Friday, 8 October 2010

Light Relief

It's a bright Wednesday morning and I'm walking from Leeds train station, through the city centre, on my way to a Nissan dealership about a mile away.

Christmas has come early for the citizens of Leeds this year - festive lights are already strung across most of the main shopping streets, a full two and a half months before the event.


When shops begin to put out their Christmas stock at this time of year, in a blatant encouragement to spend early and spend often, there is a clear cynicism involved which no amount of tinsel is ever going to disguise.

But with this display, where the reasoning is less obvious, there is something almost upliftingly silly about the whole thing, suggesting as it does that there is someone in the local council whose decision-making processes are free from the dull confines of common sense.

I wonder what these streets will look like on Halloween as groups of ghoulishly-dressed revellers totter and meander beneath the reindeers and smiling santas?

Friday, 6 August 2010

Old Fashioned Values

It's a wet Wednesday morning and I've just arrived by bus at the premises of Imperial Tobacco, in Nottingham.

The outdated name and the grimy concrete exterior give the impression of a company which has given up on any ambition of improving its public image.

I'm here to collect a VW Passat to take to an auction on the other side of the city. However, I'm also looking for something else. I want to see a No Smoking sign somewhere on the building, because I know they will be legally obliged to have one, and because I know it will make me smile.

I find one single small yellowing sign by the main entrance. In contrast to this, the outdoor smoking area looks positively lavish - four separate, roofed shelters with wooden seating, big litter bins, and leafy plants. It is by far the most attractive part of the site. In this day and age it is nice to see a firm that still looks after its workers.

Friday, 16 July 2010

What's In A Name?

I recently became the proud owner of an iPhone. So far it is the only phone I've ever possessed that I've not ended up wanting to throw against a brick wall.

Amongst the many apps now on it is Google Maps, which can pinpoint exactly where I am and give me a walking route to any nearby postcode. I'm currently using it to get me from Cheltenham train station to a BMW dealership about a mile and a half away.

The app uses the 3G network to transfer data, but before doing so will always show me a list of any nearby wifi networks it has found, in case I want to try to jump onto one of those instead.

This has introduced me to the strange world of home wifi network names. Our own family network was named, on the spur of the moment, after a pet cat, but there are clearly people out there who have put some thought and creativity into the matter.

I'm currently on a quiet street of respectable semi-detached houses and two storey blocks of flats. Here my iPhone has found networks named 'the Highland Marches', 'Nightingales Lament', and 'Gracelove'. I find myself looking around trying to guess which of the surrounding, inconspicuous houses might be beaming out such poetic names.

The first two networks are listed as unsecured which means that theoretically I might be able to connect to them without a password. However I almost never try to do this since even at walking pace I would probably be out of range before I had even logged in. I also have a vague, irrational fear of being caught - a front door opening and the occupant striding out to look suspiciously up and down the street before settling their gaze upon me.

Around the next corner are 'Predator' and 'banana', amongst others, and then at the end of the road the tone is lowered by the decidedly unsavoury 'tom blows tramps'.

Does Tom know about this allegation being transmitted throughout the surrounding area? I wonder what the neighbours think.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Where Does The Money Go?

It's a wet Tuesday afternoon and I'm in Aylesbury waiting for a bus to Oxford. I arrived at the bus station just in time to see an Oxford bus departing, which means I now have half an hour to kill. I've decided to spend the time wandering around the nearby Friars Square shopping centre, in search of a cheap energy drink.

The shopping centre is not particularly upmarket, but not run down either, just the usual mix of chain stores and cafes and walkways and escalators.

The only oddity is the water fountain on the first floor, spattering quietly away to itself. People have been throwing coins into the shallow pool around it. I can't see anything bigger than a ten pence piece, but nonetheless there must be at least ten pounds in small change in there.

The bottom of the pool is also marked with countless small brown rings where coins must have lain for some time before being removed. Who takes them out again? How brazen (or desperate) would you have to be?

Maybe the owners of the shopping centre empty it out occasionally and do something worthwhile with the money, or maybe the staff at the nearest off-licence find themselves occasionally having to deal with a customer wanting to buy a bottle of their cheapest cider with a heavy handful of dripping wet change?

Thursday, 6 May 2010

A Scrap of History

It's a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, and I'm plodding along a narrow country lane in Kent on my way to a village called Hartley where I'm due to collect a BMW from a private address to take up to Leicestershire. A couple of hours ago I delivered a car to a dealership in the town of Northfleet and, after finding public transport to be somewhat wanting in this direction, have set off to walk to my next collection, although the distance is almost six miles. What the plan lacked in speed it seemed to make up for by at least being straightforward, although this has turned out not to be the case for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I got lost in music - I was listening to Damien Dempsey on my iphone and missed a turning. By the time I realised, I had added about another mile onto the journey. Secondly, I have run out of pavement. I'm still about a mile and a half from Hartley and the lane no longer even has a grass verge, just steep hedges on either side. I've felt obliged to remove my headphones so that if I do get hit I will at least hear it coming.

Amongst the intermittent cars, a battered old flatbed van with its back half full of junk comes rattling up behind me. I crowd myself into the hedge so as not to give the driver any reason to resent me. But rather than creep past, the van pulls up alongside me and the passenger, a scruffy old guy in his fifties winds the window down and says -

'We're goin' to the end of the road if you want a lift?'

The driver, a guy of similar age and appearance, chips in something about it being dangerous to walk along here. My trade plates are hidden away in my bag, so they can't have any idea what I'm doing walking along this isolated lane.

I gratefully jump in and we set off. I tell them I'm heading for Hartley, and it turns out that they will be going through the middle of the village and can drop me almost on the doorstep of the collection address. They are scrap men on their way to pick up a load of something or other from somewhere nearby. Despite revealing myself to have a 'not from round here' accent, still neither of them ask what I'm doing, although I tell them anyway - about the job, and the walk and the unforeseen risk. They nod and make a few noises of interest and sympathy but I don't think they really care what I'm up to.

I've recently been listening to an audiobook entitled A Brief History of the World, which consists of a series of lectures by an American professor named Peter Stearns. One of the most interesting sections deals with our transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones. Some historians apparently regard this as a disaster from which the human race has not yet recovered. Apart from massive population growth it also led directly to the systematic oppression of women by men, young by old, poor by wealthy. Most hunter-gatherer societies had value systems which were, in many ways, far more 'civilised' than the civilisations which supplanted them.

Maybe being a scrapman is about as close as you can get these days to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle? Maybe that's why they seemed so carefree and unassuming. Or maybe they were just nice guys anyway. Who knows?