Sunday, 28 December 2008

Away From it All

It's my second day back at work after Christmas and I'm on my way to the small town of Coleford in Gloucestershire to deliver a VW Golf to a dealership there.

Coleford is easily accessible by main roads but my sat nav has chosen a more adventurous route and is leading me up a winding country lane through the Forest of Dean.

About five miles from Coleford there are signposts for Symonds Yat Rock, a beauty spot I have heard of but never visited. It's just after nine thirty and the bus I'm intending to catch out of Coleford doesn't leave until half past eleven, so on an impulse I turn off the lane and follow the signs down a track that leads into the forest.

The visitors' site lies about half a mile away and contains a parking area, an information centre (closed), toilets (open), picnic tables and, surprisingly, a pay-and-display ticket machine. Parking is charged at a discouraging flat rate of £3 per day. As far as I can see there are no staff around, and it's hard to imagine an inspector turning up here in the middle of the Christmas holidays to issue penalty tickets. However there is a notice next to the machine explaining that the money goes towards the upkeep of the site, so I grudgingly pay up.

Next to the notice about parking is another, warning that a herd of 'semi domesticated boars' have been illegally dumped in the forest and are to be treated with caution if encountered. I can think of any number of things that an unscrupulous person might try to secretly dispose of in the seclusion of the countryside, but a whole herd of boar? Whatever their reason for being here they are nowhere to be seen today.

There are a couple of viewpoints nearby, where steep drops down to the distant River Wye are fenced off, and the fences decorated with 'danger' signs.

symonds yat

At one viewpoint there is a display about the peregrine falcon, which can be seen flying around here in warmer months. With a top speed in excess of one hundred miles an hour these are apparently the fastest animals in the world, which is something to bear in mind for the next time anyone tells you that this accolade belongs to the cheetah.

The site is kept in pristine condition, with not one piece of graffitti or litter to be seen anywhere. There is hardly anyone else around, just a couple of family groups, a couple of dog walkers, and a guy jogging. All are dressed appropriately in sensible walking gear (or running gear) and seem far more purposeful than me. I'm in my everyday black coat and white jeans, and have neglected to shave for over a week.

I'd always thought that the proper etiquette when walking past people in out of the way places like this is that you exchange a glance and then a one word greeting - 'morning,' 'alright,' 'hi,' etc. But apart from one chipper man in one of the family parties, people seem reluctant to meet my eye. I feel as if I should have smartened up a bit before coming, and ought to have a better reason for visiting here than simply having a spare hour to kill.

In the end I stay only about half an hour and then drive into Coleford to drop the car off before walking into the town centre to wait for the bus. The air is not quite so clean here and the views not so long, but it seems far more relaxing to be strolling around these streets amongst other casually dressed guys who could be up to anything or nothing, and nobody cares much either way.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Memories of Darkness

It’s early evening and I’ve just got off a train at the small village of Heyford in Oxfordshire, not far from the middle of nowhere. I’m on my way to pick up a van from Upper Heyford airfield, which is about three miles from here. The site was formerly used by the US Air Force during the Cold War but these days is only used, like many similar airfields around the country, to store cars by the thousand on runways that are no longer needed for their original purpose. This is handy enough for the transport firms who have all this relatively cheap space at their disposal, but not so handy for the platers who have to make their way in and out of these isolated places.

In the past I’ve usually hitched into Upper Heyford from the M40, so the route from the train station is new to me. The few commuters who also got off here have quickly disappeared into waiting cars and I’m now alone. The station is on the edge of the village and after looking around for a minute to get my bearings I set off down the lanes. Neither the moon nor any stars are visible overhead.

When was the last time you found yourself out of doors in complete darkness? I don’t mean streetlit or moonlit darkness, but the more thoroughgoing, uncivilised kind that renders everything more than ten feet away from you into an inky nothingness?

As I’m walking along an odd thing happens - two long forgotten, insignificant memories pop suddenly into my mind. The first is of walking down a dirt road on a family holiday in Corfu. I was probably in my early teens and for some reason I was walking alone at night back to the apartment we were staying in. The recollection contains no details, except that it was as dark then as it is now.

The second memory is even more vague, and not linked to a single situation but a collection of them – the scout camps I went to when I was a kid. I have an indistinct image of woods at night, whenever I left the tent or the camp fire for one unrecalled reason or another, probably to piss behind a tree, and was alone in the dark.

Perhaps my brain is responding to the threatening darkness by trawling through the past for any relevant experiences that might be of use. Maybe this is why, when people believe they are about to die, their whole life can allegedly flash before their eyes - a last desperate scouring of the memory banks in the hope of finding some forgotten scrap of knowledge that might save the day.

After the best part of an hour stumbling along the lanes I arrive at the entrance to the air base, although the van is still about a mile away, outside the security guards’ portacabin, beyond a maze of old hangers and empty concrete buildings.

Just at this moment a small, single decker bus comes grumbling along behind me. Its interior lights reveal rows of almost empty seats and suggest a blissful degree of warmth and comfort as it rattles past and onwards down the lane.

It never occurred to me that there might be public transport around here at this time of night. I wonder whether it stopped at Heyford station, although even if it did it would not have got me here any quicker and I would have been deprived of those strange memories which I never even knew I had forgotten.

My memory is generally appalling, even for recent events, even when I've made a special effort to retain the information. However I doubt that I’ve ever thought about either of those two insignificant situations even once in all the years since they occurred, and yet they have obviously remained between my ears somewhere, awaiting a chance to be useful.

I wonder if all the rest of my life is still crammed in there as well. I’d like to believe that it is, but given the circumstances in which such things seem to be revealed, I think I’d prefer to never find out.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Still Free

It's just after eight in the morning and I've pulled into Hilton Park services on the northbound M6 to fill up the screenwash on the Vauxhall Astra I'm delivering to Chester. At the side of the petrol station forecourt is a small machine with an airline and a water hose sticking out of it. A few years ago all these machines were free to use, but recently one or two places have decided that they can't just go giving away air to anyone who wants it and have begun to charge for this.

Today, I've pulled the water hose out, put the end of it in the top of the screen wash container, pressed the trigger several times and wondered why nothing was happening before realising that I've now found a machine that charges for water as well. The price depends on how long you use it for, but the minimum is fifty pence.

A few months ago I picked up an Audi A4 whose near side rear tyre looked slightly low. I pulled into the first garage I came to to top it up and found that this would cost me twenty pence. I had the money on me, and if I was prepared to be laughed at I could probably even have claimed it back from the office. But in an act of principled petulance I decided to wait until I found somewhere where I could do it for free, only to have the tyre blow out on me a few miles up the road.

With this experience in mind, and knowing that on the wet motorway the car windscreen will be caked in salty grime within a couple of minutes I feel that I have no choice but to part with the money. But as I'm reaching into my pocket a car pulls up a few metres away. The driver winds his window down and shouts something that sounds like a question with the word 'water' in it.

'Yeah, but you've got to pay for it here,' I reply, taking a guess at what he has said. But he gets out of his car and walks over to me, and I can now see the Moto logo of the service station on his sweatshirt. He repeats himself, in a strong Black Country accent -

'Yam after water?'


