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?'