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?'