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