Saturday, 28 November 2009

Too Good Samaritan

It's late in the afternoon and I'm driving along a dual carriageway on the outskirts of Nottingham on my way to deliver a Citreon C2 to a dealership in Derby.

As I go around a busy island there is another plater standing at the exit, trying to hitch a ride, holding a sign saying 'Derby'.

There is a car close behind me and no shoulder to pull over onto, so I have to keep going. However, there is a signpost indicating that there is a lay-by a quarter of a mile further up so I decide to stop there and go back for him.

But by the time I get to the lay-by it seems further than this and as I pull in I find myself wondering if it is beyond the call of duty for me to go stumbling back along the grass verge in the dark. If anyone did that for me my gratitude would be tinged with suspicion - there is some solidarity amongst platers, but not usually that much, and it isn't as if the guy is stuck in the middle of nowhere.

But since I've taken the trouble to pull over I decide that I might as well follow through with the plan. The roaring traffic and the lumpy overgrown grass makes the distance back seem even longer, and my actions feel even stranger.

He has his back to me and can't see me approaching. I'm almost close enough to call out to him when a car pulls over next to him and within five seconds he is inside and on his way, without even noticing me there.

I guess I ought to feel unhappy about the wasted effort, but more than anything I feel relieved as I turn round to trudge back to the car.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The End of History?

It’s a cold Tuesday morning and I’m hanging around in Colchester with an hour to spare before I can get a bus to the small village of Great Wenham, where I'm due to collect a car to deliver to Peterborough.

I’ve walked up to the castle, on the edge of the town centre, and am looking around the grounds.

Colchester castle dates back to the eleventh century and boasts the largest Norman keep in the country, not so much because of the ambition of the architects but because it was built around an even older building – the Roman temple of Claudius.

The castle was originally four stories high, but the top two are long gone now, not due to the ravages of time or warfare, but due to the actions of a certain John Wheeler, a local businessman who purchased the place from the Crown in 1629 with the sole intention of demolishing it to sell the rubble to local builders. However by the time the upper two stories had been knocked down he had concluded that he would not make a profit from the enterprise after all and abandoned it.

The absence of the top half of the castle did not prevent the Royalists from holing up there for a twelve week siege during the civil war, in 1648. A small obelisk now marks the spot where their generals were executed following their surrender to the Parliamentarians.

Three years earlier, Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General himself, had also concluded that there was enough of the building left for him to make use of as a prison in which to hold and interrogate suspected witches. Anyone who has seen the classic 1968 film starring Vincent Price, then in his fifties, might be surprised to learn that Hopkins was only twenty five when he began his witch hunting career. He died just two years later in uncertain circumstances, by which time he and his partner John Stearne had been responsible for the deaths of twenty three women. In a strange echo of modern times, Hopkins' interrogations were hampered by the fact that torture was unlawful, meaning that he had to resort to such tactics as sleep deprivation and the 'swimming test' which involved determining whether the suspect would sink or float in holy water.

The castle was acquired by the local council in the 1930s and went through various restoration and repair projects to arrive at its present state. Now that it is considered part of our national heritage and worthy of preservation, it's easy to think that this must place a full stop at the end of its history, but who knows? Maybe sooner or later someone else with big ideas will get hold of it again for better or worse.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Every Little Helps

It's shortly before eleven in the morning and I'm standing on the platform of Newtown station, in mid-Wales, feeling out of breath and unhappy. About three minutes ago, a train left for Shrewsbury. I was not on it, thanks to Tesco. They are building a new store nearby and the resulting roadworks have virtually gridlocked the main roads into and out of the town.

This delayed my delivery of a brand new Mercedes van to an energy company about a mile from here. One of the guys who worked there offered to give me a lift to the station, but the idea was abandoned by mutual consent when it became clear that I would be quicker walking, although not quite quick enough as it turns out, despite jogging the last five hundred yards. The next train is not for another two hours so I set off to find something to do here to distract myself from my perception of being the unluckiest man in the world ever.

Opposite the station is a Somerfield, and half a mile up the road is a Morrisons. Why is there such a need for a third supermarket that the whole town has to grind to a halt in order to facilitate its arrival?

I wander around for a while, through the town centre and then along the river Severn. In pathless corners of a large empty park I find a big old owl carved from a tree stump, its face now badly damaged,

newtown 2

and a stone circle centred around a raised slab of about the right size and elevation to sacrifice an animal on.


I then head back to investigate a department store I noticed earlier near the station - Pryce Jones - which describes itself as the largest department store in mid-Wales, and is housed in an old ornate brick building. I saw it as soon as I walked out of the station, but avoided going in. The problem is that even though I resent the increasing dominance of the chain stores, the more of them there are around the more the few remaining independent stores just seem strange and anachronistic - unknown quantities to be avoided.

But I still have an hour to spare and have now developed a principled desire to look inside the place. The interior is a strange mixture of forlorn, faded glamour and cheap, poundshop cheerfulness. On the ground floor they sell biscuits, crisps, pop, canned food, cd cases, clothing and any number of other odds and ends.  On one shelf are dvd players still in their original Woolworths boxes. In a space on the floor lies a pallet loaded up with bags of sugar and surrounded by a white dusting of spillage.

There is a cafe on the first floor and so I head up there. On the landing is a large stained glass window with a royal crest and an inscription saying that the store is patronised by her Majesty herself. I wonder how long it is since her last visit. A hole in the top corner of the glass has been crudely covered over with card. Almost all the customers now seem to be working class women.

I could probably find more things that I wanted or needed in a single aisle of Tesco, but I like the oddness of this place, and the way it has obviously re-invented itself to remove all traces of refinement and gentility.

The cafe is tucked away to the side of the furniture section and in contrast to the rest of the store is spotless. There is only one other guy there, who I recognise as having arrived at the station just after me, sprinting from his car only to find that his fate was the same as mine, for the same reason.

I like the small wooden flowers in vases on the cafe tables, and the smiling relaxed staff. I was intending to just have coffee, but feel that I ought to do something more to show my support for the place's continued existence. I end up ordering scrambled egg on toast and a cream cake as well, which is perhaps not the most overt or inspiring display of solidarity ever, but better than nothing.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Strange Addiction

It's a cold clear Wednesday morning and I'm on a train home from Stafford, where I delivered a Vauxhall Astra an hour or so ago to an Arnold Clark dealership on the edge of the town. I'm in a glum frame of mind following a disagreement with my controller over traveling expenses, which has led to me turning down the only other job they had offered me today.

The train pulls into Wolverhampton and a couple of  middle-aged guys get on board. They are casually dressed, bordering on scruffy. One is white, the other looks Indian, although he talks with the same Black Country accent as his friend, with not the slightest trace of any other influence.

'Turns your legs to jelly,' the Indian-looking guy says, continuing a conversation begun before they arrived within range of my eavesdropping ears, 'you just want to get somewhere safe to sit down, but you have to keep going to the toilet, you drink a lot of fruit juice with it. You're walking to the toilet and you're thinking "Am I walking straight?"'

His friend laughs - 'Sounds good to me!'

'Does to me too but I'm am addict!'

More chuckles.

Addicted to what? I strain to hear more, but once the train is moving again I can only pick up the odd snippet.

'I've been along to that Horizons walk-in centre, but they can't do nothing for you, it's not classed as a drug.'

He goes on to say something about the YMCA which I can't catch, and then the conversation moves on to other thing - football, drinking, ex-girlfriends, marriages, divorces - just about every stereotypical bloke topic is covered in a way which seems to give no hint that they are anything other than a couple of everyday working class guys.

We are not far from New Street when the apparent addict begins talking about fishing -

'I found this great little spot on the canal, up past Four Ashes. And there was a sub-post office just round the corner! Great days!'

His laughter has that hint of bravado of someone who knows they are doing something 'bad'.

Can his mysterious drug of choice be bought in a post office? Glue perhaps? But surely solvent abuse is classed as a drug problem? Marker pens? It must be something as odd as that.

The train pulls into New Street, the final destination, and we all disembark. They walk along the platform in front of me, still smiling and joking about something or other, and looking generally more carefree than most of the other morning commuters, whatever they might be hooked on and whatever they are up to.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Golden Oldie

It's a wet Wednesday morning and I'm in the small town of Shaftesbury in Dorset, waiting for a bus to Salisbury.

I'd never heard of Shaftesbury until yesterday when I was told I would be delivering a car here. As I drove into the town earlier a large sign proclaimed it to be 'The Home of Gold Hill.' I've never heard of that either.

From the bus stop I can see a pedestrian signpost at the side of the town hall, indicating the way to this apparently famous hill. I have a few minutes to spare before the bus arrives so I follow the sign down a narrow cobbled alleyway which brings me to the top of a steep cobbled street, ridiculously picturesque and devoid of people or vehicles.

It is less than a hundred yards from the town centre and yet the place is so deserted that for a moment I wonder if it is private property. But there are no signs to confirm this so I walk down to the bottom and then back up again, still without seeing another soul.
gold hill

If you're older than about thirty you will have seen this view before, although you might not immediately recognise it. It is the setting for the black and white Hovis advert with the kid pushing the bike up the hill.

