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.