IT’S rare you find a clergyman talking in public about his ‘life of crime’, but that’s what happened at a recent meeting of the Thursday Friendship Group at Holsworthy Methodist Church.
Before anyone worries that a local priest has been robbing banks or defrauding the tax people, “My Life of Crime” was an entertaining and enlightening afternoon presented from the right side of the law by Rev Dr Simon Leigh, superintendent minister of the Bude and Holsworthy Methodist Circuit — and formerly a detective officer in the Metropolitan Police.
The audience of fifty people were treated to a selection of anecdotes drawn from Simon’s time in the bright lights of the capital – some routine, some tragic, some funny – and one which nearly ended his police career.
Educated at Shebbear College, Simon had considered becoming a dentist, or joining the Royal Marines or the Army’s Parachute Regiment, but it was the police force that finally won his choice. “I had ambitions to join the Flying Squad,” he said. “I fancied myself, not as Dixon of Dock Green on the beat, but as Jack Regan in The Sweeney, charging around London in fast cars, catching criminals.”
There were to be plenty of adrenalin rushes for the young policeman later on, but first he had to face doubts from senior officers who feared this boy who’d been at school “in the wilds of North West Devon” would never cope.
“I just decided to do my best,” said Simon.
Training at Hendon Police College was followed by frontline work: on one of his early jobs, the rookie PC Leigh was called to direct traffic while an apparent furniture removal van manoeuvred around back streets near Earl’s Court - unwittingly aiding a gang of burglars to make their getaway in said van.
There was the time when Simon and colleagues had to hide in a ladies’ underwear cupboard while awaiting a predicted armed wages robbery at a department store. And another tense situation when an armed gang of thugs threatened police and public in a pub stakeout.
There were tragedies: the man who had lain dead and undiscovered for months in his flat in upmarket Kensington; another man who appeared to be a murder victim, but who had died in a freak knife accident when his pet Labrador had leapt on him.
There was the 1983 Harrods bombing, in which Simon knew people who had been killed or injured. He remembers being particularly affected by the sight of a police dog which had died at the scene.
Then there was the young girl whose repeated cries for help were regarded as “time-wasting” and went unheeded by the authorities. Eventually, relentless detective work led to an Old Bailey trial and her father — who had repeatedly been hiring his daughter out as a sex worker — being jailed for 20 years.
“It was moments like that that had made me want to be in the CID,” said Simon.
There was a brush with royalty, when Simon was part of the squad detailed to “cover every junction” as Her Majesty the Queen’s car convoy made its way through the city. It was a wet day and a warm day; heavy uniform was drenched and getting heavier.
As HM’s vehicle passed, young Officer Leigh’s trouser belt suffered a wardrobe malfunction... Summoned by the chief superintendent later, he was informed that the incident of the “salute that went too far” had been reported by one of the Queen’s protection team.
His boss decided not to sack him, but added: “This has never happened before.”
The Thursday Friendship Group hopes that Simon will return to tell people of his journey from the Met to Methodist superintendentship.
The Thursday Friendship Group meets in the Bodmin Street Blue Room or chapel hall, from 2pm to 3.30pm, where everyone is welcome to come and share a cup of tea or coffee, a slice of cake and a chat.
Guest speakers are regularly planned for alternate Thursdays, and on the other Thursdays, the group holds games and quiz afternoons.