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.