While looking this up I came across a couple of improbable facts. Firstly, the advert was recently voted the nation's all-time favourite, and secondly it was directed by Ridley Scott, the guy responsible for Alien and Blade Runner amongst other things.

Personally I think the advert could have been enlivened by an alien bursting out of a doorway and chasing the kid back down the hill. It might still have had a chance of being voted the nation's favourite, although not by the same people.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Where Was I?

It's Thursday afternoon and I'm at my flat sorting through some old maps as part of a general clear out.

In the years between the dawn of the internet and the arrival of satnavs I used to print out reams of one-page maps from Multimap or Google, covering anywhere I needed to be the next day which wasn't already covered by my shelf of street atlases.

I've been hoarding these ever since with the vague idea that they might one day become aids to my appalling memory - I could look back at them in later years and be able to recall those days and places again.

One of the pages catches my eye now as the ink is so smeared and splattered by rain that many of the street names are illegible. I can make out Thornaby Road - a red line running north to south - so I guess I was somewhere in Teeside, a part of the country I very rarely go to. Wherever I was heading for I must have got absolutely drenched on the way. And yet neither of these unusual circumstances are enough to stir even the slightest recollection of that day, however much I stare at the crumpled paper.

Maybe my pile of would-be memories will turn out to provide only another demonstration of my inability to recall anything much about anything much.

I think I'll keep them anyway.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Not Keeping up Appearances

It's early afternoon on Monday and I'm in the village of Caersws in mid-Wales, waiting for a bus to Llandidloes where I'm due to collect a car from a dealership.

I'm passing the time trying to guess whether the pub opposite me, The Buck Hotel, has closed down. There are no metal shutters on the windows but in general it looks as though nobody has paid it much attention for some time. The paint is peeling badly from the black window frames. Running just below the roof there is string of small decorative red and blue lights, looking suspiciously like they may have been there since last Christmas. On the ground at the front a long trough contains a flowerbed which has long since turned feral - a mass of unidentifiable plants and weeds tumbling over the edges. In the midst of the unruly crowd a single small red flower stands out.

A white Somerfield carrier bag, blowing by on the wind, flattens itself against the plants at the end of the flowerbed but does not succeed in making the place look noticeably more run down. It lingers for a few moments and then darts away again, as if it has spotted somewhere where it has more chance of making a difference.

Between the front doors and the pavement there are a couple of wooden tables of the variety that have the bench seats built onto them. The fact that these tables are not bolted to the ground, and are still here, finally makes me decide that the place must still be in business

It would be easy to write some disparaging conclusions about The Buck, or to make a big poignant deal out of the solitary red flower. But the truth is I don't mind places like this, where appearances are clearly not a priority, provided there is no air of menace to the dilapidation.

I would always rather be somewhere untidy than somewhere which is just too neat. If nothing is out of place then you are the thing that is out of place.

All I would change about the pub would be to add a sign in the window to let people know that they had not gone bust, something along the lines of -

'Yes, we are still open, we're just not that bothered.'

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Art of Unnecessary Innovation

Yesterday I collected a Lexus IS 220 from a compound near Coventry to take home for the night and then deliver to a dealership in Oldbury this morning. I had never driven this model before and when I was handed the key I realised, with a certain sinking feeling, that it was not a key at all, just a small black plastic fob.

There are several makes of car nowadays that have 'keyless' ignition systems. Some require the fob to be fitted into a slot in the dashboard somewhere, before a button can be pressed to start the engine. Some will not let you start the engine at all unless you have your foot on the clutch, or the brake pedal. Others will only start if you press the button for the right length of time - press it for too long and you will instigate an 'instrument check', which involves a few seconds of flashing lights and messages on the dashboard before the whole thing goes dark again. The only thing that all of these systems have in common is that even when you have figured out exactly what hoops you have to jump through in order to start the vehicle it will never be any quicker or easier than just putting a key in the ignition and then turning it.

(In case you're wondering, the combination for the Lexus turned out to be a foot on the clutch and then one quick press of the start button.)

It's hard not to think that there are a lot of people employed in car design these days who have run out of ideas for making genuine improvements and who have resorted to endless tinkering and tampering instead in the hope that their superiors might not realise that they are no longer performing any useful function.

I recently picked up a vehicle, whose make I can no longer remember, and was driving through Birmingham with my bag on the passenger seat. At one point, as I rounded a bend, my bag moved slightly. This caused a hidden sensor somewhere to deduce that my bag was a living, breathing passenger, who ought to be wearing a seat belt. This in turn set off a flashing red light on the dashboard and a loud continuous pinging. There was nowhere to pull over and so the only way to stop the alarm was to reach across, while driving, and fasten a seat belt around an inanimate object.

I wonder if this uber-safety measure has yet resulted in anyone becoming safely embedded in the front of an oncoming vehicle.

On another occasion I was driving north to Scotland along the M6. It was very early in the morning and the road were deserted. Let's just say I may have been traveling in excess of 70mph. In the distance I spotted a police patrol car on a bridge and immediately braked hard, hoping that I had slowed down quickly enough to be able to glide inconspicuously past the officers. But the car turned out to contain an on-board nanny which had other ideas. It decided that everyone in the vicinity needed to be aware of how sharply I had braked, and automatically put on the hazard warning lights. By the time I had realised what had happened, and then found the button to turn them off again, the bridge with the patrol car on it was already in my rear view mirror.

Yesterday, I arrived home with the Lexus, pressed the button on the fob to lock it, and nothing happened. I tried pressing the button just once, then double-clicking it and then holding it down, and yet the vehicle remained resolutely unlocked. I eventually concluded that since there was nothing of value in there and no visible buttons on the doors to show that they were open, I didn't really need to solve the mystery and left it unlocked.

I returned to it this morning to find that it would not start - the battery was drained to the point where even the dash lights would not come on. The AA man who eventually arrived to jump-start it suggested that it had probably been picking up a signal from the fob in the house and that this all-night communication had been enough to run the battery down.

Of course there are ways around all of these pointless innovations - make sure you always put a seat belt around anything on the passenger seat, and make sure you know where the hazard warning light switch is. And, if you are determined to buy a Lexus IS 220, all you have to do is buy another car as well so that you can transport the fob to another address a safe distance away every night and then retrieve it in the morning. Just make sure this extra car isn't also a Lexus, otherwise the process will never end.

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Strange World of Forex

The wage I get for working as a trade plater varies a lot depending on how many vehicles I deliver and how many miles I drive, but generally it ranges from adequate to abysmal. For a while now I've been doing other bits and pieces to top up my earnings. Recently, the main one of these extra-curricular activities has been ‘matched betting’, a system by which you take advantage of the free bets and other bonuses that bookmakers offer as incentives to open an account with them. There are ways of guaranteeing yourself a profit from these regardless of the outcome of the events that you bet on. The only problem with this is that you eventually start to run out of new bookmakers to sign up with (I now have accounts with over fifty of them.)

As a possible replacement for this I have been learning about spread betting on the foreign exchange markets (forex). This basically involves betting on whether the pound will rise or fall in value against another currency. For each point that it moves in your chosen direction you win a certain amount, and for each point that it moves in the other direction you lose that same amount.

I know nothing about economics, and whilst researching forex I've come across some odd facts. Did you know that seventy percent of Britain's Gross Domestic Product now comes from 'servicing' ? I'm still not sure exactly what this means but we are clearly no longer a nation that spends much time making anything anymore.

On an average day over three trillion dollars is traded in forex – more than twenty times the total of all the other financial markets put together. Here’s another odd fact - ninety percent of this trading is not done by institutions or individuals who have any use for the currency they are buying or selling, instead it is pure speculation. And another - most of this speculative trading is not carried out by human beings but is executed automatically by ‘bots’ – software which analyses previous price movements and then predicts future ones.

With stocks and shares it's possible for the big traders, hedge funds etc, to influence prices to suit their own ends, but this cannot be done with forex, the market is just too large. This lack of control makes it more likely that exchange rates will move up and down in recognisable patterns making it possible, apparently, to consistently make money if you adopt a system that suits the currencies and timeframes you are trading in.

So, if it's that easy why isn't everyone doing it? Most likely it will turn out not to be that easy. But on the other hand there clearly are a lot of people already doing it. It's worth noting that even in the ‘mugs game’ of conventional gambling there are systems such as arbitrage and each-way thieving which are reliable enough in the long run that if a bookmaker realises what you are doing they will usually pay you the compliment of closing your account.

There is a part of me that wants this plan to work well enough for me to be able to give up plating and be free from the downsides of the job – the stress of dealing with my stressed-out controller, a vindictive public transport system, those staff at car dealerships who save their charm for the people who might want to buy something from them, and those middle class homeowners who can't wait to ask me for some identification when I arrive on their doorsteps to collect their vehicles.

Imagine if I could make a living just sitting at home trading currencies? I would never have to pretend to like anyone again.

But as a former know-it-all left wing activist there is also a part of me that is uneasy about the idea of making money without actually doing anything to earn it. And where would the money really come from? If I made £100 in the forex markets would I have won it from some other speculator who made the wrong guess, or does the whole of this great tide of speculation have some wider impact? Would I be a smart gambler or a small time capitalist?