'Ere, save y' poyin' forrit,' he says indicating behind a strategically placed green board only a couple of yards from the machine, where there is a tap in the wall and a container underneath.

'Ere's y'tap and ere's y'can,' he continues, pointing them out.

'Cheers mate,' I say, and he turns and goes back to his car.

While I'm filling up, a white van pulls up next to me and the driver gets out, evidently after water himself. He watches me for a couple of seconds and then nods towards the machine -

'Is it broke?'

'No, you've got to pay fifty pee for it here.'


I finish filling up and then hand him the can. I don't doubt that if someone else came along before he left he would do the same thing himself. This is the tragedy for those managers of petrol stations who have made the effort to convince themselves that it is justifiable to charge people for fresh air and water. There are too many people around who disagree and who would rather talk to a stranger than see them part with an unnecessary fifty pence.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Strange New Men

It's early afternoon and I'm on a train from Stourbridge to Birmingham, en route to Redditch to pick up my last car of the day.

The carriage is empty except for a couple of young guys, probably about twenty years old, sitting on the opposite side of the aisle. I get the impression that they are college students. They talk about drinking and girlfriends and anything else that occurs to them. They seem able to chat away to each other about everyday, inconsequential things with the kind of relaxed ease that men rarely seem to possess.

At one point they begin talking about shaving and the reliability of different kinds of razors -

'I've got to get a new one anyway,' says one of them, 'I shaved somewhere else.'

'Ew!' replies his friend.

'Didn't do avery good job of it though,' he laughs.


'Never do these bits, you get loads of spots.'

I don't like to look but I think he is pointing to somewhere around the top of his crotch.

'What, like a rash?'

'No, just spots!'


And so on.

Since when did men talk to each other about things like this on trains (or anywhere else?)

Now that I'm forty I feel almost duty bound to start passing judgment on the younger generation, but I really have no idea whether such changes in men's attitudes are a good or bad thing.

These two guys seemed happy enough anyway, regardless of the extra time they probably spend in front of the mirror, and the extra spots they have to deal with.

Friday, 28 November 2008

A Brief Guide to Machynlleth

It's just after midday and I'm sitting in a wholefood cafe in the small town of Machynlleth, in west Wales (pronounced 'Mack-un-leth' by everyone so far except the guy who made the announcements on the train here, who added a 't' after the 'n' either by mistake or as a sneaky attempt at profanity.)

The office have paid the fare for me to come out here to collect a van which turned out not to be roadworthy. Customer services could not be easily convinced of this and the confusion prevailed just long enough for me to miss the next train back, meaning that I now have two hours to spend here on this cold afternoon.

Machynlleth town centre probably covers less than half a square mile but boasts an impressive clock tower (see unimpressive photo) and a remarkable absence of chain stores. There are also no less than two independent bookshops, although in the interests of balance I should point out that there was nobody in either of them.

Signs on the windows of the wholefood cafe announce it to be linked to the Centre For Alternative Technology in some way. The majority of the customers inside are women with middle class English accents, although there are one or two of the indigenous population here as well.

It is an exquisitely cosy place, with wooden furniture, dim lighting and an indefinable aroma that I have not smelt since I worked in a vegetarian cafe over ten years ago - a mix of spices, cooking vegetables, fresh baking, the absence of deep fat frying and general warm healthiness.

Here in this out of the way place it is possible to believe that it is possible to believe in something other than capitalism without seeming to be naive or the product of a damaged upbringing.

Making a difference to your own small corner of the world seems more meaningful when the rest of it is so far away.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Too Young

It’s about midday and I’m at Merry Hill bus station, just outside the shopping centre. I'm sitting on the lower rung of a two rung wooden fence, waiting for a bus to Bromsgrove.

A boy, probably ten years old at most, has appeared from somewhere and is hanging around suspiciously close to me, idly climbing in and out of the fence. He is wearing muddy tracksuit bottoms, falling-apart trainers and a grey hooded top. It's not a school holiday and he seems to be unaccompanied. He finishes weighing me up and says -

'How's it going mate?'

'Alright mate,' I reply without looking at him.

'You got any baccy on you mate?'

'No mate.'

He walks away without another word and then spends a few minutes picking up dog ends from around the bus shelters before sitting on a bench to sort through the results and collect anything usable into a small tin. Surely he must be older than ten? His face is largely hidden beneath his hood, but I can occasionally see very pale skin and dark lively eyes. He doesn't seem visibly miserable or intent on causing any kind of trouble.

Now and then he approaches someone else, always choosing men and never anyone smartly dressed. I never see anyone give him anything.

At one point a sorry-looking pink balloon drifts across the ground past him and he picks it up and offers it to a young woman with a toddler in a pushchair. She doesn't want it and he lets it fall back to the ground before, as an afterthought, jumping on it and bursting it.

Eventually he gets on board a bus towards West Bromwich and disappears.

He seemed as if he had been plucked from some Dickensian novel, an orphan for whom adversity had led only to sharpened wits and self reliance. I hope he finds a good use for those abilities and the world finds a better place for him. I hope he cuts down on the cigarettes as well.

The Age When Life Begins?

It's just after nine in the morning and I'm sat in a dealership in Sheffield doing some paperwork while I wait for someone from sales to check a car in for me.

Last week I wrote about being stuck at Colchester station and not minding because so many other people were stuck there too. Yesterday I found myself there again. I had dropped a car off in Southend on Sea and had to make my way to a compound at an old airfield near the village of Great Wenham, about ten miles from Colchester. Basically this involved a train from Southend to Colchester and then a bus ride. I had asked the office to give me something towards the £13 train fare. Such requests are prone to unpredictable results. Often you will get half the fare, sometimes you will get all of it, and occasionally you will get nothing but an accusation of greed or even blackmail thrown back at you. I was therefore surprised when they immediately offered me the whole fare.

I arrived at Colchester station and then set off to walk into town for the bus, putting my train ticket in the barrier at the station exit and watching it disappear. I vaguely regretted this as it would be one less ticket to include in my tax return at the end of January. I never for one moment remembered that I would also need it to claim the fare back from the office, even though they had only agreed to do this about an hour ago.

At various times throughout the rest of the day I would remember that I was due this fare back and would feel rather happy for a few moments.

It is only this morning while I'm sat in this dealership in Sheffield, tidying up my paperwork, that it has occurred to me that I won't be able to claim the fare back. I have known all along that I didn't have the ticket and also known that I would need it, but have never until now combined these two facts to produce a conclusion.

The problem with all of this is that I turn forty next week and am finding it hard not to see such cerebral lapses as part of an inevitable mental decline.

My next collection is only half a mile from here and I set off to walk. This part of Sheffield seems to be mainly populated by university students, mostly young women full of casually dressed confidence. I walk past a couple locked in a tight embrace and kissing with what seems to me to be a deliberate noisiness. It's only nine thirty in the morning for fuck's sake. I am getting old.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Delays and Good Deeds

It's just after ten in the morning and I'm at Colchester station along with a lot of other people who did not think they would still be here at this time. There is a major signaling problem in the region and there are currently no trains departing from any of the six platforms. Strangers have started talking to each other, bemoaning the delay and passing on scraps of information gleaned from beleaguered station staff.


