When I travel, I usually travel alone. I just prefer it that way. I accept that there is an element of risk involved when you’re exploring unfamiliar places. Maybe that’s part of the attraction. But in all my years of travelling I’ve only ever been robbed twice. I count myself lucky in that respect. I know a guy who’s been robbed seven or eight times, mostly in Barcelona. I know. Stop going to Barcelona, right?
The first time I was robbed was in a cafe in Rotterdam, when a group of locals relieved me of my shopping bag when I put it down for a moment to find a seat, and the other time was in my own hometown. That proves you don’t have to travel very far to become a victim of crime. I’m from the south Wales valleys. Some areas can be described as rough. That comes with deprivation. But I never thought I’d get mugged there.
How the incident occurred was unfortunate. A few years ago, one of my closest friends had a stroke. He wasn’t even thirty. A stroke-in-the-young they called it, which is funny because if you say it fast it sounds like you’re saying he was ‘stroking the young,’ which is all kinds of wrong. He recovered, mostly, but is still lacking a little. He forgets things and his speech is slurred, even when he hasn’t been drinking. He also developed a habit of staring at people. I met him for a drink one night when I was home from China, and at the end of the night walked him to the station to make sure he got the last train home.
At the time, I didn’t notice anything amiss. It was late, and I was halfway drunk. He got on the train and I walked off. But as I left the station, three boys followed me out. “Your friend was looking at us,” one of them said. I stopped and tried to explain that he’d had a stroke, was a bit drunk, and didn’t mean any harm. Then one of them asked me if I had any money, and I knew then I was in trouble.
“No,” I said, looking for an escape route but seeing none.
“Where are you going now?”
“I’m going to grab some food and go home.”
“So you do have money?”
That was my cue to get the fuck out of there, but as I turned around one of the three boys jumped on my back and dragged me to the floor in a headlock while the other two waded in with punches and kicks. While I was trying to defend myself, one of them rifled my pockets and nicked my fags, lighter, a £20 note and even a half-empty pack of chewing gum. And then they ran off, leaving me bleeding on the pavement.
I got shakily to my feet and tried to make my legs work enough to give chase. During the assault, which must have lasted less than thirty seconds, I was in a state of shock. I just couldn’t believe it was happening to me. But now, I was angry, and I wanted my fags back.
As I hobbled down the pavement, I was aware of some blue flashing lights and a vehicle stopping next to me. It was a paramedic who’d been on his way back from a call when he saw what happened. Those flashing blue lights were probably the reason my assailants ran off so fast. The nice paramedic called the police, then took me to the nearest hospital. I wasn’t badly hurt. I got off with just a few cuts and bruises. But the adventure was just starting.
Now, the police often get a bad rep in the UK. Apart from a few teenage run-ins and the time I got caught going down a one-way street the wrong way, I hadn’t had much to do with them before. I adopted the ‘Leave them alone, and they’ll leave you alone,’ attitude. However, from the moment a detective came to interview me at the hospital and took a statement, I knew they were taking things seriously. As things progressed, the full picture began to emerge.
The trio of boys were on CCTV, so they were easily identified. Two of them were 18 and one was 17. That night, they’d been on something of a crime spree. Kicking in doors, creating general havoc, that kind of thing. Apparently, they were celebrating one of them being released from a Young Offenders institution. Two of the three had multiple convictions for violence, burglary, and a string of other offences, but until then had been treated leniently by the courts because of their age. We have a thing in the UK about rehabilitating people instead of punishing them. Suffice to say they had every chance to turn their lives around but continued down the same path. I don’t think they were good for each other. That night they were encouraging each other and egging each other on. Boys will be boys, etc.
The police explained to me that this was a serious crime. They’d been waiting for something substantial to throw at these guys for years, and this was their chance. They had the CCTV evidence and along with my witness statement it would be enough to send them down for a long time.
When the boys found out they were wanted, they went on the run. But it didn’t take the law long to catch up with them. I was given regular updates throughout the entire process, and about a year later the case went to Cardiff crown court. The boys were charged with several offences each, the most serious being ‘robbery with violence,’ but were pleading not guilty. As far as them and their defence knew, I’d gone back to work in China and were banking on me not being bothered to come back to testify against them. Wrong. I’d moved to London by then so it was no trouble at all. I just asked for a day off work and got the train down.
I’d never been to court before, not counting a day I went and sat in the public gallery when I was doing court reporting at uni. I was nervous as hell. But the moment the boys got wind of the fact that I’d turned up they changed their pleas to ‘guilty’ and I didn’t even have to testify. Result. One of the three was still under eighteen, but because the two main offenders were legally adults, they could be prosecuted as such and got a 12-month prison sentence each. They probably served half that time, but it was still a result. That kicking they gave me proved pretty expensive in the grand scheme of things. I also got my travel expenses covered and victim compensation so the whole experience, though painful, turned out pretty financially profitable for me. I didn’t suffer much in the way of lasting damage. I don’t like talking about it much, but I wasn’t traumatized, and didn’t turn into a hermit or anything. I try to think of it as a learning experience. I’m a lot more careful now. It was probably the warning shot I needed, and I don’t get as complacent now. Even in my own hometown.
This is a deleted section from my book This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years, which is out now on Red Dawn Publications