Friday, October 26, 2012

To Glasgow and back: the view from the road by Ian Walker (New Society 21 May 1981)

To Glasgow and back: the view from the road
 Ian Walker talked to the out-of-work, the students and the lorry men. Daniel Meadows took the pictures
The road begins at Brent Cross, gateway to the M1. Five people have got lifts in the last hour. There are twelve of us still waiting, this windy Monday. Mostly they are students. But there are two down-and-outs who say they don't mind where they go. One of them bums a cigarette off me. He says he left a whole carton on a French truck last night and now he's clean out.

A tall thin boy walks up to ask if I would mind him hitching in front of me? He is going back home to Sheffield after a weekend spent camping in the New Forest, an extended interview for a job as courier on a big camp site in the south of France. He has been out of work since Christmas. He says it's bad in Sheffield. And it rained a lot in the New Forest.

He worked in a travel agent's for two years. He learnt to speak French by listening to French radio stations, taping the news broadcasts and learning them off by heart. If he gest a left, he says, he'll ask if the driver will take me, too. I say I'll do the same.

A police Range-Rover pulls up, and we are all told to move down from the hard shoulder. This happens every 20 minutes or so. We pick up our bags and walk down to stand in a cluster right on the edge of the roundabout. When the police have gone, we walk back up again.

I've been here now an hour and a half. A red BMW stops for the boy from Sheffield and, after a ten-second conversation, he beckons me over. The driver, a fruit farmer from Kent, is going to Leeds and he can drop me at Watford gap services. I get in the back seat.

The fruit farmer has to be at Leeds market at five tomorrow morning. He hasn't got anything to sell, but he's going to chat up a few of the wholesalers who will maybe put a bit of business his way. The recession, he goes on, has hit the fruit business. He used to sell a lot of strawberries to Germany, but now the pound is so weak against the mark it just isn't worth the effort. He's avoided laying off any staff so far. He is, he tells us, a great believer in expansion.

It starts raining hard about ten miles from Watford Gap, by which time I know that the fruit farmer's daughter is doing sciences at Oxford, that he knows the editor of the Telegraph, that he is a governor of Wye College (the agricultural branch of London University down in Kent), and that he is very concerned about the cuts in higher education. The BMW drops me right outside the service station cafe.

"Is your back still playing up, love?" one of the cleaners inquires of another, moppig the floor here in the cafe. Travellers sit silent on the wet-look blue seats, and look out of the window at the premature grey afternoon. I walk out, past the exclamations of the Space Invaders, and find another cafe, for transport workers, round the back. Here they serve the tea in mugs, and with two spoons of sugar, unless you speak up fast.

Paul Smith, a truck driver from Bristol, is depressed. He flicks through the Sun, the Mirror and the Star in turn. "It's my birthday and my wedding anniversary today," he says. "You picked a good time to talk to me. I was just sitting about and trying to read these papers, and wondering what she's thinking."

He said goodbye to his wife and three children this morning at 4.15, and drove from Bristol to London, where he had to start work at eight. Paul only gets home at weekends. During the week he sleeps either in the cab, or in his London digs. Today he has to pick up a load in Northampton and drive it to Carlisle. He'll finish tonight at around nine.

"Thirty seven today," he says.

I talk to Paul for almost two hours. He always wanted to be a journalist when he was at school. He went to see the editor of the local paper, who told him to go away and write a composition.

"I wrote this fabulous composition on football, 'A Day at the Match.' I didn't hear anything; then a month later, it was the day we were moving house, a letter came saying. 'You got the job.' The old man wouldn't have it, wouldn't let me take the job. 'You're not stopping,' he said. I was 16 and this was 21 years ago. Wasn't the thing to leave home young. Time I did leave home I was 21. I needed a job, and I didn't have any qualifications. Here I am. A lorry driver. I get very angry when I think about it now."

He goes up for his second mug of tea, comes back, offers me a Woodbine. "I was talking about this with a bloke the other day," he says. "I mean I did English GCE, used to be great with pen and paper. But now . . . Other day I had to write a letter to a firm. Had a job to even put the letter together. I doubt if I write more than three letters a year, and you lose it."

