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.