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.