It's getting dark outside, and busier in here. A continuous procession of drivers coming in and having a laugh with the women behind the counter, supping their tea and walking out. I ask Paul if he wants to get back on the road. He says not.

His kids bought him a pair of size eleven training shoes for his birthday. He takes size nine. He runs a hand through his thick brown hair. You got me on a bad day. Do you think I should be home?"

I suppose it would be nice. But these are hard times, and I expect he needs the money. He nods. Without overtime, the money's crap, 80 quid a week, and who can raise a family on that? He needs all the overtime he can get, he says, but there are so many regulations these days. He can only do 60 hours' driving a week; that is a ministry ruling. And not more than 281 miles in any one day.

By January next year, all trucks will have to be fitted with a tachograph (the equivalent of an aircraft's black box). It records time spent driving and idle, speeds kept, total mileage done. Tachographs will replace logbooks, which are too easy to cheat on. To Paul, the tachograph is a mechanical spy. "No trust," he says.

"It's to do with the EEC. Everything's to do with the EEC. Only thing that's not on a par with the EEC is the wages."

Two more teas, 19p a mug: all the drivers hate the motorway services. A big clock hangs from the cafe ceiling. Paul glances at it now and again.

"Where you going?" he asks me.


He winces, and tells ne about the juvenile protection rackets that operate in places like Glasgow and Liverpool. "Kids come up and say they'll look after your cab for a half a quid. If you say no, then you get your tyres slashed and everything. If you hand over the ten bob, it gets looked after okay. If it wasn't so funny, it'd be sad. Kids of nine and ten years of age."

I say I've heard stories, too, about prostitutes who operate on the road.

"I don't bother with 'em. It's as simple as that. On this firm you get sacked for carrying your wife in the cab."

His firm is Laing's, the builders. He drives an artic. "I don't like rigids. Can't drive the bloody things." He says he would like a job "driving continental," but they're few and far between. "The good jobs, there's a waiting list as long as your arm. And the cowboy jobs aren't worth a light anyway."

Paul keeps saying he has to go. It's almost 8 pm. But he carries on talking. He tells me about a bad accident he had once, involving a motorcyclist.

"He locked his front wheel and dived off. They say he was dead before he hit me. But I didn't want to drive then. I packed it in for about a month, looked for another job. But if you haven't got a skill, it's very hard. So I went back to work. You don't forget those sort of things. But it's things that happen. On the road all day. More chance of things happening."

He looks up at the big clock.

"Christ. It's gone eight. I'm stopping here now for something to eat." He returns with sausage, egg and chips. I sit with him till he's done. And then he has to go south, and me north. We shake hands and wish each other luck. I walk out, my hand going into the canvas bag for the M6 sign.

But it's too dark to use it. Drivers can hardly see me, let alone the pathetic sign. Three other men are hitching. Two of them, travelling together, carrying big rucksacks, don't look too friendly. The third works at the Walker's Crisps factory in Leicester. He comes from Luton, but he had to move a few months ago to find work. He's been back home for the weekend to see his parents. He couldn't afford the train.

I get the first lift, at about nine, in a rigid truck. I avoid the eyes of the other hitchers on the way out. This driver is short and fat and embittered. "Were those two blokes hitching together?" he asks me. I say they were.

"Fucking comedians."

Everyone on the road, apart from himself, is a "fucking comedian." He uses the phrase a dozen times in the first ten minutes. It's pouring with rain, and the "fucking wind" is blowing us all over the lanes like a bit of paper. The short fat driver from Woburn Sands, who hates driving nights and hates this stretch of the M6, bounces up and down in his seat, wrestling with the non-power-assisted steering.

It's an old truck. You have to shout to make yourself heard above the din of the engine and the trad folk music on Radio Two and the tea-making Primus rattling in the glove compartment. The Primus belongs to his mate, the driver says, who is "too fucking mean to buy his tea." He tells me to stuff a rag in there to muffle the noise.