But anyway, all I’ve achieved in three months of trading with a demo account is to lose one hundred and ten pretend pounds, so maybe I shouldn’t be worrying about the moral dilemmas of joining the idle rich just yet.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

A Brief Guide to the Outside of Raglan Castle

It's midday on Friday and I'm outside Raglan Castle, in Monmouthshire.

I often drive past here on my way back from south Wales and have stopped several times before with the intention of looking around the place. The first time I came the castle was besieged by workmen who had so covered it in scaffolding that it didn't seem worth hanging around. The second time it had just closed for the day. The third time I finally realised that you have to pay to get in, and was once again deterred.

Today I'm still in two minds about what to do, having forgotten how much the admission fee was. It turns out to be £3, which seems reasonable enough. But, this being the school holidays, the place is particularly busy. In front of me a couple of young boys are play-fighting boisterously with wooden swords which is, of course, exactly the kind of thing that boys that age ought to be doing on a trip to a castle. But I seem to have gotten into a mindset now where only the perfect opportunity to look around the place undisturbed will do for me.

The car park consists of a large area of short grass in front of the castle entrance, and while I'm hanging around hesitating I notice that there are one or two things to be seen here, for free.

On a small section of old grey stonework, presumably the remnant of something bigger, there is a plaque explaining the role of the castle in the English Civil Wars. At the time Raglan was owned by Henry Somerset, the first Marquess of Worcester, who was a staunch Royalist and reputedly the richest man in the country. In 1646 Cromwell's Parliamentarians laid siege to the place and subjected it to daily bombardments for several months before Somerset eventually conceded. It was the last of the great aristocratic homes to fall, and the new occupiers immediately set about trying to demolish the main tower, although this proved harder work than they had anticipated and so a large section of it still remains.

raglan castle

Behind the wall with the plaque on it, in the very back of the parking area, stands a venerable old oak tree which still seems very much alive despite having lost a long vertical strip of bark and being so hollow at the base that it looks almost as if it has decided to stand up out of the ground, perhaps  in preparation for walking Ent-like away over the fields.

raglan castle (2)

Oak trees can live for over five hundred years, so it's possible that this old specimen was already here when Cromwell's men arrived armed to the teeth and grimly determined to gain entry to the castle. I wonder what they would have thought of a man who was put off by a small admission fee and a couple of kids with wooden swords?

Monday, 10 August 2009

Give Us a Clue

It's about half past nine on Friday morning and I'm walking through the centre of Lincoln on my way to a dealership on the edge of the town.

The cathedral dominates the skyline here, not just through its size, but through the size of the hill it sits on as well.

On the grassy slopes at the bottom of this hill I can see a statue, which from a distance looks like a knight in armour swinging some kind of large, unwieldy implement, which presumably has some religious significance. But when I get closer I can see that it is neither within the cathedral grounds nor (probably) a knight. More than anything it now seems to resemble a man attacking a speed camera.

lincoln statue

It stands outside the Usher Art Gallery, which does not open until ten o'clock, although the gates leading from the road up to the main building are open.  There seems to be a small plaque at the statue's base and so I walk over to see if my guess is anywhere close. But it is just a blank metal surface. Maybe I'm being encouraged to think for myself, which seems rather annoying at this time in the morning.

The statue is clearly making some point about something, but if visitors are expected to not only work out if they agree with it, but also what it might be in the first place then there ought to at least be a coffee machine next to it.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Secret Places

It's Monday morning and I'm on my way to Whitchurch (the one in Shropshire) to collect a vehicle from an auction. I'm currently at Crewe station, nearing the end of an hour long wait for the Shrewsbury train, which stops at Whitchurch. The platform only has one bench, which already has a person sat on each end of it, and so I'm crouched down on my heels nearby, looking idly around.

The platform opposite is about four feet above the level of the tracks, with the vertical side of it being made up of old brickwork, mostly black with dirt, but crumbling away in places to reveal unblemished red beneath. Exactly opposite me there is a gap in this brickwork, filled by a couple of lengths of timber, about six feet across. But between these lengths is another small gap through which can be glimpsed a lit subway running beneath the platforms. Nothing too unusual about this except that pedestrian access to all the platforms here is via footbridges. Presumably there is still some routine explanation - maybe the elevators go down while the stairs go up, or maybe it is some kind of service access for the staff. But I find myself wanting to think that there is some other more secretive, maybe even magical explanation for it.

I spent the last week on holiday near Chichester, during which time we took the kids to see the new Harry Potter film. I'd never seen any of the films before, or read any of the books, and I think maybe this first exposure has left an impression on me.

I catch the train to Whitchurch and then have a couple of miles to walk out to the auction, on the A41 south of the town. I'm only about half a mile away when it begins to rain so hard that I have to take shelter under a tree. In front of me the traffic on the dual carriageway ploughs through the surface water in a perpetual cloud of spray. Behind me is a tangled hedge and a dense patch of old trees, and behind that only fields. But peering through the trees I can see below me, at the bottom of a steep cutting, a dirt track which disappears into a tunnel under the main road. Undoubtedly this is just an access road and the only thing I'm likely to see on it is a tractor containing a ruddy-faced farmer with a flat cap on his head. But again there is the desire to believe that if I keep watching for long enough then something stranger than that will come along, out of sight of the drivers in the vehicles roaring past, and not expecting to be seen by anyone at all. I blame J K Rowling.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Unapproachable at Last?

It's just after midday and I'm walking through Bristol, along the Bath Road, towards an area called Brislington, where I'm due to collect a car from a residential address.

Away to the left, on my side of the road, the river Avon flows between overgrown banks and amongst odds and ends of old industry. On the other side is a row of large terraced houses whose front doors open straight onto the pavement. A young woman stands on that side, watching the traffic and waiting for a chance to cross. She gives the impression of being in something of a hurry, although there is nothing much over here. She is thin, almost gaunt, and has long, light brown wavy hair, tied back. She wears a tight-fitting black top, and black trousers. But my attention is mainly drawn to the fact that she is barefoot.

A gap comes in the traffic and she begins to cross over, seeming to be heading for the only other person on this side of the road, a young, casually dressed guy with a small rucksack slung over his shoulder. But he seems unaware of her intentions, and also uses the gap to cross over. She immediately doubles back, and when she reaches him she stands directly in his path and begins talking. I can't hear what she is saying, but there seems to be a degree of intensity in the words, augmented with expressive hand gestures.

I don't think he knows her, and so I guess that there is some story being told which involves the need for any spare change he might have about him.

I keep walking and they are behind me before she has finished her pitch, so I've no idea what his response was. I turn around after a few seconds but he is already on his way, and she has her back to me.

When she first set out to intercept him, and he crossed over the road, it would have been easier for her to just keep coming and try her luck with me instead, but she didn't give me a second glance. I wonder why she was so sure that he was the more promising target?

When I was younger, in my twenties and even thirties, I was a magnet for anyone with a sorry tale to tell, or a collecting tin to fill, or a petition to be signed. Even in crowded city centres they seemed to home in on me regardless of whether I avoided eye contact or tried to look defiantly straight at them.

Maybe once you get past a certain age you stop seeming approachable and malleable, and slip into some other category instead - middle-aged and cynical perhaps? Maybe my days of being given the hard sell by strangers in the street are over. I don't think I'll miss them.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Not So Old Men

It's nearly nine in the morning and I'm driving through Gorton, a not particularly affluent part of Manchester, heading for the car auctions in Belle Vue.

It's been raining torrentially most of the way up from Birmingham, as if to disillusion anyone who had started to think we might be in for anything other than a British summer this year.

The rain has slowed to a shower now, but the sky remains full of rolling clouds of the darkest grey.

I'm stopped at a set of lights when a skinny old white guy, in his sixties at least, comes trotting past on the pavement. He wears a dark woollen hat, white trainers, and a thin green rain mack which reaches almost down to his knees and below which the bottoms of grey shorts are just visible.

My first thought is that he is running for something - maybe a bus, or to catch someone up. But he has a steady pace and isn't looking at anything in particular so I guess he is just jogging. He has a determined expression on his face - even at his age he still has some purpose in mind for which he wants to keep himself fit.

Half a mile further along I pass another old guy, waiting on the other side of the road for the lights to change at a pedestrian crossing. He rests his weight on one leg almost as if he is about to start tapping his foot on the ground, and has his head tilted slightly to one side with a look of exagerrated impatience on his face - the kind one would normally expect to find on a teenager's face if someone his age had impeded their progress for any reason.

Maybe places like Gorton stop people drifting into either contentment or resignation as they get older - there are too many everyday challenges to be faced down. Or maybe it's just the rain.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

In Defence of Milton Keynes

It's an unpleasantly hot Wednesday morning and I'm walking through Milton Keynes on my way to collect a vehicle from an industrial estate in Tilbrook, on the edge of the city. I'm following a path that has been running parrallel to the road leading to the estate, but is now diverging from it in the right direction to hopefully cut a corner off the journey.

Most of the main roads here have no pavements but instead have footpaths set back from them, usually hidden from the motorist's view behind tall hedges or in cuttings.

