Friday, 17 July 2009

Unapproachable at Last?

It's just after midday and I'm walking through Bristol, along the Bath Road, towards an area called Brislington, where I'm due to collect a car from a residential address.

Away to the left, on my side of the road, the river Avon flows between overgrown banks and amongst odds and ends of old industry. On the other side is a row of large terraced houses whose front doors open straight onto the pavement. A young woman stands on that side, watching the traffic and waiting for a chance to cross. She gives the impression of being in something of a hurry, although there is nothing much over here. She is thin, almost gaunt, and has long, light brown wavy hair, tied back. She wears a tight-fitting black top, and black trousers. But my attention is mainly drawn to the fact that she is barefoot.

A gap comes in the traffic and she begins to cross over, seeming to be heading for the only other person on this side of the road, a young, casually dressed guy with a small rucksack slung over his shoulder. But he seems unaware of her intentions, and also uses the gap to cross over. She immediately doubles back, and when she reaches him she stands directly in his path and begins talking. I can't hear what she is saying, but there seems to be a degree of intensity in the words, augmented with expressive hand gestures.

I don't think he knows her, and so I guess that there is some story being told which involves the need for any spare change he might have about him.

I keep walking and they are behind me before she has finished her pitch, so I've no idea what his response was. I turn around after a few seconds but he is already on his way, and she has her back to me.

When she first set out to intercept him, and he crossed over the road, it would have been easier for her to just keep coming and try her luck with me instead, but she didn't give me a second glance. I wonder why she was so sure that he was the more promising target?

When I was younger, in my twenties and even thirties, I was a magnet for anyone with a sorry tale to tell, or a collecting tin to fill, or a petition to be signed. Even in crowded city centres they seemed to home in on me regardless of whether I avoided eye contact or tried to look defiantly straight at them.

Maybe once you get past a certain age you stop seeming approachable and malleable, and slip into some other category instead - middle-aged and cynical perhaps? Maybe my days of being given the hard sell by strangers in the street are over. I don't think I'll miss them.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Not So Old Men

It's nearly nine in the morning and I'm driving through Gorton, a not particularly affluent part of Manchester, heading for the car auctions in Belle Vue.

It's been raining torrentially most of the way up from Birmingham, as if to disillusion anyone who had started to think we might be in for anything other than a British summer this year.

The rain has slowed to a shower now, but the sky remains full of rolling clouds of the darkest grey.

I'm stopped at a set of lights when a skinny old white guy, in his sixties at least, comes trotting past on the pavement. He wears a dark woollen hat, white trainers, and a thin green rain mack which reaches almost down to his knees and below which the bottoms of grey shorts are just visible.

My first thought is that he is running for something - maybe a bus, or to catch someone up. But he has a steady pace and isn't looking at anything in particular so I guess he is just jogging. He has a determined expression on his face - even at his age he still has some purpose in mind for which he wants to keep himself fit.

Half a mile further along I pass another old guy, waiting on the other side of the road for the lights to change at a pedestrian crossing. He rests his weight on one leg almost as if he is about to start tapping his foot on the ground, and has his head tilted slightly to one side with a look of exagerrated impatience on his face - the kind one would normally expect to find on a teenager's face if someone his age had impeded their progress for any reason.

Maybe places like Gorton stop people drifting into either contentment or resignation as they get older - there are too many everyday challenges to be faced down. Or maybe it's just the rain.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

In Defence of Milton Keynes

It's an unpleasantly hot Wednesday morning and I'm walking through Milton Keynes on my way to collect a vehicle from an industrial estate in Tilbrook, on the edge of the city. I'm following a path that has been running parrallel to the road leading to the estate, but is now diverging from it in the right direction to hopefully cut a corner off the journey.

Most of the main roads here have no pavements but instead have footpaths set back from them, usually hidden from the motorist's view behind tall hedges or in cuttings.

Milton Keynes often gets a bad press on account of it having all been built in the same modern style, with the main roads running in a utilitarian grid pattern. It's true that there are not many places that seem more devoid of character when viewed from a car window, but on foot it is a different story. You are constantly finding short cuts and coming across spacious, well maintained parks, often with small lakes and interesting statues. Every city has its green and pleasant spots but in Milton Keynes they seem to be casually scattered from one end to the other.

The only niggle I have with this pedestrian network is that the paths, unlike the roads, are rarely as straight as they could be and will often embark upon long unnecessary curves in order to reach the entrances to subways, or to get around the kinds of obstacles that the Romans would have ploughed through without a second thought - small clumps of trees and shrubs, or grassy mounds not big enough to be called hills.

In Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson gives this description of the city's footpaths -

'they followed circuitous, seemingly purposeless routes that must have looked pleasing on paper, but gave no consideration to the idea that people, faced with a long walk between houses and shops, would mostly like to get there in a reasonably direct way.'

But given the effort that has gone into the green spaces here, I like to think that rather than a lack of consideration there was a degree of optimism in these Post-war designs - the expectation of a future where peoples' lives would be lived at a relaxed pace, enabling them to stroll happily to their destinations, appreciating the route as they went.

How could those planners have known that today we would be working the longest hours in Europe, and that our poor employers would be having to deal with a level of stress amongst their workers which now apparently results in more lost working days than even the strikes of the Seventies?

How could they have known that one day reasonable people (like me) would look at the graceful curves of their footpaths and see only an unnecessary ten seconds being added on to their day?