Sunday 29 May 2011

Buck's Fuzz

Following the monarchistic merriment of the last few weeks, it seems like a good time to mention my own connection with the Royal family. Those of you who've known me since university days will have heard this story, as I told it a lot in my first weeks there - like everybody else, I was trying to make myself sound interesting, and there's not many people who can say that they've been arrested under suspicion of trying to break into Buckingham Palace.

One afternoon, in the autumn of 1982, I was walking from Hyde Park towards Victoria Station. On my left was a high. mossy wall, topped with a metal bar surrounded by spikes. For no particular reason, I developed an idle curiosity as to whether these spikes rotated round the central bar. Since I'm fairly tall, and was carrying a rolled-up magazine, it was a simple matter to jump up and hit at one of the spikes. Having established that they didn't move, I pocketed the magazine and carried on.

As I got to the end of the road, I noticed a police constable standing and looking in the face of every pedestrian, as if trying to find someone who fitted a description. His eyes met mine, and a little smile of triumph appeared on his face. He stopped me, and started asking me questions - where I was from, where I was going, where I lived and whether I could prove it. (The only evidence that I could produce to show I was a Londoner was a Borough of Wandsworth library book, which didn't seem to convince him.) Suddenly, five more policemen appeared from different directions, presumably summoned by walkie-talkie. The constable turned to a figure standing behind me.

'This him?'
The sergeant, a woman, nodded. 'That's the one.'

By now, the seven of us were starting to block the pavement, so we moved into a doorway, where the questioning passed into the hands of a second constable, a tall, slightly overweight man with an abrupt manner and a bushy moustache. He asked me all the same questions, then said 'Have you ever been in trouble with the police before?'

I smiled; this was obviously a joke. 'Am I in trouble now?'
'Of course,'
'Why? What am I supposed to have done?'
'You were hitting at that railing, weren't you?'
'I wasn't hitting at it, I hit at it; there is a difference. Anyway, is that a crime?'
'Course it is. That's trespassing.'

At this point, I began to wonder if I was dealing with a lunatic. 'That's a bit petty, isn't it? I mean, you're leaning on the wall. Is that trespassing?'
For some reason, he didn't seem too impressed with the brilliance of my logic.

'That's different. I'm employed here.'
'In what capacity? What is this place anyway?'
'You don't know?'
'You say you're a Londoner and you don't know?'
'No idea.'
'This' (and here the constable drew himself up to his full height) 'is the back wall of Buckingham Palace.'

Suddenly, everything was clear. This was just a few months after the Michael Fagan incident, in which a man had broken into the Queen's bedroom and borrowed a cigarette from her. I, nineteen with shoulder-length hair and a tatty raincoat, had obviously struck the sergeant as a copycat criminal, casing the joint before a break-in. A Black Maria arrived, and four of them ushered me in, presumably leaving the other two to guard the Palace on their collective tod.

When we arrived at the station, the sergeant informed me that, legally, she had to keep a hold on my upper arm on the way to the office. This meant that we couldn't get through doors without squeezing together in a rather undignified manner, with one or the other of us banging our ankles. We made it to the interrogation room, where I emptied my pockets, asked if I could hang on to my library book, and sat down to wait.

Altogether, they kept me waiting for two and a half hours. There were two policeman there - a sullen one who sat silently with his arms folded throughout, and a chatty one, who turned out to be a Physics graduate from Durham University, and who told me quite happily about how well the job paid with others open to a physicist.

Two other people passed through while I was there. One was a middle-aged, working-class woman with a flustered manner, whose son, as far as I could gather, had disappeared on his way back from school, and who gave disconnected answers to the sullen constable's questions, constantly referring to some unnamed adversary ('What time would he usually get back from school.' 'Well, they'd tell you different.'). After she'd gone, a younger, more well-spoken woman, apparently the first's social worker, dashed in. She had a brief, bad-tempered conversation with the physicist policeman, bristling with long-standing antagonism and cryptic references to official forms: 'You can't do it on a 647, it isn't legal.' 'Well, we haven't got time for an H58.' I carried on reading.

Eventually, the sergeant reappeared with her statement, and handed it to the sullen one. I tried to read it upside-down on the desk, but could only make out one sentence. It was, however, a sentence I shall never forget; I was described as 'taking an undue interest in a wall'.

They'd decided not to charge me with anything, so I was free to go. I signed off on the objects that had been in my pockets (I corrected their addition on my loose change, which didn't go down very well), and headed for the door. On my way, the sullen one stopped me.
'Just one thing.'
I turned. 'Yes?'
'Don't waste our time like this again.'

Postscript: Fifteen years after this, I discovered that Michael Fagan and I had a mutual acquaintance, the late Ken Campbell. Sadly, Ken died before he could introduce us, so I haven't had a chance to thank him for giving me this anecdote. If you walk past the back wall of the Palace now, you'll notice that, as well as the non-revolving spikes, it's topped with several layers of barbed wire. I'm unlikely ever to warrant a statue, so that fence is the closest thing I've got to a memorial.

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