An old lady is on the phone to a relative, arranging to be picked up, and asks me for advice about where we actually are. We are at Colchester station, although this simple statement of fact could be misleading as there is also a Colchester Town station which is more central but less useful as there are fewer direct trains from there to most other destinations. I help her to resolve the confusion and she seems happy enough.


There have been no raised voices or unbecoming outbursts. If anything the atmosphere feels more relaxed and jovial than normal. If just one or two services had been disrupted then things might have been different, but because we are all in the same boat it is impossible to feel that it is 'just your luck'


I had been sitting on a train which I was told would probably eventually be leaving for Ipswich, halfway to my intended destination of Diss. But now apparently it is certainly eventually going somewhere else and I have come to sit at the far end of the platform, alone except for a young guy with a mountain bike.


A smartly dressed young woman wanders down looking around her in a faintly confused way.

'If you're looking for the ladies it's back that way,' the young guy tells her and then directs her to an alcove at the other end of the platform. She thanks him and goes back the way she came.


A couple of minutes later a more casually dressed, middle aged woman appears. She looks around, gives the door to the disabled toilets a half-hearted push and finds it locked. The young guy steps into the breach again and directs her back. I get the impression that this may be his regular good deed of the day.


There are now one or two sluggish departures taking place and the young guy disappears towards a train bound for Harwich. Inevitably, a couple of minutes after he has gone another lady in search of the ladies walks down towards me, looks at the disabled toilets and then looks around in puzzlement. Unfortunately, apart from something to do with an alcove I can't remember any of the guy's directions, which I think shows a commendable lack of interest in such things on my part, but is no help to this latest victim of some misleading sign somewhere. I stay silent and she gives up and goes back up the platform.


A few minutes later a train to Diss finally arrives and I'm on my way, over an hour late but somehow not unhappy at all about it.


Wednesday, 5 November 2008


I'm on a train from Walsall to Birmingham and we have just pulled into Bescot Stadium station, named for its proximity to the Walsall FC ground. It's also close to the M6, which flies over the area on huge concrete struts. To get to the stadium from the station you have to cross a footbridge over the railway tracks, the top of which is parallel to and only a few feet away from the motorway. It is here on this bridge that members of a small, select group of men can occasionally be found. They are the Stobart spotters. Kindred spirits of the trainspotting fraternity, they stand there noting down the details of every Eddie Stobart lorry that goes by.

They were first pointed out to me by a guy who gave me a lift a few years ago, and I've noticed them occasionally since as I've zipped by on the motorway. But today I get to see one of them close up as he alights from the train. He is a short stocky guy, probably in his fifties, who gives the game away with his green jacket with the Stobart logo on the back and a row of badges pinned to the front, at least a couple of which have the logo on them as well. He has that trainspotter look about him - slightly odd but clearly contented in a self absorbed kind of way.

It would be easy to ridicule him for his hobby, making it out to be an incomprehensible waste of time. But the truth is I have probably gotten the same strange satisfaction from spotting him that he gets from spotting lorries. I have noticed and recognised some small details that almost no-one else would think to look twice at, which gives me a feeling approaching cleverness, regardless of the reasons why most people wouldn't look twice.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Job Security

It's late in the afternoon and I'm standing around outside BCA car auctions in Walsall, waiting for a lift from another driver and talking to yet another, a guy who has been working for the company for a year and who lives in birmingham, but whom I have somehow managed not to meet until today.

He is a big guy - big enough and tattooed enough to be just touching the verges of intimidating. But he is friendly to speak to, and interesting too. Before becoming a plater he worked as a security guard, mainly moving money to and from banks and cash machines.

He left because too many people he knew were getting seriously hurt, and he felt uncomfortable explaining to his kid that the strange stuff he was wearing to go to work was body armour.

He himself was only ever in a van once where 'something happened', which he does not elaborate on, although he tells me another story, about a robbery at a petrol station not far from here which he was not involved in.

The cash machine on the forecourt was being refilled, which is a three man operation. One man remains in the van, one stays in the tiny room behind the cash machine, and the last one walks between them. Two guys strolled over to this last man and without a word of warning shot him, shattering his hip. They then dragged him back to the cash machine and informed the guy inside that they would shoot his colleague again if he didn't open the door. What would you do? The guy didn't open the the door, and the would-be robbers departed without further bloodshed.

The guard who was shot needed a new hip and is not expected to ever regain full fitness.

The driver tells me that to live with this degree of risk he was paid only £10 per hour - a form of daylight robbery against which the body armour provided no protection.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

True or False?

It's about midday and I've pulled into Leicester Forest services on the M1 to put some air in one of the tyres of the Chrysler I'm delivering to a trader in Sedgeley. The tyre does not look remotely flat, but the fancy warning system on the dashboard is most insistent that it is only about half the recommended pressure (and it turns out to be right.)

While I'm inflating the tyre a guy, probably in his fifties, with a flourescent jacket on wanders over to me. He asks if I'm heading south. He has obviously seen the trade plates on the car and decided that I'm a fair bet for a lift out of here. He has no plates of his own or even a hitching sign, just a packet of tachograph discs held prominently against his chest to show that he is a lorry driver, or at least knows enough to pass himself off as one.

He tells me he's making his way from Inverness to Headcorn, in Kent, a staggering journey of at least six hundred miles, which he claims has been forced upon him by his lorry catching fire in Inverness. He also claims to have been hitching since yesterday afternoon and to have only seven pence to his name.

Every aspect of his story seems improbable, but he does not look dangerous so I give him a lift anyway, down the M69 then up to Corley services near Coventry. This won't put any nearer to his destination but will give him more chance of getting another ride in the right direction.

As we drive he adds more details to his story, which begin to whittle away at its preposterousness.

I notice that his left hand is so tightly wrapped in bandages as to look like a fingerless stump. Apparently he did not realise his wagon was on fire because the blaze was on the underside of the cab. The first he knew of it was when the police pulled him over to point it out to him. As the officer opened the cab door the air rushed upwards and inwards, and it was at this point that he found himself in trouble.

He spent the night in hospital with burns to his left side and suffering from smoke inhalation. The latter problem meant that he was not allowed to eat anything during the whole time that he was there, and he had been unable to eat anything since due to his wallet having gone up in flames.

The police had tried to arrange a flight home for him, but since all his photographic ID had been in his wallet he would not be allowed to set foot on a plane.

He also turns out to know a bit about one of the HGV plating firms I used to work for, and claims to pick up platers himself, which explains his decision to hitch - an idea that would not have occurred to most people no matter how stranded they found themselves.

By the time I drop him off at Corley I'm halfway to believing him and feel moved to offer him my sandwiches. He unhesitatingly removes them from my hand, telling me he could 'murder' them. I'm not even sure what was on them - my girlfriend made them. I hope he liked them anyway.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Too Easy

It's just after nine in the morning and I'm sitting on a packed Virgin train waiting to leave Birmingham New Street. The train is heading for London but I'm going only as far as Coventry where I'm due to collect a lorry bound for Andover.

