Food and Drink: Why the police picked me up

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The city of Hereford has buried, at its own expense, only three people since 1990, according to a curious little item in the Hereford Times. I am taking this as good news. It means that in this bustling place, with its obvious cheerfulness, but also its share of all the troubles citizens are heir to, there are few of us whose bodies will not be interred or cindered by some family member or friend. Only one person a year slips through so many nets of security as to die unclaimed.

The business arose because Michael Fallow, 50 years old and apparently from the Glasgow area, as well as an imbiber and a mouth organist, died in the city in Tony's Cafe, Union Walk, on 15 October, in spite of a police officer's attempt at resuscitation. Mr Fallow was, the paper says, a slight figure, familiar about the town, and amiable enough except when the worse for wear or in the grip of his periodically bad temper. He was well-known to various voluntary groups, and sometimes lived in hostels or in the open. In death, and especially after three weeks' fruitless inquiry by the authorities, Mr Fallow's remains became the concern of the environmental health department, which provided a plain coffin, a hearse and a cremation. 'A small group of people' were at the funeral.

I wondered if he was the man we once saw wandering along the inner ring road, stark naked and pale, and - of course - slightly Christlike. I don't think he's to be confused with the man of the road who stands outside one of the fast-food places quite often, with a mug of the establishment's tea in his hand. Mr Fallow might or might not have been the man one often saw huddled over the radiator in the ticket hall at Hereford station.

Alone as Mr Fallow may have been, he was probably a good deal better known about the town than I am. My lack of celebrity was proved the other day when a policeman came up to me in High Town (our partly-medieval, partly-Georgian and in large measure modern pedestrian precinct) and said: 'Excuse me, Sir, I wonder if you would mind taking part in an identity parade?' I immediately made up my mind to say yes. Obviously, the slightest sign of hesitancy would prove or imply guilt. I am as good and natural a member of many awkward squads as the next man, and even a bit of a maverick: but show me a policeman in uniform and I know my place.

Naturally, it turned out I was to be one of the line-up of early-middle-aged men of average to above- average height who would receive a tenner to impersonate suspected villainy. Indeed, the rozzer exuded gratitude that he wasn't going to have to accost half the men in the town for the rest of his beat.

Mulling the thing over, and especially as I stood in line with my fellows, I went from relief that I wasn't the suspect to irritation that I fitted the bill at all. I brooded over the way the bobby thought that I would more or less do. The policeman must have reckoned that when the suspect's solicitor fetched up, he would scarcely say: 'No, I can't have that tall, good-looking one in the line-up, after all, my man would be bound to look a poor case stood anywhere near that magnificent specimen of humanity.'

In fact, the suspect, when he joined us in front of the one-way mirror, looked about as ordinarily thumped about by his near-half-century of history as the rest of us jobbing builders and taxi-drivers. He looked neither more nor less filled with villainy and/or charisma than the rest of us. The suspect's lawyer said we'd do. And so we looked at each other's reflections, and chewed on that. The innocents parked on each side of the suspect started chatting with him, and all three of them talked about their embarrassment, as equals.

Just for the record, the first witness to inspect said, yes, the man she saw commit (an extremely unviolent) offence was indeed there. She picked the wrong man. The second witness agreed the man was there. And picked another wrong wrong-un. (Neither mis-call was me, thank God.) The last witness declared that the villain was not present. Presumably the first two witnesses were wrong. The third one might or might not have been.

I went home wishing that I was the sort of person who could not, for glamorous reasons, take part in identity parades. I mean, I would like to join that lucky crew - for instance, Nicholas Parsons, Yasser Arafat, even that hideously muscular woman in the VW ad - from whom anonymity has been robbed.

Even in my own village, I have failed to become universally recognisable. The other day, I was driving into the city. It was the sort of morning that even this November has produced once or twice: cold, and drenched in colour as the sun tried to warm away the frost in the lee of the hedges. I picked up one of our local gypsies, a man I have given lifts to before and who might by now have come to realise that I have lived beside his local shop for three years. He was polite enough, but I might as well have come from the moon.

To be fair, I find the old gypsy men all look rather alike and I'm never sure whether the man I'm giving a ride to is one of our local families or not. They all mumble and gurgle in much the same way. They probably look at those of us who live in houses and find the same difficulty: all these pale people in clean cars, so anonymous. The gypsies are said to forget about our existence, and certainly their promises to us, the moment we are out of sight. I believe it, and it's probably good for us to be held of so small account by people widely held to be of none at all.