think again. Most knife crime is committed by adults). Sadly, without investment and staff the police are going to be stuck in this situation forever – always chasing after the bad guys after they’ve destroyed someone’s life. Policing could be so much smarter and so much more effective.
How did you transition from the police into writing, illustrating and presenting?
It wasn’t really a transition as I’ve always written and drawn as a hobby. During my police career I wrote 13 novels – all still unpublished – and a non-fiction book. Curiously, it was doing an illustration for a friend while I was still a cop that inadvertently led to one of the highlights of my life – meeting Douglas Adams several times. And when Douglas so tragically died I was invited to the first Memorial Lecture where I met Stephen Fry who put me on to John Lloyd and, next thing you know, I’m writing and drawing for the QI Annuals. From there it was a gradual ‘rise through the ranks’ to radio with The Museum of Curiosity and then TV with QI. And my non-fiction book got a deal in the meantime and set me off on a career as an author. What I love about telling that story is that it all began with me doing someone a favour. Kindness is a kind of superpower that we all have. So use it. You never know where a good deed will lead you.
What are the factors that have made QI and The Museum of Curiosity so popular?
Great hosts and amazing guests obviously. But I think the main reason is the ‘stickyness’ of the facts we find. Not everyone can be an expert – some people just aren’t wired up to remember all of the minutiae that surround a particular subject – which is why we’re not all professors. But we can all hang on to a decent number of memorable facts and, the stickier they are, the easier they are to retain.
I’ll give you an example Catherine Zeta-Jones and husband Michael Douglas share the same birthday, 25th September. That’s a fact but it’s not a sticky fact. But if we say that Catherine-Zeta-Jones was born on her husband’s 25th birthday … the fact becomes sticky. It’s memorable because it’s surprising and maybe a bit icky. Saying that Dick Van Dyke is older than sliced bread is much more sticky than saying that he was born in 1925 and the first automatically sliced bread loaves went on sale in 1928. We were always looking for good sticky facts. The current QI books (that replaced the annuals) are full of them. As is the very popular QI podcast No Such Thing As A Fish.
As a QI elf is there one fact that you’re particularly fond of and why?
No one single fact that I can recall. My favourites are those that have a real ‘Whoa!’ factor to them because they’re completely unexpected. In particular, I like ones that juxtapose two events like the fact that, when T Rex was alive, Stegosaurus was already a fossil. See? Whoa …. And it’s true; T Rex is closer to us in time than to Stegosaurus. Isn’t that amazing? I’m always telling people not to use ‘dinosaur’ as a derogatory term. They were around for over 100 million years and were extraordinarily successful. And they’re still here, pecking at the feeders in your gardens (See? I’m still a dino-nerd). In a similar vein, I like the fact that that ‘Come on Eileen’ was Number 1 closer in time to the end of WW2 than to now. And that you could have gone to the last public execution in London by Tube. And that the Brooklyn Bridge is older than Tower Bridge. And that Billy the Kid was killed in the same year that the First Boer War ended. And that the last execution by guillotine in France took place in the same year that Star Wars was released. And did you know that when the great pyramid of Giza was being built there were still mammoths roaming about in Europe?
What is the most rewarding part of your work at the moment? It seems to me as an outside observer that you have a particular fascination with discovering and sharing hidden connections.
I retired from the police in 2010 and thought that was that. But it wasn’t. Since then I’ve been a lot in demand for talks and lectures and workshops. I’ve spoken in the USA, Europe, Malaysia and all over the UK. I’ve done TED talks, been a keynote at Nudgestock (the UK’s biggest behavioural science conference), QEDCon, the Ig Nobel Prizes and any number of science and literary festivals. I’ve also lectured to under-grads at a number of UK universities. It’s all very satisfying. And my time on QI and The Museum of Curiosity was wonderful and I’ll always look back on it with great fondness. But new challenges lie ahead. I’ve just taken on a contract with the UK Home Office working with some university lecturers to design a degree course in policing. That’s exciting.
And I’ve returned to my first love – writing novels. I’ve written two comedy murder-mysteries called A Murder To Die For and The Diabolical Club and the response from readers has been very gratifying and the former was nominated for two awards. I can never say that my life is boring! But that’s probably because of the curse of curiosity – I can never say no to new opportunities and experiences. And yes, I’m still fascinated by connections – hence my favourite facts all being surprising juxtapositions. Police investigation is all about finding facts, verifying them and then seeing how they connect to others. It’s like completing a mosaic – every new piece adds to the overall picture.
I was a huge fan of James Burkes’ TV series Connections back in the late 70s/early 80s. A groundbreaking series. The series hugely boosted my interest in such things. So perhaps it’s no surprise that my first two books were all about connections. Finding the links between things is the basis of all research, whether it’s crime or building a themed QI script. It’s now something I do all the time. The world is a fascinating, beautiful, complex place inhabited by fascinating, beautiful complex living things – including ourselves. And I’ll continue to ask questions about it and marvel at it all until the day I die.
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