An announcement comes over the tannoy for the attention of whichever passenger has 'decided to put a bicycle on the train.' They are requested to remove it on the grounds that it would cause a safety risk in the event of an evacuation, and informed that we are 'going nowhere' until they do.

Ten long minutes later we finally crawl away from the station. The delay has led to us being behind a stopping train, meaning that we are soon a further ten minutes behind schedule.

Another announcement apologises for the delay, telling us again, with barely concealed irritation, about the problem of the forbidden bike.

This is my fourth delayed train in two days. The first three were the result of vaguely explained problems involving preceding services and congested stations. This is the first time I have been offered a scapegoat and a tacit incitement to hate them as much as I like.

It's tempting to imagine further particulars about this unseen troublemaker - probably some self-righteous fitness junkie clad in sweaty lycra who, rather than simply removing their bike when requested, decided to instigate a ten minute pointless argument instead.

But then again what other assumptions could reasonably be made about them? They are probably someone who didn't read all the small print when they bought their ticket, probably someone who can't recall ever hearing of a single accident or incident on any train where the occupants of a crowded carriage have come to any harm due to their combined inability to move an obstacle that is, after all, on wheels.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Autumn in Taunton

It's midday and I'm hanging around in Taunton town centre where I'm temporarily stranded after the vehicle I came here to collect turned out to be at a different dealership in Bridgewater, ten miles away.

After two hours and a degree of confusion and bureaucracy that went beyond irritating to become almost awe-inspiring, I've been told that I'm forbidden to simply get on a train to Bridgewater and get the car from there as one of the parties involved is trying to make a point to another about wrong addresses, resulting in the collection being cancelled.

My controller is trying to find me a replacement job, hopefully in the same county, and I'm currently passing the time by lingering next to a particularly large and unusual tree, trying to commit the details of it to memory.

It's now about six months since I began trying to learn more about trees, in the hope of increasing the depth of description I can put into my writing. I can now identify, with some accuracy, about twenty different species.

Amongst other things, this extra knowledge has led me to notice the changing seasons more. Today, for the first time this year the car that I had kept overnight had a scattering of fallen leaves on the roof this morning, a small detail that I would not have thought twice about before.

I also find myself looking at the names of roads on new estates, such as Hawthorn Rise or Yew Tree Close, and then looking for the appropriate specimens, often before concluding, rather smugly -

'Hang on a minute, any fool can see there are no yew tress around here.'

However, such tendencies are tempered by the fact that I'm still unable to name most of the trees that I see, including the one in front of me now, which still confounds me despite the fact that it is one of the first kinds that I tried to identify, chosen on the grounds that I could see one from my front window. It has smooth brown bark which peels away in strips to reveal light grey wood beneath. The leaves are long and green, and roughly the shape of a spear head, and do not fall off in winter. If you have any idea what it is please tell me.

Monday, 6 October 2008


It's just after eight in the morning and I'm drinking coffee in a small, cheerfully unpretentious cafe in an industrial area of Darlaston, in the Black Country. I'm picking a car up from an auction compound nearby and am waiting for the collection details to be sent through to me.

The only other customers are a group of three burly, short-haired guys sitting mainly in silence. One or two tables are still strewn with used plates and cups, suggesting that the breakfast rush has already been and gone. The two female staff occasionally appear behind the counter before bustling back into the kitchen.

A local radio station is on in the background, but does nothing to capture my attention until the traffic news comes on. The reporter announces that there is a police incident in Bentley Road in Darlaston. This is literally just around the corner.

I look at the guys on the other table but they give no reaction. Maybe they don't share my childlike (or childish) excitement at finding myself on the doorstep of anything newsworthy, or maybe it's too early in the morning for animated conversation, but I would have expected at least one of them to raise an eyebrow or make a passing remark. The young woman currently behind the counter also gives no sign that she has heard.

The reporter goes on to warn of long delays on the roads and on public transport in the whole area, but she may as well be talking to herself.

The news finishes, and I would normally now begin to think of alternative routes away from here for when I collect the car. But I seem to be caught up in the general indifference and find myself drifting away into other thoughts. Whatever the incident involved, even if the whole of the West Midlands needs to know about it, sitting here cocooned in this cosy cafe it all seems just too far away.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

The Long Way Round

It's slightly after ten in the morning and I've just delivered a Ford Focus to a dealership in Paisley, on the outskirts of Glasgow. I now have to get to Motherwell, on the other side of the city, for my next collection and am trying to work out the quickest way to St James station, about a mile from here. The most direct route is over a patch of wasteland behind the dealership and then through an area called Ferguslie Park.

I ask the receptionist at the dealership who in turn asks a male colleague.

'You don't wannae send him there, it's like the Bronx,' he tells her, and then turns to me to repeat the point -

'You don't wannae go to that station, that whole area's like the Bronx.'

He tells me instead to get a bus from across the road to a different station.

Even in cities with tough reputations it is rare for anyone to say anything like this to me, and there is usually an element of humour in the warning when they do. But this time it is delivered in a rather flat and credible tone.

I'm tired and a long way from home, and I find myself hesitating. Until recently I would have felt emboldened by the fact that I had nothing of any value with me anyway. However, this summer the company I work for underwent a technological overhaul. I no longer complete my vehicle appraisals on paperwork but on an EVA ( a handheld computer ) and then print a receipt out on a small portable printer not much bigger than a housebrick.

The combined cost of this new equipment is just over nine hundred pounds, and in an act of breathtaking miserliness the company have declined to insure it against loss or theft.

Another Birmingham driver recently left his EVA on a train and is still being reminded of his carelessness every week when his wage slip arrives with another deduction taken out towards the full cost of a replacement.

I weigh up the options for a few moments longer and then set off for the bus stop, feeling depressingly sensible.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Art of the Community

I'm in Cleethorpes trying to find a bus to Hull. I know they run once an hour from the town centre but am not sure exactly where. There is a 'not in service' bus pulled into a lay-by just off the High Street, so I interrupt the driver's break to ask his advise.

He is a cheerful middle-aged guy with grey hair and a substantial belly.

'You want the stop by the Art Foundation shop,' he tells me, pointing as he talks, 'Go right at these lights, then round that corner to the left and you'll see the Art Foundation shop at the top of the road. The stop's just outside there.'

I thank him and set off towards the lights, feeling that there was something unusual about his directions and trying to put my finger on what it was.

Most people, if they elaborate on their directions at all, tend to do so with such details as the names of roads, or pubs, or well known stores, avoiding anything which may allow a stranger to make negative assumptions about them, for instance that they are in any way inclined towards pretentiousness.

I wonder what the Art Foundation is and what led the driver to so readily acknowledge its existence. Could it be that in this dilapidated seaside town an artistic organisation has sprung up which has genuine grassroots appeal?

I get an answer of sorts a couple of minutes later when I locate the bus stop outside a large charity shop belonging to the British Heart Foundation.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Thought for the Day

On a bus from Cheltenham to Cricklade, passing through the small village of Stratton, near Cirencester.

