One night in my teenage years I was walking home up the Lewes Road in Brighton, in a state of discombobulation. We’ll skip the details of the earlier part of the evening. Suffice it to say that I had the munchies and was routing my walk via the garage on the Vogue Gyratory, to get some chocolate. It was a fairly typical late night decision on my part. Being a young fellow and rather paranoid about bother from brutish men out to make trouble, I was fully concentrated on getting myself home safely without incident.
Whoever named the road junction which joins the Lewes Road, Upper Lewes Road, Hollindead Road, Bear Road and a few others must have had a truly evil sense of humour. It is the sort of place that simply never be in vogue. It’s horrible. It was bad enough before a massive Sainsbury’s was built beside it, complicating the driver’s task even more. After that permission was granted to put the present day petrol station in the central island, with the result that it must be the most inconvenient junction in the City. Walking around it is pedestrian in every sense of the word. Unlike Seven Dials, there are no handy shortcuts.
My plan was to get in, buy the chocolate and get out of the Vogue Gyratory as quickly as possible. From the other side of the road, I saw a couple of police cars which looked very badly parked on the garage forecourt. I decided that I wouldn’t bother with the chocolate and turned to walk around the junction instead. Back then, for some reason, the police were constantly stopping me. Perhaps it was because my shapeless leather coat. Perhaps it was because they had nothing better to do. Perhaps it was because they enjoyed megalomania. Almost every time I went out, the police seemed to want to search me and harass me. One starry night myself and a couple of pals went for a walk up by the racecourse to look at the heavens above and we ended up being threatened with an on the spot strip search by plain clothes and uniformed coppers. The big guy who made all the threats that night actually ended the conversation with the words, “You should be in town getting drunk and starting fights“! Looking back, it seems fairly certain that we had accidentally stumbled upon these police up to something nefarious and they were making sure to scare us. Something to with the way their marked car drove directly at us at high speed off road makes me suspicious. When you read this post, Sussex Police people, as I know you will, you will surely understand why people find it hard to trust you. If you don’t, then imagine being outnumbered eight to three on a cold night on top of a hill and being told that you might be stripped naked there and then according to the outcome of the toss of a coin. Would you find it easy to trust people after that? Perversely, I have to thank the police for getting me into cycling. I took it up to avoid being stopped all the time – the police don’t stop cyclists. That’s a well known fact. A cyclist is someone with somewhere to go, with some task to do which need not be interrupted. A young person on foot is much more vulnerable, much easier to victimise. Much as though I wanted the chocolate, I didn’t fancy being felt up by the police yet again that night.
As I walked around the outside of the gyratory, I looked back and saw that the cars were not actually police cars but taxis! I crossed the road and entered the garage forecourt. Then I realised that there were both taxis and police cars on it. The police cars were parked exceptionally badly. One of them hadn’t driven in on the normal entrance road, it had mounted the pavement instead and it hadn’t even bothered to cross the pavement properly – its rear wheels were still in the road. The other was parked at 90 degrees to the pumps. There were no police officers in sight. I wanted to leave but thought that if I did so it would look suspicious. Fearing that I would be chased yet again by the police for no apparent reason other than me just not fancying another late night interview with them, I made the swift decision to carry on and get my chocolate. I would get in, get the chocolate and get out without looking like the sort of person they would want to harass. I told myself the trick would be to look normal, to look confident and to carry on as if I had every right in the world to buy chocolate from a petrol station late at night.
I held my head high and walked towards the door of the petrol station. As I did so, I noticed a man cowering behind a taxi. Whatever his problem was, it was nothing to do with me. He obviously felt otherwise. He kept waving his hand at me, gesturing that I should get back. You get all sorts of weirdos in Brighton. Frankly, that’s one of the big pluses of the place. I walked calmly across the forecourt.
Those were the days when you could enter the garage shops themselves all through the night. There was no faffing around through a glass grill, negotiating with the cashier about what out of sight products that may or may not be on his shelves. I opened the door and went in.
Immediately inside the door there two men on the floor, struggling with each other. I didn’t realise at first that the man on top was a policeman, probably because his hat had come off and he was facing away from me, making his uniform harder to recognise. I was so determined to appear normal and avoid trouble that I just treated this unexpected sight as a commonplace occurrence and made to ignore it. I couldn’t help noticing, as I stepped over the legs of the man being held down, that he had a stocking over his face. Before the penny dropped, a noise from the other side of the store distracted me. I looked up to see another two men scraping along the crisps and biscuits shelf. One was a policeman and the other another man with a stocking on his face, his back to the shelf. He didn’t look like he was trying to threaten anyone at the precise moment he caught my attention. The policeman was holding his arms by his elbows and very possibly kneeing him in the testicles. I stood there for a moment, astonished. I suddenly realised that I had walked in on the tail end of a robbery. I looked down at the men by my feet and noticed a sawn off shotgun, lying on the floor just inside the door. An armed robbery!
What to do? Of course, all of this happened very fast. Very very fast. The struggles seemed to be over or about to finish very shortly. The criminals were both surrendering, although I forget their words. I do remember the words of the police officer at my feet. He shouted at me: “Get out of the fucking way!“
‘Blimey‘, I thought, ‘I’ve completely drawn attention to myself in exactly the way I had been so keen to avoid.’ This wasn’t the time or the place to hang around pondering my next move. I was so paranoid about getting into trouble that my brain just said something like, ‘carry on as normal – make like you are not part of the problem.‘
I turned to my left and walked up to the counter. The cashier was there with a very bad case of the shakes. It was a wonder that he could stand up at all. A third police officer appeared on my side of the counter. We all stood there for a moment. Best to be polite, I thought. “After you“, I said to the officer. He shook his head in disbelief, open jawed. The man behind the counter carried on shaking. I stood there wondering why this new police officer wasn’t buying anything. My brain not functioning as nature intended, I carried on standing there, regretting my decision to buy chocolate. I had got in, not got the chocolate and didn’t seem to be getting out all that quickly either.
Just as I was beginning to feel truly awkward, this new policeman at the counter suddenly demanded in a rather loud voice, “What do you want?!” I remember thinking, ‘oh that’s helpful, at last, I can get my chocolate.’ So I said, “A small bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, please“. The police officer looked at the cashier and said, “Give him a bar of chocolate!” The cashier picked up my chosen sweetie and offered it to me. I went to hand him 32 pence but the policeman suddenly lost his temper and said, “take the chocolate and GO AWAY!” I said, “Are you sure? I’m happy to pay for it“, because my constant thought pattern was ‘act normal, behave normally, don’t do anything out of the ordinary and they’ll leave you alone’. The police officer took the chocolate from the cashier, gave it to me and said, “Here’s your chocolate, now get out. GET OUT!” I took the chocolate and turned to go.
There were a lot more police officers in the shop behind me than when I had arrived. The two men had been bundled outside and were being held face down on the ground, in handcuffs. I ignored the melee and walked away. I walked up Hollingdean Road, eating my chocolate. It was sweet and lovely. Reaching the last segment, I suddenly realised that I had inadvertently profited from an armed robbery! That was more than you could say for the two men with the gun. I wished I’d asked for a big bar.