June 18, 2012
In April 1992, I was on holiday in California when the LA riots broke out. Arriving back at Laguna Beach after a roadtrip I was greeted by three, increasingly desperate answer messages from the Daily Telegraph foreign desk. The first wondered whether I was around and could I ring back soon. The second asked could I call back as SOON as I got the message because it was very very urgent. The third screamed that riots were breaking out all over Los Angeles and being the nearest journalist available (the stringer was on holiday) they needed me now.
For all this I had to thank the late Rodney King – the footage of whose beating after a car chase led to a trial in which the police responsible were acquitted. That’s when the riots broke out, resulting in 52 deaths and over 2,000 injuries, plus widespread damage to property.
I’d never covered an event like this before and it was a steep learning curve. The thing old hands tell you about civil unrest is that it’s deeply deceptive. One minute you’ll be hanging in a hotel or a cafe going: “This feels all very safe and calm.” But just take one wrong turn and you can suddenly find yourself in extreme danger. “Overtaken by events” as the euphemism has it, when foreign corrs end up being chopped to bits by panga-wielding mobs.
Anyway, I persuaded an insane cab driver to take me to Hollywood Boulevard so I could report on what was happening there. Some buildings – eg Frederick’s lingerie store – had already been burnt out or looted (Madonna’s bustiere had been stolen), while long lines of riot police were clearly expecting worse. I wandered on, away from the police lines and fell upon a group of about five or six teenagers, blacks and latinos, standing outside a shoe shop.
I asked them what they were doing and they said they were the Four Tray Crips, waiting for their brothers to come and join them with some guns. I said what’s “Four Tray”? They explained it meant 43rd. Then we got chatting about the shoes in the shop – they were planning to loot them, obviously, and wondered whether I fancied a pair. Only once I’d eventually made my excuses and got well away from them did I allow myself the luxury of having the pit drop out of the bottom of my stomach. But while I was talking to the gang, I wasn’t scared one bit. What helped, I think, was that my guilelessness and my English accent appealed to them. Anyway, before I left they gave me a friendly warning. “Be safe, bro,” they said. “You wanna be careful. Guy was round here last night, asking questions like you. He got himself stuck with an axe.”
I think, along with my first day’s hunting with the Devon & Somerset, and diving with great white sharks it was definitely among the top 10 most fun moments of my life.
It did me lots of good, too. My report earned me a herogram from the then editor Max Hastings. It extended my holiday in California. I got another really good scene for my novel Thinly Disguised Autobiography. (Which Tom Wolfe’s daughter reckons is one of the best books she’s ever read. And she’s right, it’s a total bloody masterpiece, perhaps the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done, with definitely the best E scene in literature and probably the best acid scene apart from maybe the one in Julian Cope’s Head-On.)
Many of the English journalists who reported on the LA riots have been blessed ever after with the “Golden Touch of Rodney King”. William Cash (who covered them from the Playboy mansion) is now a magazine magnate; Geordie Greig is editor of the Mail On Sunday; I am arguably the most brilliant, well-loved, most popular, witty and incisive writer in British journalism.
So cheers, Rodders. I owe you a lot!
- Sir David King condemns green scaremongering; Herod condemns child abuse; Osama Bin Laden condemns Islamist terrorism; etc
- At last: expert Sir David King expertly reveals true identity of Climategate ‘hackers’
- Life’s too short to be nice to Lefties
- My incredible Big-Oil-funded life
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