Just as the village comes to an end and the bus turns a corner, we pass an old red phone box and through its window I can see a rather battered old phone directory left on the metal shelf. Is is my imagination or was there a time maybe twenty years ago, or longer, when all phone boxes had directories in them?

I guess that the one here isn't a long-lived remnant of those times (if they existed), but was left more recently by a good hearted local citizen. It's nice to imagine that perhaps at least one person has approached that phone box, resigned to parting with a handful of coins just to obtain the number they want to call, and then seen the book there and looked upon it with the same delight as if the money had been left in neat pile for them.

So anyway, here's my big idea. If, like me, you get at least one free phone book per year, but can't remember the last time you used any of them, then why not go out one quiet evening and deposit them in the nearest phone box?

Even if you live in a particularly challenging area, where things that aren't worth stealing get stolen anyway, at least they won't be cluttering up your home anymore, and there is always the chance that, before they vanish, they might just make somebody's day.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

The Fleshed Out Bridge

It's late afternoon and I'm walking towards the Avonmouth bridge on the M5 near Bristol, on my way to collect a vehicle from an industrial estate in Avonmouth itself.

This is one of the few motorway bridges in the country that has a footpath included at the side of it, and after dropping a vehicle in the auctions in Bristol, and catching a bus out to the motorway junction, I am now about to walk across it for the first time. It has recently stopped raining and a full rainbow dominates the sky to the north.

Despite getting off the bus less than a mile from the bridge, and having a map that shows public footpaths, the way proves surprisingly hard to locate. I eventually zig-zag there via a bridge over the motorway, a tunnel back under it, a footpath so overgrown I have to abandon it, another so flooded I have to paddle along the edge of it, and another running through a field so picturesque and bucolic it is difficult to believe that I'm in close proximity to both a motorway and a city.

One of the paths to the bridge

I finally reach the start of the ascent onto the bridge, and in a secluded spot where the path is lined by both a wooden fence and an overgrown hedge there are tributes of flowers and cards, all now looking weatherbeaten, attached to the fence. I pause to read some of the messages - expressions of grief for a lost husband and friend, but nothing to say what happened.

I walk up onto the bridge itself, the traffic roaring to my left, and to my right a steep drop down to the brown river Avon sliding slowly between equally brown banks, wrinkled by the flow of countless small rivulets.

I have driven over this bridge hundreds of times, and have admired the view only in quick sideways glances. It feels suddenly liberating to be able to study it in as much detail and for as long as I like.

The crossing is perhaps half a mile long, and I pause in the middle to crouch down and take some pictures through the railings with my phone. But doing so makes me aware that the bridge is actually shaking as the lorries rumble past, which does not improve my lurking sense of vertigo. I decide that one photo is all I need.

At one point along the wide path, on the white line separating the pedestrian half from the cycleway, there is a single piece of neatly stencilled graffiti - a black rifle with no accompanying words of explanation from its creator.

In the centre of Bristol, and some other parts of the city, there is a long and stubborn tradition of producing slightly surreal, slightly menacing graffiti that never has the name of a group or individual attached to it. I wonder if someone came all the way out here just to do that single piece.

I reach the far side and have a choice of descending more of less straight down via several sets of steps or continuing down a ramp which will bring me to the ground a few hundred yards further along. I crouch down again to study my map, and another piece of graffiti on the floor catches my eye - 'Gemma' and a txtspeak smile written in black marker pen on the top step.

The motorway and its transient traffic which dominate this place both in sight and sound seem to make such small details seem more significant - reminders that not everyone is just passing through. I wonder who she was and why she was hanging around here.

I work out that the steps are my best bet and then climb down from a bridge that has been in my mind for years as only a passing blur, but which now seems full of life and stories.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Mixed Welcome

It's a little after nine in the evening and I've just arrived at a small B&B in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, where I've booked a room for the night. It's rare for me to need a night away, but Birmingham to Aberdeen and back is a tall order for a single day.

I press the front door bell, but don't hear it ring. After a few seconds I try the handle. It's unlocked and I walk through to a small reception area and stand there looking for another bell, or some sign of life.

I faintly hear an elderly female voice, away to the left, saying -

'Is that someone inside?'

She is not calling out to me, but asking confirmation from someone else.

'It'd better not be,' says a louder, male voice, clearly intended to be audible where I am, 'there's a knocker on the door.'

A moment later a skinny, rather angry looking old man appears.

'Sorry mate,' I say, 'I did ring the bell.'

He looks me up and down.

'I booked a room earlier...' I continue.

His apparent desire for an argument may have been thwarted by my explanation and apology, but that does not mean he is obliged to converse with me. He calls his wife out to me and then turns and walks away.

His wife hurries in and introduces herself as Janet. She is rotund and full of warmth and welcome. She shows me to the room, asks about my journey, what I want for breakfast, when I want it and recommends places to eat tonight in the town, all in a quiet, relaxing lilt. The contrast with her husband could hardly be greater as if, as part of the division of labour that occurs in any relationship, she had agreed to dispense all the kindness and cheer whilst he elected to take care of the misery and resentment.

As far as I can tell I'm the only guest there. I leave the door to my room open for a few minutes as I'm planning to go out to eat. As I'm getting ready, snippets of conversation float in from wherever it is that the couple are ensconsed.

'Where did you get those from?' asks the husband.

'From the poundshop.'

'Could you no have got them cheaper from one of the farm shops?'

The sourness in his voice is so casual that I imagine it must be omnipresent in his speech.

I'm up at seven the next morning, and Janet is already bustling about making breakfast. She tells me about spilling orange juice on the tablecloth earlier and how clumsy she is, and about the weather, and how she ought to have made me a sandwich last night but never thought (she doesn't know where her head is sometimes), and about directions to Aberdeen. She continues until I'm ready to leave, always in that same soft voice that one could never imagine being raised in anger or exasperation, even when there are things which could justifiably be said in such tones, for instance -

'I just told you I got them from the poundshop you daft old bastard, how much cheaper do you think they could be?'

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Going Nowhere

I'm in Newcastle station having just caught a train here from Northallerton. I'm on my way to collect a lorry from a BT depot near Gateshead and have less than ten minutes to get outside and locate the appropriate bus stop. However, I drunk a large cup of coffee on the train and am therefore also trying to cram a visit to the toilet into this timeframe.

I locate the toilets, and discover that they are closed. A printed notice on the door advises people to use the 'night toilet' instead. At the bottom of the notice a line of printed arrows points to the left. However above these a larger arrow drawn in pink marker pen points to the right. The sign is rendered even more confusing by the fact that the door is located in the side of an archway between two platforms, so none of the arrows points along the length of a platform, but instead they point across them towards the railway lines. There is no-one within hearing distance so I treat myself to a 'for fuck's sake!' and then opt for the platform indicated by the pink arrow. I walk to one end, unsure exactly what I'm looking for. I've never seen any door in any train station marked as a 'night toilet' before.

I still haven't.

There is nothing at that end of the platform and no staff to ask. I give up and make my way out of the station, where I catch the bus with less than five minutes to spare.

I sit looking out of the bus window as we cross the Tyne and head south wondering what, if anything, was going through the mind of the person who put the sign up, and feeling thankful that the road is not too bumpy.

