Saturday, 28 November 2009

Too Good Samaritan

It's late in the afternoon and I'm driving along a dual carriageway on the outskirts of Nottingham on my way to deliver a Citreon C2 to a dealership in Derby.

As I go around a busy island there is another plater standing at the exit, trying to hitch a ride, holding a sign saying 'Derby'.

There is a car close behind me and no shoulder to pull over onto, so I have to keep going. However, there is a signpost indicating that there is a lay-by a quarter of a mile further up so I decide to stop there and go back for him.

But by the time I get to the lay-by it seems further than this and as I pull in I find myself wondering if it is beyond the call of duty for me to go stumbling back along the grass verge in the dark. If anyone did that for me my gratitude would be tinged with suspicion - there is some solidarity amongst platers, but not usually that much, and it isn't as if the guy is stuck in the middle of nowhere.

But since I've taken the trouble to pull over I decide that I might as well follow through with the plan. The roaring traffic and the lumpy overgrown grass makes the distance back seem even longer, and my actions feel even stranger.

He has his back to me and can't see me approaching. I'm almost close enough to call out to him when a car pulls over next to him and within five seconds he is inside and on his way, without even noticing me there.

I guess I ought to feel unhappy about the wasted effort, but more than anything I feel relieved as I turn round to trudge back to the car.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The End of History?

It’s a cold Tuesday morning and I’m hanging around in Colchester with an hour to spare before I can get a bus to the small village of Great Wenham, where I'm due to collect a car to deliver to Peterborough.

I’ve walked up to the castle, on the edge of the town centre, and am looking around the grounds.

Colchester castle dates back to the eleventh century and boasts the largest Norman keep in the country, not so much because of the ambition of the architects but because it was built around an even older building – the Roman temple of Claudius.

The castle was originally four stories high, but the top two are long gone now, not due to the ravages of time or warfare, but due to the actions of a certain John Wheeler, a local businessman who purchased the place from the Crown in 1629 with the sole intention of demolishing it to sell the rubble to local builders. However by the time the upper two stories had been knocked down he had concluded that he would not make a profit from the enterprise after all and abandoned it.

The absence of the top half of the castle did not prevent the Royalists from holing up there for a twelve week siege during the civil war, in 1648. A small obelisk now marks the spot where their generals were executed following their surrender to the Parliamentarians.

Three years earlier, Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General himself, had also concluded that there was enough of the building left for him to make use of as a prison in which to hold and interrogate suspected witches. Anyone who has seen the classic 1968 film starring Vincent Price, then in his fifties, might be surprised to learn that Hopkins was only twenty five when he began his witch hunting career. He died just two years later in uncertain circumstances, by which time he and his partner John Stearne had been responsible for the deaths of twenty three women. In a strange echo of modern times, Hopkins' interrogations were hampered by the fact that torture was unlawful, meaning that he had to resort to such tactics as sleep deprivation and the 'swimming test' which involved determining whether the suspect would sink or float in holy water.

The castle was acquired by the local council in the 1930s and went through various restoration and repair projects to arrive at its present state. Now that it is considered part of our national heritage and worthy of preservation, it's easy to think that this must place a full stop at the end of its history, but who knows? Maybe sooner or later someone else with big ideas will get hold of it again for better or worse.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Every Little Helps

It's shortly before eleven in the morning and I'm standing on the platform of Newtown station, in mid-Wales, feeling out of breath and unhappy. About three minutes ago, a train left for Shrewsbury. I was not on it, thanks to Tesco. They are building a new store nearby and the resulting roadworks have virtually gridlocked the main roads into and out of the town.

This delayed my delivery of a brand new Mercedes van to an energy company about a mile from here. One of the guys who worked there offered to give me a lift to the station, but the idea was abandoned by mutual consent when it became clear that I would be quicker walking, although not quite quick enough as it turns out, despite jogging the last five hundred yards. The next train is not for another two hours so I set off to find something to do here to distract myself from my perception of being the unluckiest man in the world ever.

Opposite the station is a Somerfield, and half a mile up the road is a Morrisons. Why is there such a need for a third supermarket that the whole town has to grind to a halt in order to facilitate its arrival?