He has to drop his load of rubber windscreen parts in Liverpool, doss down in the cab for a few hours, and drive home early tomorrow morning. He takes home 88 a week. I ask him what he thought of the budget?

"Not a fucking lot."

His head is already nodding a bit. He says he got no sleep today and watched the late film on TV. So I have to keep him talking. Hobbies? Crown-green bowling and darts and reading, he says. Reading what?

"Every fucking thing. Got millions of fucking books."

Unaccompanied warblings on Radio Two about tragic love and war and bright spring mornings. A strange soundtrack to this bumpy grind along a windswept M6 at night.

About ten miles before Sandbach in Cheshire, the driver suddenly looks almost content. "This is how I like the motorway," he says. "Nothing in front and nothing behind either."

At 9.45 in the Roadchef cafe, Sandbach services, 20 truck drivers sit watching a repeat of The Sweeney. It's a bad night for hitching now. I try it for ten minutes then call up an uncle who lives in nearby Congleton. He works as a rep for BP. He comes over to pick me up. At his home we drink half a bottle of scotch. We talk about the Social Democrats and nuclear war.

Day two

A nightmare. Get back to Sandbach at 10 am. Wander round the car park, trying to get a lift. A truck driver sits reading the Sun in his cab. I rap on his door, and shout that I'd like a quick chat. He stares at me pityingly, then a minute or so later he slides across his seat and slowly winds down the window. "Nothing left to say," he says, winding the window back up and returning to the Sun. It starts raining. I go inside, and gets a 28p cup of coffee.

I wait an hour and a half, thumb hanging out, till a lorry driver from West Bromwich pulls up. He is going to Bury to get loaded with Ford parts. He can take me as far as Knutsford, the next services up the M6. Anything for a change of scenery.

A big man with a big beard, this driver looks like a rock climber. He's been driving over 20 years, and he's had this Atkinson truck (he calls it "an Akky") for three. It's a modern cab. Sprung seats and large wrap-around windows.

"The British lorries only started getting comfortable, with decent seats and power steering, when the continentals came in, the Scanias and the Volvos and everything. If they hadn't, I'm sure British lorries would be the same as they always were. Cold and uncomfortable."

He asks me where I'm bound. I tell him. "I used to do the Scotland run twice a week," he says. "Very tedious." He tugs on his beard, his eyes swivelling from road to wing mirrors and back.

Knutsford is desolate. On a sunny day it's ugly enough. This grey Tuesday lunchtime I walk across the litter-strewn car park and join the ten other hitchers, who all look glazed, as if they've been standing here a week. I get my pitch, in front of the Fiat billboard, shiny and red. HANDBUILT BY ROBOTS.

A Rolls-Royce glides past, and the glazing breaks for a moment as the hitchers turn to smile at each other. Every hitchhiker has heard "The Day I Got a Lift in a Rolls" story. Not this time.

A man in a tartan scarf, carrying a red guitar case and a rucksack, arrives after an hour. He's a mature student at Kent University, and he is on a visit to his home in Glasgow. Kent has gone right downhill, he says. They've even got British Movement skinheads on the campus. And the union is dominated by the Federation of Conservative Students. "I don't go to student union meetings any more. Waste of time."

After two hours of thumbing, I need a break. The Quasar and Astro Wars machines are right there in the middle of the self-service. Ping. Crash. Shakooh. Pish. A fat middle-aged couple tuck into their microwave pizzas, beans and chips. Girls in white Top Rank dungarees and caps rush round clearing the formica tables.

Back on the road, the only people getting lifts are those men carrying red-and-white tradeplates. They deliver new cars. The deal is that they buy the truck drivers a meal. Or something. It's starting to get dark. I've been here four hours. The sweet smell of diesel, as the trucks rev up down the slip road, has got almost pleasant.

The boy who slouches across the car park to the slip road has scared eyes and carries no possessions. He looked about 15. He's wearing a dirty blue anorak. I try talking to him, but he runs off. I remember Paul Smith, at Watford Gap, telling me about kids you got on the road these days. They just live on the motorway, not going anywhere in particular. Bumming coffee, meals and cigarettes from the drivers. Paul said he'd given one of them a lift just last week.