Friday, 15 August 2008

The Lure of the Totem Pole

Walking through the East India Dock Basin, in London, on my way to collect a vehicle from a company based in one of the wharfs.

I've walked about halfway along the relevant wharf when I come to an old, boarded up brick building - not an uncommon sight in this ungentrified part of the Docklands. However, the pieces of glass still remaining in the smashed windows have been painted in red, yellow and green. The crude brush strokes seem to follow the jagged edges, suggesting that they were painted after the windows were broken.

Next to the building a wooden telephone pole has been painted in a similarly determined but amateurish fashion, all the way to the top, to resemble a totem pole - colourful stripes interspaced with cartoon faces. Here and there are other small bits of stenciled graffitti, mostly symbols that are meaningless to me, with only an Antifa sticker on a lamppost having any overt political message.

Was the building formerly a squat? We are within walking distance of the ExCel centre, whose arms fairs have attracted protesters in the recent past, so perhaps there is a connection there?

I ponder these things as I make my way along the wharf, looking for the company from whom I'm due to collect the car that will take me home. I am still trying to locate them when my controller phones to tell me the job has been cancelled and I now have to make my way to Uxbridge, on the other side of the city, to collect a different vehicle.

I walk back past the totem pole and the painted smashed windows, their implicit rejection of the everyday world of work and wages seeming suddenly to have more merit.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Safe Enough

I've just descended the steps into the gloom of Walsall train station and have less than five minutes to wait for a train to Birmingham.

At the bottom of the stairs a portly, officious man in a grey uniform eyes me up before venturing an 'excuse me sir,' in my direction.


'We're doing a quick survey on security at the station. Can I ask you four very quick questions?'


He walks over, clipboard and pen at the ready.

'Do you use the trains every day?'

'Erm... most days.'

He writes 'daily' in the box.

'At this particular station have you ever felt that your security was at risk?'

'No,' I answer emphatically.

He asks my age and postcode and then we are done and he moves off in search of more volunteers.

The thing is, even if I had ever felt at risk here for any reason, I still would have answered 'no' through a vague suspicion that too many affirmative responses might be used as justification for some new security measures that would turn out to be more intrusive than effective.

These days if you are sitting on a station platform trying to read, or write or just think your own thoughts, you are far less likely to be disturbed by the threatening behaviour of other passengers than by the steady stream of loud security and safety announcements from the station tannoys.

These range from the standard advice about keeping all personal belongings with you at all times, to unintentionally sinister reminders that you are being watched on CCTV, to nannying warnings that platforms are slippery when they have been rained upon, to absurd pronouncements about the illegality of skateboarding and rollerblading in the station.

This last warning is now prevalent across the whole country, despite the fact that even before its introduction I had never seen a single person engaged in either of these activities in any train station.

Even when there is no genuine security risk there seems to be a dismal determination to keep on warning us about something.

To my mind there was room for a fifth question at the end of that survey -

'Do you ever wish that we would just leave you in peace?'

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Looking Up

Waiting at a bus stop in Kingswinford, in the Black Country, for a bus to Wolverhampton.

It is just after half past eight in the morning, and since it is the school holidays the streets that would normally be sprinkled with groups of overly energetic children are instead peacefully empty. I've been standing alone at the stop for about ten minutes when I hear brisk footsteps approaching behind me, and then a hand grabs my forearm. The grip is not hard enough to be painful, but moves and squeezes in and out in a way that instead seems to suggest an excess of affection.

The owner of the hand turns out to be a small slim guy, probably in his fifties, who lets go and then momentarily turns to look at me as he passes and says -

'Gonna be nice again today!'

'Looks like it,' I reply to the back of his head as he hurries on his way.

I study his receding figure, looking for anything that might confirm my suspicion of mental illness - an unkempt appearance or discordant clothing. But a gold watch glints on his wrist and he is wearing smart grey trousers and a crisp clean shirt with fewer creases in it than mine.

Perhaps he is just one of life's undauntable optimists, never stopping to think about the advisability of grabbing strangers from behind, or of predicting the weather on a morning when the sky contains as much grey as blue.

I hope he managed to avoid the downpour that ensued in the afternoon.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

No Time to Stand and Stare?

It's just after nine in the morning and I'm on a bus from Pensnett to Merry Hill, in the Black Country.

In between Merry Hill itself and the shopping centre we pass a cluster of old, council tower blocks. On a second floor balcony of one of these a very white man leans against the railing smoking a cigarette. He is middle aged with short greying hair and has no top on to cover his protruding gut. Beneath the railing the balcony is enclosed by thick glass, and through this I can see his bare legs, and white shorts of a similar enough shade to his fishbelly skin to momentarily give the alarming impression that he is entirely naked.

This is a summer morning in name only. There is a cold breeze blowing, which must be colder still up there. The sky is dark and it has only recently stopped raining. The rest of the world is in jackets and coats.

There is nothing about the man's appearance that suggests the kind of pride in his physique which might lead to him to consider the cold to be a price worth paying in order to have his body on display. From the way he leans, puffing on his cigarette and idly contemplating the world below him it is easy to believe that instead he considers the cold is worth enduring in order to avoid the effort of getting dressed.

Did you know that Ambition used to be one of the Seven Deadly Sins? The list was originally part of the ancient religion of Mithraism before being adopted by Christianity where Ambition was rehabilitated and replaced with Gluttony.

My man on the balcony seems almost immorally out of step in a capitalist society, but I can't help thinking that he would have made a good Mithraic

Monday, 14 July 2008

Just so They Know I Know

Most of the vehicles I deliver are company cars or leased cars which are one or two years old at most.

Lately though I have had a flurry of old British Telecom lorries to move. These have been declared surplus to requirements at their current depots and need to be taken to new ones. Because these lorries have been standing idle for a while their batteries are inevitably utterly flat.

However, if you turn the key in the ignition of a lorry and nothing happens then there is also another possible explanation - the vehicle may be fitted with an isolator switch. If this switch is pressed once it will disconnect the battery from the vehicle's electrics, preventing it from being drained during long periods of inactivity. A second press will reconnect the battery.

Isolator switches are sometimes located on the dashboard, sometimes elsewhere in the cab, and sometimes even on the outside of the vehicle.

When I collected the first of this series of surplus vehicles, from a depot in North London, I hunted around for the switch, couldn't find it, and then double checked that there wasn't one via the following functional conversation with the guy in the workshop -

'There an isolator switch on it mate?'

'Not on them.'

'Gonna need a jump then.'

'I'll send someone round to it in a minute.'

And here's the thing - that brief exchange made me feel like a proper lorry driver, someone who not only knew that isolator switches existed but also knew their propensity for being hidden away in unlikely places.

Compared to most HGV drivers I don't have a great deal of experience, and my licence only covers me to drive the smaller (Class 2) types. In most situations I have to grudgingly regard myself as a novice, but at that moment I felt like an old hand.

So here I am now in Cardiff, a couple of weeks later, picking up the sixth or seventh of these lifeless lorries, by now fully aware that the problem is always a flat battery and yet still casually asking, as I do every single time -

'No isolator switch in it is there mate?'