I wander around for a while, through the town centre and then along the river Severn. In pathless corners of a large empty park I find a big old owl carved from a tree stump, its face now badly damaged,

newtown 2

and a stone circle centred around a raised slab of about the right size and elevation to sacrifice an animal on.


I then head back to investigate a department store I noticed earlier near the station - Pryce Jones - which describes itself as the largest department store in mid-Wales, and is housed in an old ornate brick building. I saw it as soon as I walked out of the station, but avoided going in. The problem is that even though I resent the increasing dominance of the chain stores, the more of them there are around the more the few remaining independent stores just seem strange and anachronistic - unknown quantities to be avoided.

But I still have an hour to spare and have now developed a principled desire to look inside the place. The interior is a strange mixture of forlorn, faded glamour and cheap, poundshop cheerfulness. On the ground floor they sell biscuits, crisps, pop, canned food, cd cases, clothing and any number of other odds and ends.  On one shelf are dvd players still in their original Woolworths boxes. In a space on the floor lies a pallet loaded up with bags of sugar and surrounded by a white dusting of spillage.

There is a cafe on the first floor and so I head up there. On the landing is a large stained glass window with a royal crest and an inscription saying that the store is patronised by her Majesty herself. I wonder how long it is since her last visit. A hole in the top corner of the glass has been crudely covered over with card. Almost all the customers now seem to be working class women.

I could probably find more things that I wanted or needed in a single aisle of Tesco, but I like the oddness of this place, and the way it has obviously re-invented itself to remove all traces of refinement and gentility.

The cafe is tucked away to the side of the furniture section and in contrast to the rest of the store is spotless. There is only one other guy there, who I recognise as having arrived at the station just after me, sprinting from his car only to find that his fate was the same as mine, for the same reason.

I like the small wooden flowers in vases on the cafe tables, and the smiling relaxed staff. I was intending to just have coffee, but feel that I ought to do something more to show my support for the place's continued existence. I end up ordering scrambled egg on toast and a cream cake as well, which is perhaps not the most overt or inspiring display of solidarity ever, but better than nothing.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Strange Addiction

It's a cold clear Wednesday morning and I'm on a train home from Stafford, where I delivered a Vauxhall Astra an hour or so ago to an Arnold Clark dealership on the edge of the town. I'm in a glum frame of mind following a disagreement with my controller over traveling expenses, which has led to me turning down the only other job they had offered me today.

The train pulls into Wolverhampton and a couple of  middle-aged guys get on board. They are casually dressed, bordering on scruffy. One is white, the other looks Indian, although he talks with the same Black Country accent as his friend, with not the slightest trace of any other influence.

'Turns your legs to jelly,' the Indian-looking guy says, continuing a conversation begun before they arrived within range of my eavesdropping ears, 'you just want to get somewhere safe to sit down, but you have to keep going to the toilet, you drink a lot of fruit juice with it. You're walking to the toilet and you're thinking "Am I walking straight?"'

His friend laughs - 'Sounds good to me!'

'Does to me too but I'm am addict!'

More chuckles.

Addicted to what? I strain to hear more, but once the train is moving again I can only pick up the odd snippet.

'I've been along to that Horizons walk-in centre, but they can't do nothing for you, it's not classed as a drug.'

He goes on to say something about the YMCA which I can't catch, and then the conversation moves on to other thing - football, drinking, ex-girlfriends, marriages, divorces - just about every stereotypical bloke topic is covered in a way which seems to give no hint that they are anything other than a couple of everyday working class guys.

We are not far from New Street when the apparent addict begins talking about fishing -

'I found this great little spot on the canal, up past Four Ashes. And there was a sub-post office just round the corner! Great days!'

His laughter has that hint of bravado of someone who knows they are doing something 'bad'.

Can his mysterious drug of choice be bought in a post office? Glue perhaps? But surely solvent abuse is classed as a drug problem? Marker pens? It must be something as odd as that.

The train pulls into New Street, the final destination, and we all disembark. They walk along the platform in front of me, still smiling and joking about something or other, and looking generally more carefree than most of the other morning commuters, whatever they might be hooked on and whatever they are up to.