Back in the day we had no radios, just ‘police pillars’, special emergency phone boxes with orange flashing lights on top. When they flashed, the beat police officer (usually on foot or on a bicycle) answered them. Some forces had police boxes (like Dr Who, but without the spacious interior and abilty to travel through time). Officers lucky enough to have these Dr Who boxes (now turned into tiny coffee dispensing stations in cities like Edinburgh) could unlock them and step inside for a warm or a sit-down. We had pillars, like those in the photos. No sitting down for us. In bad weather we simply froze. Or got soaked.
The day the Corona lorry exploded – yes, that’s what this is about – I answered one of these police pillars. I was on the beat, riding one of our station’s many upright, gearless push-bikes (the one with gears was reserved solely for use by the duty inspector, who never rode bicycles anyway, because he had the Inspector’s Car, an unmarked, black Morris Minor). The message passed to me via the pillar was that ‘something had happened to a lorry’, outside a row of shops I knew well.
The message was wrong. Something hadn’t happened to the lorry, it was still happening. I arrived after pedalling fast, expecting a road accident but encountering one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen. An orange Corona lorry, loaded with thousands of bottles of drink in hundreds of orange coloured crates (unlike the one in the photo, which looks almost empty) was blasting away like bangers on bonfire night, fizzy lemonade foaming across the road and running down drains. Every few seconds another lemonade bottle burst, triggering machine-gun-like bursts of bottles as flying glass from one bottle burst others close by. Then silence. Then another ripple of bangs as more bottles exploded.
I have neglected to say that it was a very, very hot day. I stood with the Corona man, a safe distance away from the carnage. ‘Never had this happen before,’ he said. Probably the understatement of the year. It took a while for things to calm down and for the crowd that had gathered to drift slowly away. We borrowed brooms from one of the shops (one whose window blew out in an explosion a few months later, but that is another story) and we swept the broken glass into a large pile.
It was, I now realise, the nearest thing I got to a chain reaction until I had a trip around the nuclear power station at Oldbury on Severn, ten years later.