Monday, 7 July 2008

Roadside History

It's early afternoon and I've just attempted to deliver a shiny new red Vauxhall Astra estate to an address in Leek, Staffordshire. The attempt failed due to the customer having ordered a saloon. I've driven away in search of something to eat, and am now waiting for the office to tell me what to do with the vehicle.

When I studied my street map on the way here my eye was caught by something called the 'Plague Stone', whose name stood out in bold italics on the page, denoting it to be an antiquity of some kind. I ought to be within a mile of it and have decided to seek it out while I wait.

It turns out to be more visible on the map than in the reality, and I drive past it three times before I spot it, a small upright stone about three feet high at the side of one of the entrances to a playing field.

It is topped with green and streaked with a single white line left by a bird that obviously had no respect for history. A small plaque at its base explains that it is the bottom part of a medieval wayside cross, and derives its name from the local belief that it was here that supplies were left for the town when it was isolated by the Bubonic Plague during the seventeenth century. The plaque also explains that the payment for these supplies would be left in bowls of vinegar to prevent the spread of the disease, a small strange detail that seems to make that long gone scene come to life in my imagination.

I wonder how many other diminutive but enthralling relics lurk along the sides of our roads, not quite capable of catching the eye of passers by? The Plague Stone could certainly use a sign to tell people it is there, preferably one written in bold italics, or better still, in a font borrowed from the opening credits of an old black and white horror film.

[caption id="attachment_37" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Plague Stone"]Plague Stone[/caption]

Friday, 4 July 2008

A Bit Like...

Walking from Dudley to Gornalwood

In an earlier blog I wrote about eating Hawthorn flowers. These have now disappeared from the hedgerows to be replaced by the beginnings of bunches of berries. However, the Elder is now in flower across most of the country, and the blossoms are equally edible.

Elders are often found making up the numbers in hedgerows, or standing alone as small trees whose twisting branches appear old and gnarled even in relatively young specimens. Elderflowers come in bunches about the size of a fist, each one composed of hundreds of tiny white blossoms.

Even though I used to do a great deal of hitch-hiking and am therefore used to being gawped at by passing motorists, I still find myself feeling self-conscious about being seen to be plucking flowers from trees and then eating them, to the point where I have to wait until there are no vehicles near enough to me for their occupants to be able to make out what I'm doing.

The blossoms taste pleasant, and I have an instinctive feeling that they are good for me, as opposed to say a Mcdonalds meal or a kebab, which are equally capable of tasting nice, but which are always accompanied by an awareness that it is only your taste buds that are going to benefit.

I described Hawthorn flowers as tasting 'a bit like raw cabbage,' and it turns out that Elderflowers do as well. However, it feels like rather lazy writing to use the same description for these as well, so I have come up with a new one - they taste a bit like Hawthorn flowers.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Misguided Spiders?

Waiting at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, Leicestershire.

The Proving Ground is an old airfield, although a lot of the runway space is now given over to the storage of vehicles. The nearest town is Lutterworth, seven miles away.

I have delivered a car here this morning and am now one of four drivers waiting to get a lift with a fifth who is collecting a vehicle from the site. The vehicle is ready and waiting, (I am sitting on the bonnet), but the release note has not yet been faxed through to the right people and so we are stuck.

Platers are normally only paid by the number of vehicles we move and the miles we drive, but on occasions such as this the driver gets 'waiting time' of £7.50 per hour for the delay. The rest of us get nothing.

It is a warm morning and we pass the time leaning against the vehicle, talking shop, and blowing or brushing the money spiders from our clothes and hair. They are around in inordinate numbers today for some reason. Their reputation in folklore for bringing wealth to those whom they visit is the cause of some rather bitter humour amongst some of us.

After two and a half hours the vehicle is released and we set off. It is pitifully low on fuel and we head straight for the nearest petrol station, which turns out to be not near enough. The engine dies a quiet death before we have gone three miles. The driver phones his controller who begins to look for someone in the area who can help us out. The driver goes back on waiting time. The rest of us get nothing.

We get out of the car and stand on the grass verge, where the money spiders again descend on us. In an idle moment I count eleven of them on the car roof.

After about an hour another plater arrives to give the four of us passengers a lift to our next jobs. The driver stays behind waiting patiently and profitably for a can of fuel to be brought to him. We leave him to the company of the money spiders. It was probably him they were looking for anyway.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Dangerous Directions

Driving from Bridgnorth to Kidderminster.

Near the village of Alveley there are three new signs clustered together on a single pole at a small turning to the right. The first sign is the standard symbol for a dead end, the second says 'sat nav error' and the third says 'walk on ferry'

Having once heard a sat nav try to tell its owner that he had reached his destination when he was still hurtling along the fast lane of the motorway, and on another occasion witnessed another device try to lure a driver onto railway tracks only to be thwarted by a closed gate, it doesn't seem surprising that people are being guided down this cul-de-sac, or that it is happening often enough for the authorities to feel the need to put up a warning sign.

For me the oddest sign of the three is instead the bottom one. Why is there a ferry service for pedestrians running at the end of this single track road that seems only to lead through uninhabited farmland. Who uses it and who operates it?

It is hard not to picture a ridiculously bucolic scene in which a smock-clad man with a straw hat on his head and a separate piece of straw in his mouth sedately punts the occupants of local farms and hamlets across the water to visit and do business with their counterparts on the other side.

However, a five minute Google in the evening reveals it to be a tourist attraction. The latest news I can find on it is from last year when the signs were first put up. The article also states that the ferry had been out of action since May when heavy rainfall caused the riverbank to collapse, making the third sign as inaccurate as the advice from the sat-navs.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Better Than What?

On a bus in Shropshire, heading from Whitchurch to Shrewsbury.

We pass through the picturesque village of Wem, where we have gained a contingent of pensioners who all seem to know each other.

As we trundle along the high street we pass a newish looking shop selling, as far as I can tell, womens' underwear and nothing else. There is nothing too skimpy or risque in the window, just colourful stripey things with a few decorative bows and frills attached to them.

'Did you see the new knicker shop... the new frilly knicker shop?' chimes up one of the female pensioners.

'It's the teenagers who spend money on that,' replies one of her acquaintances.

'The teenagers all go to Shrewsbury.'

'They should put some old womens' knickers in there!'

Much laughter.

If there is any disapproval in their voices it is far outweighed by the pleasure of having something this gossipworthy appearing in their small community.

One of the men begins to venture an opinion -

'At least it's a shop. It's better than...'

He is taking his time formulating his conclusion, and before he has done so one of the women interrupts him -

'It'll be gone in twelve months anyway,' she says dismissively, and the conversation moves on.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Product Placement?

Walking through the centre of Newport (the one in South Wales).

A young woman walks in front of me, pushing a pushchair containing an unhappy child with whom she is remonstrating.

She wears a black top, denim skirt and black leggings. Her dark hair is tied up at the back to reveal a bar code tattooed in blue on the back of her neck. It is realistic even down to the digits along the bottom, which cashiers have to type in if the image itself can't be read.

What does it represent? Is it unique to her or an expression of loyalty to something else - a band or an album perhaps? What would she be identified as if you were to scan her?