Milton Keynes often gets a bad press on account of it having all been built in the same modern style, with the main roads running in a utilitarian grid pattern. It's true that there are not many places that seem more devoid of character when viewed from a car window, but on foot it is a different story. You are constantly finding short cuts and coming across spacious, well maintained parks, often with small lakes and interesting statues. Every city has its green and pleasant spots but in Milton Keynes they seem to be casually scattered from one end to the other.

The only niggle I have with this pedestrian network is that the paths, unlike the roads, are rarely as straight as they could be and will often embark upon long unnecessary curves in order to reach the entrances to subways, or to get around the kinds of obstacles that the Romans would have ploughed through without a second thought - small clumps of trees and shrubs, or grassy mounds not big enough to be called hills.

In Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson gives this description of the city's footpaths -

'they followed circuitous, seemingly purposeless routes that must have looked pleasing on paper, but gave no consideration to the idea that people, faced with a long walk between houses and shops, would mostly like to get there in a reasonably direct way.'

But given the effort that has gone into the green spaces here, I like to think that rather than a lack of consideration there was a degree of optimism in these Post-war designs - the expectation of a future where peoples' lives would be lived at a relaxed pace, enabling them to stroll happily to their destinations, appreciating the route as they went.

How could those planners have known that today we would be working the longest hours in Europe, and that our poor employers would be having to deal with a level of stress amongst their workers which now apparently results in more lost working days than even the strikes of the Seventies?

How could they have known that one day reasonable people (like me) would look at the graceful curves of their footpaths and see only an unnecessary ten seconds being added on to their day?

Monday, 29 June 2009

Customer Not Present

It's Friday morning and I'm collecting a vehicle from a private address on a council estate in Bromsgrove. The vehicle in question is a Ford Focus belonging to Motability, which means that the person who has been leasing it is in some way disabled.

These jobs are quite rare and I always approach them with some trepidation as we are never given any details about why the vehicle is being collected, and are forbidden to phone the customer beforehand. It may be that the driver has passed away or become too ill to use the vehicle, but equally it may have been decided that they no longer qualify for the Motability allowance for some reason, which they may not be particularly happy about.

I have heard of platers being met by angry customers, or their relatives. I've also heard of platers arriving at a collection address to find a hearse parked outside.

I knock on the door and a few seconds later it is answered by a middle aged woman, who at first glance does not appear to be either grieving or spoiling for a fight. I explain who I am and she takes me through the house to the back of the property, where the car is parked up. The house looks clean and cosy, although she apologises for the mess, on the grounds that there are some piles of washing here and there.

She gives me the keys and then offers to make me a drink.

'No thanks, I've had one just recently,' I tell her, although the truth is that I want to be on my way as soon as the inspection is done. If the situation becomes awkward for any reason I don't want to be hanging around blowing on a cup of scalding coffee and trying to think of something to say.

'We weren’t really sure what to do with it,' she says, 'It’s not my car it’s my son's, but he’s in prison.'

She sounds neither defensive about this nor traumatized by it, and I wonder if it is not the first time her son has found himself 'inside'. She tells me about the difficulties she has had in trying to find out what to do with the vehicle – 'because of where he is we can't just phone him up and ask him anything about it.'

She has found Motability hard to deal with and had even tried to take the car back to the local dealership where it had originally come from, but they had refused to have it or even allow it to be stored there - 'I feel like I’m just banging my head against a brick wall.'

I tell her some of my own experiences of Motability's labyrinthine and demoralizing customer services, and soon find myself nattering away to her in a way that is quite rare for me. I can’t imagine her being judgemental or taking anything I say the wrong way.

I eventually venture to ask –

‘How does he get on being disabled in prison? Does he have to stay in a special… ward.’

I know that 'ward' is the wrong word, but I can’t think of the right one.

‘No, they’ve got all of the facilities there. He’s not that disabled that he can’t get about.’

I was hoping she might go on to tell me what he did and how long he got, but she doesn’t.

I soon finish the inspection, print out a receipt for her, and then say goodbye before setting off on the short drive to Castle Bromwich auctions.

There seemed to be something deeply likeable about her which makes me hope she was justified in her quiet but obvious support for her son, and that whatever he did there is no victim somewhere who might be entitled to think otherwise.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Keep Music Live

It's ten o'clock on Thursday morning and I'm sitting in Westminster tube station waiting for a District Line train out to Parsons Green.

A Circle Line service pulls in and as the doors open I can hear, amongst the usual background noises, something that sounds like the last dying ripple of a round of applause, although it may just be some mechanical sound from the train, or even heels clopping along the platform.

The carriage in front of me is full enough for one or two people to be standing up, and one or two of these more visible passengers are clearly looking at something interesting further along.

I follow their gazes and locate a young guy in a t-shirt and jeans standing near the front set of doors. He is not now saying or doing anything, but in his hand he holds an instrument, half-hidden behind him from where I'm sitting, but I think it is a fiddle. Or maybe a violin. I can also hear someone talking loudly near him, as if addressing an audience.

Amongst the passengers looking on are a middle aged, smartly-suited guy with a smile on his face and, further back, a young Oriental girl with an even broader grin. These are not private, reserved smiles, and it seems almost as if these strangers might be about to begin spontaneous conversations with the people around them about whatever they have just seen.

Some of the local train services around Birmingham have on-board television screens which loudly inform anyone who can't find a seat in the Quiet Zone about the latest news and showbiz gossip. But even when people are paying attention to the screens there is never any sense of them being drawn any closer together by the fact that they are all looking at the same thing.

What is it about a live performance that brings people so quickly out of their shells even when they are not expected to participate other than to applaud at the end?

But I'm still trying to work out exactly what is going on when the carriage doors slide shut again and off they all go, leaving only individual individuals behind them on the platform.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Fare's Fair?

It's nearly half past nine on Friday morning and I've just arrived on foot at Wolverhampton station, and need to get a train to Shrewsbury. There is one due to leave in two minutes. In fact it's already on the platform. There are at least a dozen people in the queue for the ticket counters, but no-one using either of the automatic ticket machines.

I approach one of these, plough through the options screens, put my debit card in, and then read the message on the screen telling me that there is a 'card error' and that I need to remove my card and then put it back in again. I do this and receive the same message again. Undaunted I pull a second card out of my wallet and put that in instead. Unable to blame the card anymore, the machine simply declares that it is unable to process my transaction at the moment, and that is that.

The queue to reach a human being has not grown any shorter. The ticket counters are behind a partition. There are about five in total, although the most I can ever remember seeing open at any one time is two.

There are no ticket barriers to reach the platforms, so I hurry through to the train. I still have nearly a minute to spare and there are a couple of staff hanging around on the platform so I ask them if I can buy a ticket on board. They tell me I can't, but that it should be ok to pay at the barrier in Shrewsbury.

I get on board, and then begin ruminating on what might happen at Shrewsbury. Maybe the staff there won't believe me, and will try to fine me. Or maybe the barriers will be unmanned and open, and I will walk out of the station and into the morning sunlight seven pounds and twenty pence better off than I was expecting to be.

But both off these outcomes are pre-empted by an inspector getting on board at Billbrook. He doesn't ask why I don't have a ticket, but then tries to charge me nine pounds for one.

'Is that the cheapest price? I tried to buy one from the machine at the station but it wouldn't take my card. It was only supposed to be about seven quid.'

In a flat, heard-it-all-before tone of voice he tells me that this is the price on the train, and that there are also staff at Wolverhampton station. I tell him about the queue, even lengthening it for good measure - 'they were queuing out of the door.'

He mutters that they need to get their act together, but that it is nothing to do with him. I pay the nine pounds and he gives me the ticket and then moves on down the carriage.

I begin idly drafting a complaint and get as far as - 'why should I be penalised because the station I arrived at did not have adequate facilities for me to buy a ticket?'

But it seems like too much trouble for a couple of quid, and maybe my case isn't that strong anyway. I only tried one of the machines, and for all I know every single one of the ticket counters may have been open - after all, there's a first time for everything.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Signs of the Times?

It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m driving home into Birmingham. I’ve just come off the M42 and am stopped at the traffic lights on the junction. The car in front of me has a clearly visible BNP poster in the back window – ‘People like you voting BNP.’

I saw an identical one last week in the front window of a house in Shrewsbury. When I was younger I used to be active in an anti-fascist group, and so things like this grab my attention. Before these elections I had never seen this kind of open, everyday identification with the BNP anywhere.

The trouble for the Left these days is that Labour have not only discredited themselves, but have dragged down a lot of good ideas with them. By pursuing equality along such lines as race, gender, and sexuality while attempting to sweep the class divide under the carpet they have not only alienated a large part of their traditional constituency, but have created the impression in that constituency that equality is something that happens to other people at your expense.

I think there are a lot of white working class people who are wondering who exactly is on their side anymore (or even prepared to acknowledge their existence) and who are coming to the sorry conclusion that it is the BNP or no-one.

I look at the guy in the car in front, but all I can really see is the back of his head. Maybe a few years ago he would have been looking nervously around him whenever he had to stop in traffic, and maybe the residents of the house in Shrewsbury would have found themselves needing a glazier.

But perhaps this is the beginnings of a sea-change in the kind of politics that it is socially acceptable to support? How many Labour posters have you seen in peoples’ cars and houses this time round?

