Free Rides

My first ever book, Free Rides, is out now. The book is a collection of short stories about my hitch-hiking experiences and is available in Kindle format and in paperback. The Kindle version will be free to download until July 30th, after which it will cost 77p. The paperback version costs £4.

I was able to finish the book thanks to a grant from Arts Council West Midlands.

The first chapter is reproduced below.


Not A Job?

It's the summer of 1996 and I’m about to start work as a trade plate driver. This occupation is distinguished from most others by the fact that some amount of hitch-hiking is necessary. There’s a good chance that you’ve seen ‘platers’ standing by the roadside, although you may not know exactly what the job entails.

‘Plating’ involves the collection and delivery of company cars, hire cars and other miscellaneous vehicles from anywhere in the country to anywhere else.

Once a plater has delivered a vehicle it is up to them to make their way to the next collection address under their own steam. This address could be a hundred yards down the road or hundreds of miles away. It could be in the middle of a city or in an obscure village that only its inhabitants have heard of. Any money spent on public transport usually comes out of the plater’s own pocket so the object of the exercise is to cover the distance as quickly and cheaply as possible.

I spent some of my younger days hitch-hiking, mainly to music festivals, so in this respect I know the ropes already. I’m also expecting that the trade plates will make the task easier. These are the size of ordinary car registration plates and show a red identification number on a white background. Their official purpose is to act as temporary tax cover when moving vehicles which have no tax of their own. Their other, unofficial, purpose is to act as a badge of respectability when hitching – a sign that you are in gainful employment and are therefore unlikely to murder anyone who stops to pick you up.

For the last few years I’ve been spending my time idealistically involved with a workers’ co-operative who own a vegetarian cafĂ© in East Birmingham. We describe ourselves as anarchists, and occasionally appear in local news reports through our involvement in a variety of left-wing protests and demonstrations. But generally the wider world is proving stubbornly indifferent to our utopian schemes, and I’ve decided that I need to hedge my bets and get a regular job as well, saving the overthrow of capitalism for my spare time.

So far I’ve tried warehouse work, catering and industrial cleaning, but have fled from them all, becoming sadly convinced that I’ll never hold down any job where I have to go to the same place every day and do the same things with the same people - I spend too little time bonding with my workmates and too much time absorbed in daydreams.

Plating appeals to me as there will be no-one looking over my shoulder, and I have romantic notions about travelling around the country in fast cars, and surely finding the time to detour to any picturesque location that takes my fancy.

The job interview mainly involves confirming that I have a valid driving licence and somewhere safe to park vehicles overnight. After this there is an induction which consists of a five minute demonstration of how to inspect vehicles for damage, and a fifteen minute film about how to hitch-hike. This stars an unconvincing actor playing the role of a plater who clearly knows his place and who will occasionally turn to the camera and offer such uninspiring pieces of advice as –

‘Sometimes you’ll have to walk a few miles in a day, and you can get a bit whiffy, so I always carry some spray-on deodorant with me, just in case.’

Once this training is complete I’m given a set of trade plates and a fuel card and am now officially ready to start.

The first job I’m given is to finish off a delivery started by another driver, whose fate is unknown. The vehicle in question, a yellow Honda Accord, should have been taken to a leasing company in Trafford Park - an enormous industrial estate on the outskirts of Manchester. Instead it has ended up at the plating company’s office in Birmingham. It is driven to my house in the late afternoon by Bill, who will be my controller and is a mountain of a man. He wears a pinstriped shirt, with bright red braces stretched over a torso that could belong to an American wrestler. He will be virtually my only point of contact with the company, supplying me, over the phone, with job details and meeting any problems with gentle words of advice, or unhelpful sarcasm depending on how the mood takes him. He views my embarking on this new career with a degree of good-natured humour -

‘You didn’t hear it from me but fifty percent of the drivers who start here don’t last a week.’

He’ll tell me at a later date that he fully expected me to be one of the dropouts. But the company also has a high turnover of controllers and I’ll eventually outlast him, and several of his successors.

I arrive in Trafford Park early the next morning, locate the leasing company’s compound, and obtain a signature for the car. Bill informed me the previous day that my next collection will be from Bradford, and so I now set off to try and get my first lift.

During this first day I’ll perform two experiments, both of which I’ll subsequently avoid repeating. The first of these is that I decide to hitch-hike in a busy urban area - the middle of the industrial estate to be precise.

I walk the short distance back to the nearest roundabout, where there is an eastbound exit heading in the direction of the motorway. All around are warehouses and office blocks, and workers making their ways towards morning shifts. I stand incongruously in the middle of this scene, with my plate and a cardboard sign saying ‘M62.’

In the past I’ve done most of my hitching at motorway junctions and at the exits of service stations where there is only the traffic and myself. I rarely wonder about the opinions of passing motorists - they are separated from me by glass and metal, and will be gone in a moment anyway. If the weather is good then I can stand there for as long as it takes, as contented as a fisherman on a river bank.

But I soon realise that it’s a different matter to have a steady stream of pedestrians plodding by, studiously ignoring me, just as they would ignore any other lunatic.

There are some seasoned platers who begrudge seeing a single penny escaping from their pockets and will stand on the busiest of streets, defiantly holding their plates out, rather than buy a bus ticket to get them to somewhere more suitable. But it takes me less than a minute to realise that such methods are not for me. Fortunately in less than another minute an old tipper truck pulls over for me. It is driven by a stocky young guy with close-cropped hair.

‘Where you off to?’ he shouts through the open window.

‘I’m trying to get to the ’62.’

