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.