Monday, 1 June 2009

Strangers on a Train

It's just after eight in the morning and I'm on a train from Walsall to Birmingham. The carriage is only about half full, which seems almost miraculous for this time of day, although the half-term holidays may have something to do with it.

I've got a window seat, and have my bag on the next seat and am busy doing paperwork. We pull into Tame Bridge Parkway and another handful of commuters get on board, one of whom wants to sit by me. I see out of the corner of my eye a figure appear and then hover by the seat that my bag is on, and then there is an almost inaudibly quiet enquiry about the seat's availability.

I'm not saying that I'm a particularly miserable person at this time of the morning, but when I move my bag onto the floor I find myself making this look like more of an effort than it really is.

I now glance up and the vague figure becomes a young black woman in a reasonably smart, purple trouser suit.

Before sitting down she hesitates and then picks up the copy of the Metro still lying on the seat.

'Is this your paper?' she asks with the measured politeness of someone persevering with what they now think may have been a bad decision.

It is my paper and I haven't read it yet, but I'm already starting to feel slightly guilty about my bag-moving performance and so I say -

'Yeah, but you can read it if you want.'

She doesn't want to and tucks it away behind the fold-up tray in the back of the seat in front of her.

After a few minutes she takes a small, plain book out of her bag and starts reading that instead. I can't see what it is but when she turns the pages they make a quiet crackling sound that reminds me of the thin, shiny paper that bibles used to be printed on when I was a kid (and may still be printed on today for all I know.)

Maybe she's reading one now, to give herself the inspiration to deal with life's everyday adversities, like finding herself sitting next to a grumpy caffeine addict who wishes he had something to read as well.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Not the Bad Guys

It's just after midday and I'm waiting at the depot of a large courier firm on the outskirts of Llanelli, in South Wales.

I arrived here to collect a van which turned out to have a flat tyre and a defective clutch, and so I'm now sitting in the canteen waiting to see if the van is to be repaired or the job aborted.

It's dinner hour here and the small canteen is fairly full. On a table in front of me a couple of youngish guys are bent over a laptop. I can't see what's on the screen but the room is being filled with noises from some martial arts game - cartoon punches interspersed with Oriental cries and exclamations.

On another table five guys are playing cards and chatting. They talk quietly with strong Welsh accents, meaning that apart from the odd intriguing snippet – ‘four grand on his fucking head’ – the only things I can reliably hear above the noise from the laptop are the frequent ‘fuck’s which pepper their conversation.

On the next table a breakaway group of two men is playing a different card game which involves keeping score by moving matchsticks along a small piece of wood.

A couple of other guys have tables to themselves and sit reading papers.

When you sit in a place like this and nobody takes any notice of you it can be hard to tell at first whether this is because the atmosphere is so laid back that no-one really cares who you are, or whether people are being collectively rude. But everyone I have needed to speak to about the van has been disarmingly friendly and helpful.

It's all too easy these days for people who need an acceptable prejudice in their lives to demonise the white working class, and if the BNP make progress in next month's elections it will probably become easier still.

But even though I hate that mentality with a passion, I've been in enough workplaces like this to expect that in a group of a dozen white guys there would probably be one individual, either too cocky or too sullen, who could be relied upon to chip in the odd racist remark or piece of bitter misogeny.

But somehow I can't imagine that happening here. Even though all I can really hear are violent sound effects and profanity, the conversations seem to flow in such a relaxed way, and people smile too often to suggest that any of them really need an enemy in their lives.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Wrong Side of the Tracks

It's about midday and I'm at Stockport station, waiting for a train to Macclesfield.

Sometime in the recent past the station has gained an extra platform. Its roof is shiny and metallic, and supported by spotless white pillars.

The old platforms have corrugated plastic rooves, transparent apart from a layer of dirt, and have a mess of cables strung along underneath them. Their pillars are painted in peeling red and grey.

The old platforms are numbered One to Four, and it would be reasonable to expect that the new addition would be Platform Five. But unfortunately it is at the wrong end of the station, adjacent to Platform One, and has therefore had to be called Platform Zero.

Even though the new platform represents an investment in public transport, intended to benefit everyone equally, it's hard not to look across at it from grimy old Platform One without instinctively feeling that there is something elitist about it, akin to the difference between first class and standard, and hard therefore not to look at the signs hanging down from its shiny roof, with big zeros painted on them, without thinking that there is something just a little bit funny about it.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Just a Thought

It's the middle of the afternoon and I'm on the way home from Salisbury and have stopped off at Birdlip, just off the A417 in the Cotswolds. There is a viewpoint here from which you can look out for miles across Gloucestershire and beyond, over the Welsh border to the Black Mountain and Hay Bluff.


There are probably about a dozen cars parked up, with people either standing around in the open or looking at the view through their windscreens.

Why are people instinctively drawn to places like this? Was there some evolutionary advantage for our ancestors in wanting to stare idly out across such wide panoramas? Maybe it just gave them the chance to become more familiar with the surrounding territory, or to see their enemies coming.

Is there still anything to be gained today from such seemingly unproductive tendencies? Maybe evolution will eventually update our ideas about what aspects of the world are worth contemplating, and some distant future generation will look at places like this and wonder what the appeal ever was.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Island Mentality

It's mid-afternoon and I'm sitting in the reception of a car repair centre in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey, in Kent. I'm waiting for a new tyre to be fitted to the alloy wheel of a Ford Fusion, which is a ten minute job, once somebody agrees to pay for it. The car is an ex-motability vehicle, being delivered to a dealership in Oxfordshire on behalf of an auction group, and at the moment none of these parties believe that the repair is their responsibility.

I arrived here by train at about midday, feeling strangely excited on the grounds that this is one of those rare parts of the country that I have never strayed into in over ten years in this occupation.


I even made a detour on my way to the collection address to take a look at the seafront in case I never came back here again, although I needn't have worried on that score. I picked up the car and got only a couple of miles away from the island before one of the tyres developed a slow puncture. The nearest repair centre was back here, just around the corner from the train station.

Sheppey is cut off from the rest of Kent by a channel called The Swale, and is accessed by a bridge which looks unnecessarily steep and curved, as if the architect would rather have been designing funfair rides.

There seems to be a tangible sense of community on this small island - not an ideal one where everyone always pulls together, but a more realistic one where people are more likely to say what they are thinking.

Sometimes the results are not that edifying. A rather downcast middle-aged woman comes in to ask for a quote for an exhaust repair, and then requests a cheaper price, with no supporting argument. The manager points out to her that she would not go into Tesco, fill her basket up with goods and then try to haggle with the checkout staff. She decides she will go away and think about it.

Sometimes the result is just an odd tangent. Another middle-aged woman, happier and more well-spoken, and with a toddler holding her hand, is paying for an MOT retest on her car. One of the guys behind the counter makes some chance remark about food and she plunges into an anecdote about a sandwich she had recently in Subway. She had kept asking for more and more jalapeno peppers on it until the man behind her in the queue became rather alarmed. ‘He called me an animal!’ she says, laughing.

On one occasion the result makes my heart beat faster for a moment. An energetic young guy is having a problem with the wheel balance on his Mercedes, and wants it investigated. The manager explains to him that he will have to wait, but not as politely as the young guy would like. He barks at the manager to 'lose the attitude.' The manager informs him that he doesn't have an attitude and the young guy decides that he doesn't care anyway, and the whole thing simmers down as quickly as it started.

In between such things the overworked staff continue trying to untangle the mystery of who ought to be paying for the new tyre, via phone calls to people who are sure it is nothing to do with them, or who in turn give out the phone numbers of other people who don't answer their phones.

We are all only a couple of hundred yards from an empty beach, on a clear afternoon, although I guess most people around here are too used to that to notice.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

A Brief Guide to Nene Park

It's early afternoon and I've just arived at Peterborough station on my way to collect a car from a business park about three miles away on the outskirts of the city.

The most direct route is via a footpath through Nene Park, a large green space occupying several square miles and named after the river flowing through its centre.

It's a clear warm day, the first this year when I’ve risked leaving my coat at home.

When I reach the river I'm still on the edge of the city centre and the footpath is fairly busy with people strolling along or just hanging around. There are overflowing litter bins and loud music emanating from mobile phones. The occasional sunken shopping trolley, brown and fuzzy with plant growth, can be seen through the astonishing clear water.

But in less than half a mile all of this has faded away. There is the distant roar of a dual carriageway ahead of me, but nothing to indicate that a city centre lies not far behind.


I pass three small barges, moored together. There are blankets drying on a string washing line and signs of a camp fire. A guy with a black Mohican, currently somewhat drooping, stands by the water’s edge smoking a roll-up. He ignores me, though his lean and inquisitive dog pads over to sniff around me for a moment. I wonder if this is the marine equivalent of a squat?

Once they are behind me there is only the wildlife and the very occasional dog walker. There are tortoiseshell butterflies fluttering here and there, and once I come across a heron, standing amongst the reeds in the shallow water. I pause about ten feet from it. It seems to look at me out of the corner of its eye, as if wondering whether I'm really going to come close enough to force it to move. I take a couple more cautious steps. If birds could sigh I think this one would have done so as it wearily unfurls its wings and then flaps over to the other side of the water to perch on a railing.