Tuesday, 27 May 2008


I'm on the U3 bus in West London, traveling from Harmondsworth to Uxbridge. It's half term, and at West Drayton we gained a group of four teenage girls who have distributed themselves amongst the back seats, which had previously been empty apart from me. The girls have noticeably altered the ambiance of the bus. One of them plays loud dance music on her phone while she and one of her friends sing along to the lyrics, even when those lyrics are sexually explicit and written from a male perspective.

No-one says anything to them. A young Indian guy occasionally turns to look at them with an expression of annoyance but this only makes them sing louder. The bus gradually becomes more crowded, but there are still plenty of seats at the back. Somehow people would rather stand in the aisle at the front.

Many bus companies now have stickers on the windows or higher up amongst the adverts, asking passengers to keep their music to themselves. This bus is no exception - a solitary sticker shows a cartoon girl and boy reaching an agreement. She won't play loud music if he doesn't eat smelly food. I don't think the girls have noticed it. However, this is not the only weapon in the bus's arsenal.

This is a hi-tech bus that announces the name of every stop as we arrive there. It turns out it can also announce other things as well. Every couple of minutes, presumably under the control of the driver, it begins to say -

'Please consider others and keep your music down.'

The only problem is that the girls take no notice of this either, although to give them the benefit of the doubt I'm not sure they even heard it. They were being rather loud after all.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Hard to Know

Stoke railway station, waiting for a train home.

I'm sat in the station cafe drinking coffee and looking out at the small square opposite the main entrance, in the middle of which stands a statue of Josiah Wedgewood, of the pottery dynasty, life-sized, and made from dark metal. He holds a small urn in one hand and gazes down at it contemplatively, as if gauging its weight prior to throwing it somewhere.

On either side of the square is a row of three trees. They are London Plane trees, easily identifiable by the fact that their bark is peeling away to reveal lighter shades of grey and yellow beneath. This species is good at withstanding the effects of pollution and is therefore often planted in city centres. They line the edges of Corporation Street in Birmingham, and loom over Bedford's dismal bus station.

I find it much easier to retain knowledge of the natural environment than of most other subjects. If I heard Josiah Wedgewood's life story today I would have forgotten it all within a week. If I saw another statue of him I would need to see his name on the plinth to know that it was him.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

An Old Decision

Cambridge bus station, on my way to collect a van from Papworth Everard.

I have forty minutes to wait for the bus so I decide to pass the time in the park behind the bus station. This has the odd name of Christs Pieces and presumably has some connection with the nearby Christs College.

(If anyone is reading this and tutting then I'll just point out that, according to my street map, there really is no apostrophe in Christs.)

The park is well maintained with tall old trees studded around on the grass and lining the pathways. It is also busy - the weather is warm and it is lunchtime. Ideally I would like to sit on the grass, but looking around this seems to be a location for younger people - couples and groups of students.

I find an empty bench instead, next to a bin that is on the point of overflowing. In front of the bench the grass has been trodden out of existence and the bare earth contains a constellation of cigarette ends in various stages of being trodden into the ground. There are also various other items of litter, including two buttons which lie only a few inches apart but do not match.

An old guy with a walking stick and a couple of bags of shopping takes the other end of the bench. His breathing is heavy, and strangely musical, as if he is trying to combine a respiratory problem with the desire to hum a tune. He seems happy enough, and it is never a bad thing to be next to someone who is contented with their lot. But at the same time his presence seems to confirm that I have made an old people's decision in sitting here.

I finish my coffee and head back to the bus station, resolving that if I ever find myself here again I won't pass the time in an oasis of litter but will brave the grass instead.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Porsche Mind Control

Driving from Kingswinford to Shrewsbury

I drove a Porsche Boxter today, for only the second one. I shredded a tyre on the first one when I clipped the curb while trying to overtake a battered old van that ought not to have been allowed to impede the progress of such a machine.

I took another chance today – overtaking a bus without checking as thoroughly as usual what was coming the other way. I got away with it this time, there was nothing oncoming with any speed.

I’m normally a safe driver – ten years in the job and only one significant accident. But there is something about the animalistic howl of the Porsche engine that seems to reach into my brain and implant alien thoughts there –

‘You have to get through that gap. This isn’t about the Highway Code, this is about Freedom!’

Although if it had all gone wrong I wouldn’t have explained it that way on the insurance form.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Blossoming Knowledge

Walking from Oakengates station in Telford to a nearby car auction.

I’m learning about trees at the moment. My intermittent attempts to write about my travels around the country are often hampered by the fact that I don’t know what I’m looking at. An interesting piece of knowledge I have accidentally acquired is that there are parts of trees which can be plucked and eaten without seasoning or side effects.

Hawthorn hedges are everywhere in this country, and at this time of year many of them are weighed down with white blossom. These flowers are good for you. People used to eat them all the time – fill pies with them or consume them raw. Ray Mears probably still does. I do as well now, when nobody is looking.

The walk to the auction is about two miles and diverts from the roads at times, along footpaths around the backs of housing estates and alongside small lakes. I have a couple of opportunities to pluck a few flowers, give them a quick blow to remove any insects who probably have no desire to be victims of my new and adventurous eating habits, and then pop them into my mouth.

They taste a bit like raw cabbage, with a hint of smugness.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Balls Up

Today I'm delivering a new van to a British Telecom workshop near Heathrow. More specifically, it is lodged between two immigrant removal centres on the outskirts of the airport. The site can only be reached by a short access road running between tall steel fences, at least twenty foot high. Each fence is topped by a coil of razor wire, which is in turn topped by another coil.

I drive in, but leave on foot, giving me more time to take in the surroundings. The first thing that catches my eye is an old, burst leather football lying on the pavement – pretty much the only thing in view that isn't security related. I ponder on how it might have ended up here, and look up at the tall fences, wondering on the odds of anyone inside accidentally kicking the ball that high. And then I notice another, lodged inside the lower coil of razor wire on the left hand fence. And another.

All in all there are six of them stuck aloft and two that have escaped entirely to lie deflated in the road – an odd symbol of humanity amidst the solid greyness of tarmac and fence.

I wonder what time frame is represented by the display in the razor wire – how many years had it taken to create and how significant a calamity was each new addition to those on the other side. The balls are of different colours and designs – clearly not standard issue and therefore unlikely to be immediately replaced with another from some store cupboard. Does each one represent a frustrating hour’s delay in the match, or a whole unhappy day, or a ruined week? How far from home did the last person to kick it feel as they followed it’s trajectory and realised that it wasn’t coming back?

Monday, 12 May 2008

Bits of Britain

I live in Birmingham and work as a trade plate driver, or 'plater'. This involves the collection and delivery of company cars, hire cars and other miscellaneous vehicles from anywhere in the country to anywhere else.

Once a plater has delivered a vehicle it is up to them to make their way to the next collection under their own steam. This could be a hundred yards down the road or hundreds of miles away. It could be in the middle of a city or in an obscure village that only its inhabitants have heard of.

I spend a lot of time on buses and trains, and do a lot of walking. Occasionally I hitch-hike.

These blogs are records of moments from here and there.