‘Jump in!’

I do, and we set off. He’s going over to Leeds and will drop me at the main Bradford junction. I tell him I’ve just started the job and we talk about the everyday details of it for the first few minutes as we chug out of Manchester. This leads to my second, impromptu experiment, which is to say the word ‘cunt’ to another person. This is a word I use with great regularity when I’m alone behind the wheel and am affronted by someone else’s driving, but I’ve never before said it in the presence of anyone else.

I’m complaining to the truck driver about the company’s dress code, which requires me to wear a jacket and tie at all times, which I have no intention of doing. It’s clear from the nature of job that you are not at the top of the food chain, and wearing smart clothes would only emphasise this fact because it would be obvious that you had not chosen to wear them. I’m in jeans and an old leather jacket, which seems at least to suggest a degree of autonomy. But I express this in a more straightforward way to the driver –

‘I’d feel like a cunt dressing up like that to do this.’

I’m caught up in the feeling of embarking upon a new life of sorts, meeting people I know I’ll never see again, and having the opportunity to try on new personalities for size - although this one doesn’t quite seem to fit.

‘You look smart enough anyway, don’t you?’ says the driver with a shrug.

There is nothing in his reaction to put me off saying the word again, and I think my delivery is good enough for a beginner, but somehow I’ve never ended up using it since. Perhaps I’m too old to acquire such habits, and would surprise too many of my friends if I tried.

We reach the M62 and then climb up through empty moorland towards the top of the Pennines.

‘You got any plans for the weekend?’ the driver asks after a while.

‘I’ll probably just go down to my local.’

‘I’ll be off to the Mardi Gras festival in town this Saturday with my mates. It’s a great laugh - you get all the processions there, and everyone’s just getting pissed, you know. It’s a good atmosphere.’

This is an annual event organised by Manchester’s gay community. As an afterthought he tells me that he isn’t gay himself, although it seems of little concern to him one way or the other - an easygoing indifference in which it’s hard to imagine any prejudice being able to take root.

It starts to feel good to be hitching again – to be meeting such people and seeing unfamiliar places. I’m used to the flatness and close horizons of Birmingham, and as we descend into Yorkshire the wide views of the grey mill towns of Halifax and Huddersfield, nestled among the hills, seem tremendously beautiful in the morning light.

I get the precise details of my Bradford job from Bill, and find that I’m in luck - the tipper driver knows the location of the industrial estate that I need and is happy to go five minutes out of his way to take me there.

He drops me at the entrance to the estate and we say our farewells before he turns around and heads back to the motorway, and I set off into the estate.

I find the collection address, get the car keys from the receptionist, carry out an inspection of the vehicle, fill out the paperwork, obtain a signature for it, and then depart without anyone realising that I don’t really know what I’m doing.

The car needs to be delivered to an auction in Netherfield, Nottingham, and so I hurtle down the M1 for an hour and then crawl and curse my way through the city for another hour until I locate the auction at the back of a business park.

While I’m getting a signature for the car I bump into another plater who apparently works for the same firm. He’s a small wiry man with long hair, thinning on top, and he greets me with the stern question –

‘Where’s your tie?’

I’m taken aback by this for a moment, until an obvious answer occurs to me –

‘I don’t know. Where’s yours?’

He just laughs. He is an old hand at this job and is trying to get home to Birmingham. After a quick call to Bill I find out that this is now my mission as well. The auctions are on the opposite side of the city to the motorway so this is not a promising situation, but my beginner’s luck continues to hold and we bump into a third plater who is picking up a car from here. He’ll be heading down to Bristol and can drop us both on the outskirts of Birmingham.

The auction is a bustling place with cars coming in and out all the time, and hard-nosed, bargain-seeking men walking around with an air of quiet criminality about them. The prospect of a free lift causes yet more platers to crystallise out of this crowd, and the man with the car quickly finds that it is full of strangers.

I’m squashed in next to an amiable old guy by the name of Tommy, who also knows the ropes, and whose expression defaults to a contented smile whenever he is not speaking.

‘How long have you been doing this then?’ I ask.

He pauses for a moment to remember the answer - ‘Six years now.’

‘You must like it then?’

‘Well, it beats getting a job,’ he laughs. This reply sounds well-rehearsed, but genuine nonetheless and I make a mental note of it.

Tommy already has a pension coming in from a previous occupation, and in another couple of years he will be able to add a state pension to this as well and will be retiring. Until then he is happy to potter around the country, no longer scared by long distances and lonely slip roads.

‘You always get home in the end,’ he says with an encouraging degree of certainty in his voice.

We drive out of Nottingham, passing signs for a place called Gotham whose residents, unlike me, are probably too familiar with the name to smile and think of Batman when they see it.

Soon we are on the motorway, and the Old Hand takes over the conversation. He is feeling the weight of his years of experience and dishes out several pieces of advice which are intended not only for myself, but for the benefit of everyone present. One of these pearls will stand out long after other memories of this day have become murky, simply because of its absurdity -

‘When you want to find an address in a city, what you have to think about is whether it’s a road or a street. Streets are usually in the centre but roads will be further out.’

None of us question his sagacity, at least not out loud.

In less than an hour we have reached the outskirts of Birmingham, and I get the driver to drop me at the NEC where I can catch a fast bus into the city. It’s only two o’clock and for all the money I’ve earned today I might as well have stayed on the dole. But as the bus rattles through the warm afternoon I feel happy nonetheless. I’ve found a job that might not to be a job after all, and I have a whole country ahead of me to get lost in.

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