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?

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