Further along still there is an odd statue, perhaps of a boat on its side, although there is no explanatory notice around, and for a moment I find myself wondering whether it might actually have some practical function.


It seems strange to find such a vast area of open green space within a city, free from litter and graffiti, but also largely free of the city’s inhabitants, even on a day like today when the sky is nothing but blue.

I feel as if I ought to be trying to come up with some depressing analysis of modern society to explain why people don't bother exploring places like this, but it seems like rather an effort, and the truth is I don't mind having it all to myself anyway.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Price of Art

It's just after midday and I'm walking through the centre of Exeter on my way to an address about a mile away, to collect my last car of the day.

In the doorway of a large, boarded-up building a woman, obviously homeless, sits on a blanket on the ground, with a dozing brown dog on either side of her. There are a couple of other middle-aged and obviously not homeless women standing next to her, chatting and looking sympathetic. One of them hands her some money and then they move on. As I walk past I can see that she is drawing pencil sketches. There is one of a bird of prey on the pavement in front of her, and she is engaged in producing another, although I can't see what it is.

I continue to walk on, but curiosity nags at me until, after about a hundred yards, I finally stop, hesitate for a few moments longer, decide I can spare a pound or two, and then go back.

I approach her and then stand there, waiting for her to look up and perhaps ask me if I want to buy one of the drawings. But she studiously ignores me.

'Hi,' I say eventually.

I think she says 'Hi' in return but her voice is so quiet that I can't be sure.

'You selling those?'

‘Yes, but I haven’t got any ready now,’ she says in a sorry and still barely audible voice, ‘if you want to wait for this one…’ she indicates the picture she is currently working on, which I can now see is a horse.

‘What about that one?’ I ask pointing at the bird, ‘You selling that or are you keeping it?’

I can see that she is younger than I first thought, perhaps in her early twenties. Her face is heavily freckled and she is ever so slightly cross-eyed. She seems painfully anxious to avoid looking at me.

She indicates that I can have the bird picture if I want it.

'How much do people usually give you for them?'

'Between two and five pounds,' she mumbles with a shrug.

My back pocket is heavy with change and I pull the contents out, confident of finding at least three or four pound coins. But all I come up with is a handful of coppers and small silver.

'I'm trying to get enough to get somewhere to stay tonight,' she says, in a slightly clearer voice, with perhaps even a hint of confidence in it. I can now hear that she has that accentless middle-class accent which give no clue as to where the speaker might be from.

I've no idea whether she would put the money towards accommodation or nor, but I've had a good day so far, not needing to spend anything on public transport or even coffee, so I decide it won't be the end of the world to part with a fiver. I get out my wallet, only to find that I have nothing but tens inside. Would you ask for change?

I hesitate for a moment and then find myself saying 'I've got no change, I'll give you a tenner for it,' while the seasoned, penny-pinching plater within me looks on aghast.

'Are you sure?'

'Yeah, it's ok,' I reply, handing her the money.

'Thankyou!' she says.

I pick up the picture, thank her in return, and then depart rather self-consciously, wondering if she is watching me as I walk away.

I've no idea if she thought I was oddly generous or just odd, but hopefully she was glad I came by either way.bird-sketch

Saturday, 11 April 2009

In the Belly of the Wounded Beast

It's three o'clock in the afternoon and I'm in Canary Wharf, the financial heart of London. I'm on my way to collect my last car of the day, a Honda Civic, from a publishing company in Heron's Quay, a five minute walk from Canary Wharf station.

On a building to my right a scrolling display gives the latest prices of various stocks and shares with an arrow after each one. Today most of the arrows are pointing downwards.

All around are arrestingly tall, glass fronted towers. In the reception area of one of these I can see a large screen, tuned into some news channel, showing the headline 'RBS to lose 9000 jobs.' On the wall outside the next one a surveillance camera points down at the street. But a notice next to it states that it is the property of Lehman Brothers, so I guess no-one is watching now.

Lined up along the street outside these buildings is a row of gleaming Mercedes in black or silver, with a patient chauffeur waiting behind the wheel of each one - symbols of seemingly unassailable power juxtaposed with signs of a crisis that is stubbornly refusing to bottom out.

I find the publishing firm. The Honda is parked outside and is covered in a layer of dirt and dust of the thickness that one would normally associate with a vehicle that has stood untouched in someone’s garage for several decades.

It turns out that it has only stood here since Christmas, but this is long enough for the battery to have died a quiet, unnoticed death, and I am now stuck here until a breakdown service can be sent out.

To pass the time I walk back towards the station and then head down into the shopping centre that lies beneath it, which seems to be composed mainly of over-priced coffee shops, interspersed with upmarket, designer goods stores. There are no groups of teenagers hanging around here, no crying kids in pushchairs, no doggedly shuffling pensioners. It is just the same smartly dressed, serious-faced men and women as on the streets above. The place feels skin-crawlingly sanitised and Stepfordish.

My controller phones to tell me that the breakdown service will be here by about four.

'Four o'clock? Ok then mate, cheers,' I reply, thinking even as I say the words that they sound too laid back for a place like this. I feel as if I ought to be shouting -

'Four o'clock? But I'll be bankrupt by then!'

I start to head back to the car. At the exit from the shopping centre there are three sets of glass double doors set into a thick glass wall. I approach the middle ones, and as I do so I can see a woman approaching the same set from the other side. She is perhaps in her thirties and is wearing a light pink jacket. I don't notice what else she has on. There is no-one else around at the moment. I reach the doors slightly before her, and hold the right one open for her. I would have done the same thing for a guy, and would expect some token sign of gratitude, although I'm not especially looking for any, which is just as well as she ignores me and pushes the left door open instead. I turn to look directly at her and she smiles a touch sheepishly and then hurries away.

I make my way back up to street level and spend a few minutes trying to get a picture of the scrolling share display when all the arrows are pointing down. I eventually succeed, only to find that the resolution isn't good enough to show it.


I can't remember the last time I enjoyed feeling out of place anywhere, but I think I could happily amble around here all day, holding doors open for people who would rather I didn't, and having provocatively relaxed conversations on my phone.

But time is getting on and so I return to the Honda which, despite being dusty and neglected, will probably prove easier to resuscitate than some of the institutions that inhabit this absurdly prestigious place.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Sales Pitches and Silence

It's just after nine in the morning and I'm at Birmingham New Street station with ten minutes to wait before a train out to Lea Hall. I'm queuing up at the station branch of WH Smiths to buy chocolate. In an adventurous moment I've chosen a couple of new Galaxy Cookie Crumble bars, currently in a two-for-a-pound offer.

I reach the front of the queue, and the middle aged female assistant waves her hand over another selection of chocolate.

'Any of these for half price?' she asks.

This is a regular feature in all branches of Smiths now. No matter what you are buying you will be asked if you want any cheap chocolate to go with it, even if the only thing you are buying already is cheap chocolate.

Early yesterday morning I fueled up a car at a BP garage on the A14 in Northamptonshire, and was served by a rather uncommunicative and unhurried woman. While I was waiting for her to finish waiting for the till to do something, I noticed a sign on the wall behind her, tersely reminding all staff that, until 9am, they had to ask every customer if they wanted coffee -

'This is not optional. Just say "Any hot drinks this morning?"'

The notice concluded by saying 'Lets get behind this,' as if exhorting the staff to support a worthy cause, rather than the firm's latest attempt to reduce them to the level of automata. The cashier's silence now seemed like an act of defiance and I warmed to her in an instant.

Today, I politely refuse the extra chocolate.

'Are you sure?' the woman asks, smiling.

I smile back but don't answer. She then looks at the Cookie Crumble bars as she scans them, and asks -

'Have you tried these yet?'


'Oooh, they're lovely! I've already got a stash of them.'

I realise that she is no longer following orders and is now trying to have a genuine conversation with me, but I can't think of any reply. What are men supposed to say about chocolate? I keep smiling, hand her a pound coin, and then leave without waiting for a receipt. After all, there is a queue forming behind me, full of people who might want to buy half-price chocolate, but who just haven't realised it yet.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Back to Nature

It's just before nine in the morning and I'm walking through Guildford, in Surrey. I've just dropped a car off at a Nissan dealership here and now need to get to an NHS centre about a mile away to pick up my next vehicle.

The first part of the walk takes me along a path through a small stretch of open ground. On one side is the road I drove in on, still busy with morning traffic, while on the other is the quietly flowing river Wey.

As I drove in I had fleetingly noticed some kind of wooden statue along here, carved out of a large tree stump. It looked like a hand reaching upwards but with short malformed fingers. It seemed to have been made deliberately ugly.

I was in a bad mood at the time - I had not only been caught in the morning traffic jams but had contributed to them as well by blocking a junction at a busy set of lights for a whole long minute after I pulled into the middle to turn right when the traffic in that direction was stationary. No-one sounded their horns at me but it felt like an amateurish thing to have done nonetheless.

But anyway, I am out of that car now and on foot again, intent on getting a second look at the statue, if only to clarify why I dislike it.

But before I find that one I find others, all carved from tree stumps, although 'stumps' is perhaps a misleading description as some of them are over ten feet high. There are, amongst other things, a large dragonfly, its head pointing downwards, a curled leaf the size and shape of a child's seat, and an owl perched on a sign which arches over the footpath and proclaims that the area is called Woodbridge Meadow.