A blue Transit, with a TRUCKS ARE BEAUTIFUL windscreen sticker, sweeps past. The Glaswegian student says he's had enough. He's going to cross over to the other side of the M6, try and get back to Sandbach services, and then see if he can catch a lift going up north from there. He says if either of us ever make it to Glasgow, he'll see me at a pub on North Street called the Bonne Accorde.

Half an hour later, a buddhist monk stops. But he's not going my way. I have been here nearly five hours when I get out of wretched Knutsford in a beaten-up Cortina. The driver is a Manchester University student, on his way home to Wigan after a job interview with a firm of financial investigators based in Yeovil. "Nice place to work," he says brightly.

He thinks the interview went pretty well, and the starting pay is six thousand something, so he's pretty pleased about it all. He used to be a regular at the Wigan Casino northern soul all-nighter. We talk about northern soul for the half hour or so it takes to get to Charnock Richard services, near Lancaster, where a big coach party of suntanned schoolchildren are all nicking stuff from the shop, and flirting with each other.

I get sausage, egg and chips in the transport cafe, and sit reading Truck magazine, which is a flashily designed job packed with full-colour pics of masculine new trucks.

Charnock Richard at 9 pm. I've been on the road all day, and so far I've travelled two service stations up the motorway, about 40 miles. There are a few other people wandering round the dark car parks, who look like hitch-hikers, wearing backpacks. But they don't seem to be bothering to try and hitch.

After ten minutes I'm joined by a British Rail guard called Justin, who works in Stratford-on-Avon and is going up to see his parents in Kendal. I thought British Rail staff got free travel?

"They do. But I lost my pass."

Justin wears John Lennon spectacles and baggy frayed jeans. He has a red star on a circular badge pinned to his navy greatcoat. It is a poorly-lit slip road. Drivers can hardly see us, and we can't see inside the vehicles either. But Justin can't understand why the truck drivers parked right next to us, who've watched us waiting here 20 minutes, don't take pity on us.

Finally, we both get a lift in a white Transit, driven by two students, who say they've just been down to the midlands and bought this van for 3,000 for Sunderland students. Their story sounds a bit odd. I say they can drop me at Buton West services, and five minutes later Justin says he'll get dropped there, too. When we get out, he says he didn't fancy being on his own with those two. You develop an instinct, or a paranoia, about these things when you're hitching, particularly at nighttime. 

"I never said it was scampi," says the woman behind the counter, in the small cafe at Buton West, just before Kendal. "I said it was like scampis. I don't know. I'm not sure what scampis are." The man taking his food back must be some kind of nut, to expect scampi in a late-night motorway cafe. Justin goes off to phone his mother.

Justin's mother was fed up, he says. She's watching When the Boat Comes In. She told him to try hitching for half an hour, and she'd come out if he had no luck. "It's pretty rainy and empty out there," he says. We have another coffee.

Two truck drivers sit talking on the next table. I ask if either of them are going to Scotland. "I've broken down, And he's finished for the night," the Cockney driver says, winking at his mate as he gets up to go. A French couple come in, and the serving woman speaks to them slow and loud. Blobs of rain are dripping down the windows, blurring the headlights.

Justin says he has been working on the railways for two years now, and he's had enough. He was very excited, he says, when he was made NUR branch secretary. But it was depressing because no one ever showed up to meetings. He thinks he might go to college, and try to get some A levels. I get a lift into Kendal with his mother, who runs an antique shop, and check into a hotel. I get a drink in the cocktail bar.

A Geordie businessman expounds his theory of life. "Only one reason I work. Is that." He rubs his thumb on his index finger to indicate money. "That's all there is, isn't there? It'd be a great society of it wasn't. But it will never be. So why bother?" The businessmen at the bar nod in stolid agreement, and pull on their pints. 
21 May 1981

The second part of Ian Walker's journey to Glasgow and back will appear next week

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