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.