There is also a long crescent of carved wood on which is written (I think) 'Today I have grown by walking amongst the trees.'

There is something enchanting about coming across these things so unexpectedly, and I am already preparing to change my opinion of the first one I saw before I reach it again and discover that I had mistaken what it was. The 'malformed fingers' are toes - it is a foot sticking out of the ground. There is another foot a few yards away. The half-buried creature also has two wooden hands with long, outstretched fingers, a grassy mound for a belly, and a rudimentary, cartoonish face.

I love the sense of humour that pervades the whole thing, and the desire to coax people into remembering a connection with the natural world, even here on the edge of an industrial area, in a town containing too much traffic and at least one too many impatient drivers.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

On The Roadside Again

It's just after eight thirty in the morning and I'm standing at a roundabout on the A45 on the outskirts of Northampton, trying to hitch a lift to the small town of Thrapston about twenty miles away.

Until a few years ago platers at the firm who employ me would routinely be given jobs that were over a hundred miles apart, making hitching a necessity, unless you didn't mind spending more money getting to a job than you were being paid to do it. But the firm has slowly expanded and gained more contracts, meaning that nowadays wherever you drop a car off there is usually one to pick up within a reasonable distance.

I've only hitched two or three times in about the last four years, and always from the same place - Measham car auctions near Tamworth, where the motor trade traffic is usually a more reliable means of escape than public transport.

But today, to get to Thrapston from here by bus would take the whole morning. The first service I could get doesn't leave for an hour and a half, so I have time on my hands and nothing to lose.

I stand at the slip road leading down to the eastbound A45, holding out my trade plate and a cardboard sign saying 'A14' (if I can get a lift to the junction where the A14 meets the A45 then I will be within walking distance of Thrapston.)

After only about five minutes a young black guy in a people carrier pulls over for me. But it turns out that he is only going as far as Rushden, about five miles away, and I'm not sure if the junction where he would drop me off would be suitable for further hitching. I hesitate for a few moments and then politely decline. At least I know there is room for people to stop here, and I know which bus to catch if needed. He drives away again, his philanthropic intentions thwarted, and I return to my spot.

When I used to hitch all the time I would occasionally, for no apparent reason, feel self-conscious to the point where I could not meet the eye of anyone driving past and would have to have my phone in my hand the whole time, incessantly pretending to be doing something with it.

Other days I could not have cared less, and the passing motorists and myself could look at each other with the same idle, momentary curiosity. Today is one of those days and I stand watching the steady stream of morning drivers speeding past.

Every now and then a guy, usually in a van, will stare intently at my sign, presumably working out if he can help me. But the calculation always goes against me and none of them stop.

Once a young woman drives past, looks at me and then looks away, her mouth seemingly on the verge of a coy smile, which makes me feel less middle-aged for a moment.

But most people look straight ahead, keeping their thoughts to themselves.

Whatever the downsides of hitching, I always used to have the consolation of feeling that I was doing something a little bit daring and non-conformist, something that had enough of an element of the unknown about it to keep me mentally on my toes.

But standing here on this Monday morning, as a forty year old man, the whole thing just seems to feel inescapably dull and unnecessary. I find myself wondering what I ever used to think about to pass the time.

It is a clear, relatively warm morning. To my left is a patch of tangled trees, the ones at the front smooth barked, their branches still bare apart from patches of lime green lichen. Behind them lurk gnarled Hawthorns, whose branches reach so far forward that at first glance they seem to be part of the front trees. But the Hawthorn branches are already sprouting small leaves, the first I've seen this year. Closer to the ground, on a dark leaved shrub, is a single red dot - a ladybird emerged from wherever they go in the winter.

But there is a limit to how long such things can seem interesting, even if you haven't seen them for a while. An hour plods by and I decide to count ten more vehicles past and then give up. This is accomplished in about a minute, and then I pick up my bag and head for the bus stop.

I still like the principle behind hitching as much as I ever did - strangers helping other strangers just for the sake of it - and I'm glad there are still one or two people around doing it. But more than that I'm glad I'm no longer one of them.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

A Bridge Too Near

It's late morning and I'm driving north up the M6 in Cheshire, about to turn off towards Manchester. This particular junction can be challenging at times as it is only half a mile past Knutsford services, meaning that as you pull over into the inside lane to come off you have to contend with traffic pulling on to the motorway from the services.

I'm therefore concentrating on driving and don't notice until the last moment a young Indian couple standing on the hard shoulder just before point where the slip road out of the services joins the motorway. They are casually dressed, mainly in black, and there is no sign of a broken down vehicle near them.

Just as I'm passing them they begin to walk forward, seemingly, astonishingly intent on crossing the busy motorway. The man has his hand on the woman's arm, leading her forwards. Neither of them appear frightened. He looks quietly confident in what he is doing, and the woman in turn seems confident in his leadership.

There is sufficient traffic in every lane that I would not want to attempt even a headlong dash let alone the casual stroll they seem about to embark upon.

I zip past and then look in the mirror, but can't see what has happened to them. There are no sounds of horns being blasted. Maybe they changed their minds at the last moment, or maybe the oncoming, open-mouthed drivers were too busy braking to do anything else.

I continue towards Manchester, trying to think of some improbable circumstance that might justify what they were doing. But the problem with trying to give them the benefit of the doubt is that, less than a hundred yards away, in the direction they were looking, was a footbridge connecting the north and southbound sides of the services. I hope one of them noticed it before they actually stepped out into the carriageway. No-one should unnecessarily risk a death that would be announced to the world first as an item of traffic news.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Still Moving

It’s just after nine in the morning and I’m driving through Small Heath in Birmingham, where I’ve just picked up an ex-Motability car, a Ford Focus, to take down to a dealership in Brentwood tomorrow.

As I’m turning right at an island I see a couple of old homeless guys walking along the pavement, and recognise them straightway.

Over ten years ago, when I used to do more driving within Birmingham, I would come across them once every few months or so, in one less affluent part of the city or another.

I think they are twins, definitely brothers at least. They have matching grey hair and beards, and are wearing voluminous dark overcoats. They walk together but never side by side. One is always a couple of steps in front of the other. Sometimes the one in front will, without looking, reach out and lightly touch a lamppost as he passes it. The one behind will then touch it as well. I’ve never seen them speak to each other.

It occurs to me now that I really don't know if they are homeless or not, it just always seemed an obvious assumption to make.

The odd thing is that I thought about them recently, for no reason I can now remember, and assumed that they would have vanished by now, another small disappearance in a city that seems to contain fewer and fewer of that kind of conspicuous oddball.

I wonder what strange, lop-sided wisdom they could impart if they wanted to, and whether they will still be wandering these streets in another decade’s time.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

The Route Less Ridden

It's just before ten in the morning and I'm standing outside Luton train station, waiting for a bus to the town of Hitchin, about ten miles away. There is one due, run by a small local firm, which will take nearly an hour to cover the distance.

I know there are other services, probably faster, but I haven't been here for a while, and where I thought the bus station was located there is only a fenced-off expanse of rubble. Rather than investigate further I've decided to cut my losses and wait here.

The bus arrives on time, but the driver is coming off his shift and the new guy does not turn up for another five minutes. The bus company's dress code is clearly not as exacting as that of the bigger firms. Over his shirt he wears a black leather waistcoat with three words painted in artistic italics on the back. The last of these words is 'freedom', but I cannot decipher the first two. He is middle-aged and stocky with short, light coloured hair and a neat goatee. He gives no sign that he is aware of his scheduled departure time, and ambles around the bus, pulling and prodding at the cracked and dented corners of the bumpers, presumably making sure nothing is going to fall off. This procedure would seem more annoying if he gave the impression of being some slow, plodding jobsworth rather than an unusual advocate of (some kind of) freedom.

He finishes all the checks and then glances at me, waiting with feigned patience near his doors.

'You waitin' for this one?' he asks in a surprised Scottish accent.


He doesn't seem convinced.

'Where you goin'?'


'Aye,' he nods, happy now.

I get on, the only passenger, and take a seat at the back. We set off for Hitchin at a speed which suggests that he is aware of his tardiness after all, and regards it as something of a challenge. He cares not for speed bumps and we bounce out of the town centre and then hurry through the outskirts of Luton and out into a countryside of empty green fields, bare winter hedges, and affluent old villages with odd names like Tea Green and St Ippollitts.

We are soon negotiating narrow, winding lanes that were never intended for a full-sized bus. Any encounter with an oncoming car leads to a brief exercise in precision maneouvering as we inch past each other with wing mirrors scraping the hedges.

After about half an hour we finally acquire another passenger - a young woman with a pushchair - which dissappoints me slightly as I was starting to think I might be the only person on board during the entire journey, which would have added to the heartwarming unfeasability of the service.

A few minutes later we go around one tight corner too many and trigger some kind of on-board alarm - a loud, high-pitched, continuous tone of the kind that seems to come from everywhere and to vary in volume with any slight movement of your head, making it all the harder to ignore. The driver pulls over and stops and starts the engine, but this makes no difference. He then gets out and looks at something at the back of the bus, but this doesn't solve the problem either. He gets back on board and addresses the young woman and myself -

'Do youse mind that noise?'

