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.