'No, no,' I reply, guessing that an affirmative answer would lead to us coming to rest here until it can be remedied.

'If youse can put up with it for ten minutes we'll be in Hitchin... otherwise we'll have to wait to get it fixed,' he continues.

'No, no... it's fine,' I say again emphatically.

The young woman nods in agreement and then turns and smiles at me, which dispels any lingering regret I had about her being here.

We persevere, and in the last village before Hitchin we pick up our third and final passenger, a very elderly woman with a shopping trolley and a fold-up cane of the kind that partially sighted people sometimes use. As the driver pulls over for her the engine cuts out and we roll to a halt about six feet after the bus shelter. He starts up the engine again and waits, but there is a postbox between the woman and the bus doors and she is unable to even begin to negotiate this obstacle. She starts to fold her cane up, then stops to look at the unexpected distance to the bus, then looks at her trolley, then realises that her cane is coming unfolded again, and then begins to repeat the whole unhappy cycle again. Eventually the driver reverses back to her, the young woman gets up to help her on board and I feel guilty for my impatient thoughts.

'You ok with the noise love?' asks the driver.

'Beg pardon?' she replies, inadvertantly giving the right answer.

We make it into Hitchin without further incident, and I thank the driver and set off in search of my collection address, no longer troubled by the thought that I might have got here quicker by another, more routine route, on a probably more crowded bus, with a driver who would presumably believe in some variety of freedom but who, even if they wanted to, would not have had the freedom to show it.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

A Design Too Far

It's midday and I'm sitting in a Porsche dealership on the outskirts of Solihull waiting to pick up a vehicle, which turns out unfortunately not to be a Porsche but a large, unwieldy Volvo XC90 which has been left here by one of their customers. Even more unfortunately it turns out to have no MOT and so I'm stuck here until this can be remedied, which will apparently take an hour at least.

The showroom is spotless and filled with brand new Carreras and Targas and Boxsters in gleaming reds and blues and blacks. There are no customers around, just a well spoken receptionist and several immaculately suited and groomed salesmen. I sit in the waiting area, unshaven and tie-less, single-handedly lowering the tone of the place.

Opposite me there is a glass display cabinet filled with Porsche merchandise - sweatshirts, drinking glasses, rucksacks, model cars and even teddy bears.

I like driving Porsches, when I get the chance, and there is a part of me that is easily captivated by the shiny mystique of the brand. But sometimes you can end up seeing through such things, not by making an effort to remember principles or politics, but by the creators of the illusion taking things just a bit too far.

I go to get a cup of coffee from the free vending machine and, there at the side of it, is a bowl of Porsche branded sugar packets.

I wonder if there is a graphic designer somewhere who has it on their CV that they have done work for Porsche, and who hopes that no-one ever asks them exactly what this involved.

[caption id="attachment_341" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Picture courtesy of Flickr"]Picture courtesy of Flickr[/caption]

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Big Old Ideas

It's late afternoon and I'm walking through Strood, in Kent, on my way to collect a car from a firm of roadsweepers on a nearby industrial estate.

The walk takes me along the edge of the wide river Medway, down a quiet dead-end road, where yellow signs are stuck to the lamposts, warning that there are both visible and hidden cameras monitoring the area. I wonder what nefarious purposes people have been using this spot for.

The river is dotted with small old boats, rusting quietly away. Lurking in the midst of them is a large black submarine with a small red Soviet hammer and sickle on the side.

soviet sub

You might think that such a sight would leap out at any passer-by unfamiliar with the area, but I almost fail to notice it. It looks as old and rusty as the boats it sits amongst and seems somehow to be more in keeping with the area than you might expect, perhaps because this dilapidated place itself seems to be a reminder of another time, when we were a more industrial country and people were less averse to big ideologies (not just communism but any -ism).

Apparently as a nation we have managed to borrow four times our collective annual income, which would have been a neat trick if we had gotten away with it. But if the money that never really existed continues to vanish, and belts keep on tightening, I wonder if people will begin to decide that they really ought to start believing in something again?

Friday, 6 February 2009

Second Time Around

It's mid-afternoon and I'm walking through Canterbury town centre.

One of the odd features of trade plating is that you might go nowhere near a particular city for months or even years at a time, and then suddenly find yourself in the same part of it twice in quick succession.

I was in Canterbury last week, dropping a car off at a dealership on the Sturry Road. Today I've dropped another car off at a different dealership on the same road, and now have to collect a company car (a mercedes no less) from an estate agents near the castle. Before last week I can't remember the last time I was here.

Canterbury is littered with history, from the crumbling castle to the roman walls to the venerable cathedral where 'meddlesome priest' Thomas Becket met his end.

In the pedestrianised town centre the streets are narrow and the tall old buildings on either side seem to lean forward, carrying in the sounds of people in the surrounding streets, like the quiet background babble in a crowded cinema before the film starts, making the place seem busier than it really is on this cold afternoon.

I lose my bearings and end up taking a more circuitous route than I had intended, via the city walls. At one point along them there is a steep grassy hill, clearly man-made, which stands tall even compared to the high walls. I passed it last week and noticed from an information board that it was called the 'Dane John Mound', but I was hurrying for a train and didn't have time to read the rest.

But today I am in no rush and decide to stop for a minute and find out who Dane John was. The answer, it turns out, is that he was no-one at all.

The hill is a burial mound dating back to the first or second century. When the Romans built the wall around the town the mound was still significant enough to be incorporated into its defences. It is believed that 'Dane John' is a corruption of the french word 'donjon' meaning castle keep.

It seems strange to think that beneath here may still lie the remains of someone who was once important enough to have this mound built in their honour, but whose name is now forgotten, supplanted by a name that is not really a name at all.

dane john mound

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Collective Mistakes

It's nearly midday and I'm on a train from Reading to Basingstoke on my way to collect a landrover from a dealership there to take to a nearby RAF base.

The train has made it out of Reading station and past Reading West, but has now come to a stop at nowhere special. After about five minutes the conductor announces that there is 'trouble ahead', somewhere between here and Basingstoke, and we will have to go back the way we came.

I have been on countless trains that have not reached their final destination for one reason or another, but I've never before been on one that has turned around and gone back to where it started from.

After a few minutes I hear a couple of smartly dressed guys behind me talking about the delay. One of them has evidently located a guard and obtained a more detailed explanation. I can't quite hear, but it sounds as if a freight train has hit 'a load of diesel,' which sounds potentially catastrophic.

However, a couple of minutes later I hear a young woman with an american accent, further down the carriage but louder, explaining the situation on her phone. It turns out that what the freight train hit was 'a bunch of deer,' which seems less serious (although not for the deer)

We chug back into Reading station where an announcement on the platform confirms that the culprits were indeed 'a group of deer.'

I find that the only way to Basingstoke now is via a train to Farnborough North, a walk across to Farnborough Main, and then a second train from there.

If I had been the conductor on that returned train I would not have talked vaguely about 'trouble ahead' but would have announced straightaway exactly what had happened. The novelty of the incident makes the delay seem less dreary. I might even have described the deer as a 'herd' if I wasn't worried that this might be seen as showing off.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Nothing Much

It's mid afternoon and I've just got off a train at Maidstone, Kent, on my way to collect a car from a Vauxhall dealership somewhere on the outskirts of the town. I know I'm only about three miles away, but my satnav is having a bad day and is insisting that the shortest walking route is nine miles.

Not far from the station, in a pedestrianised area, is a billboard with a detailed streetmap on it - surely the cheapest and quickest way for any local authority to give the impression that their town is a welcoming place to visit.

I stand there working out a route from 'You are here' and trying to figure out whether the distance really is reasonably walkable or whether I need to start a probably stressful search for a bus.

I have a cold coming on and let forth the latest of many sneezes.

'Bless you,' says a calm and quiet male voice from amongst the passing crowd. I glance up but no-one is looking my way and I can't begin to guess from the backs of people's heads who the mystery well-wisher might be, although it doesn't really matter.

As with the provision of the map, all it takes is an unexpected blip of thoughtfulness here and there to brighten up my opinions of an unfamiliar town on a dull afternoon.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

No Idea

It's just after eight in the morning and I'm on a train from Birmingham Moor Street out to Kidderminster where I'm due to collect a Golf from a company on the outskirts of the town.

A young guy two rows forward is filling the crowded carriage with an incessant 'tish tish tish' from his headphones. He is wearing a zipped up green jacket and has the smart haircut and clean shaven face of an office worker. I can never figure out whether people like him realise that an emasculated but unignorable version of their music is spilling out into the air around them.

We approach Snow Hill and he gets up and stands by the doors. I surreptitiously study his face, looking for some sign of a smug secret thought that says 'yes I know, but I also know that you're all too polite to say anything,' and then I will be free to dislike him to my heart's content.

He looks straight ahead and then screws his eyes shut then opens them again, like a nervous twitch in slow motion. We pull into the station and he gets off along with a throng of other morning commuters. He walks leaning forward slightly and with his shoulders hunched, as if he has been caught out in the rain.

It occurs to me that I don't want to hate him after all, particularly as I don't have to listen to him anymore.