By: James Stevenson
I’m hesitant to call this “Notes from the Road”, as the title implies that this is a regular column and there will more notes to come. More is my intention. I’m sure I’ll drag myself back to the road sometime soon, but this trip was so awful in the end that it’s put me off this hitchhiking bullshit a bit.
In fact, I think I was pretty hesitant to do this trip anyway. My alarm woke me up at 6:30 on Friday, and I immediately fell back asleep and dreamt that I had decided not to go to Bristol at all. It was so convincing that when I woke up again an hour later I really had no desire to drag myself out of bed and make a move. DJ Shadow was playing his All Basses Covered tour at Motion in Bristol that night, and I’d already shelled out £25 for a ticket. I’d decided to buy the ticket so that I would force myself to hitchhike there.
I got to the road at 9 AM. I was in West London where cars are joining the M4 motorway, a straight run to Bristol. I stood there for about an hour, holding my sign and sticking my thumb out. Nobody picked me up. Some honked or gave a thumbs up. One couple looked really confused and pointed off to the right, as if to say “Bristol’s that way, man.” I get a lot of random gestures when I hitchhike, and I would say 60% of them have been impossible for me to decipher. One time I did get flipped off in Switzerland. I mooned that guy.
I was hungry and tired, and around 10AM I started to feel like crap. I sniffed out a greasy spoon and paid next to nothing for some breakfast. The only other guy in the place was a hobo. It was an odd contrast. He with his amazing beard, a pram full of swag and loot, and a slow, purposeful way of moving that suggested his senses were completely dulled to the outside world. Me with my painted fingernails (silver), £70 headphones and Imperial College Mathematics Society jumper, eating my full English breakfast like “ah, the colloquial English fare. What a pleasure to be so down to earth.”
I nommed my breakfast and hit the road again, feeling better. At noon I finally got a lift from a Kenyan guy. He works in the embassy in London, in defense. He used to be in the military, and had seen some fighting at the Somalian border, suppressing something or other. For a military man, he was very peaceful. He told me he tries to do one good thing for someone every day.
On the radio some BBC presenter was talking about poverty in England. My driver said it was interesting to watch England as an outsider.
“If you look at the history,” he said. “It’s really going downhill. In 10, 20 years it’s going to be really bad.”
The radio backed him up, complaining about soup kitchens. According to the DJ, having soup kitchens encourages people to be poor, which calls for more money to soup kitchens. One feeds off the other. Well of course one feeds off the other, I thought that was the point.
“There are so many problems in the world. And all of them come from greed. If we took all the money in the world and redistributed it evenly, everyone would live happily.” I hear this sort of thing a lot from drivers, but I’ve never been convinced.
“And look, all these people in cars, and how long did you stand there?”
“Three hours,” I said. “It was so cold, man.”
“Three hours! And what does it cost me? I have someone in my car, I have conversation, it’s human contact!”
“Yeah man, exactly!”
I feel like such a hippy when we talk like this.
Eventually he started talking about Islam.
“I’m a Muslim,” he said. “But all these guys killing in the name of Islam are wrong. Islam is a peaceful religion. And suicide is wrong in our religion, too. You won’t go to heaven if you kill yourself. It’s like, if I told you that if you go to Bristol today you will become a billionaire, without having to do anything, but I’m still going to Swindon, then why am I not also a billionaire? You understand? If someone tells you that by blowing yourself up you’re going to go to heaven and have 70 virgins or whatever, then why has that guy not yet blown himself up? It doesn’t make any sense.”
I laughed and agreed.
“And jihad, people always talk about jihad. Jihad, it means ‘a struggle’. You can have a peaceful jihad too.”
He wasn’t driving all the way to Bristol, so he dropped me at a gas station with 40 miles left to go. I bought a cup of coffee and a pastry, doodled for a minute, and then started asking people if they were going to Bristol. It only took a few minutes before I got a yes.
“You know what? I will take you to Bristol,” the dude said. “But if we break down, we’re screwed mate. I’ve already broken down twice today.”
He was a young looking guy, I would guess in his 30s.
“You’re from Imperial College,” he said, pointing at my jumper. “You must be good at maths. Ok you’ve got 3 seconds, what’s 52 times .36?”
“Ummm,” I said.
“Ok, ten seconds,” he said after three seconds. After ten seconds I knew it was something to do with 156, 312 and some powers of ten, but no final answer had come out of my mouth and my forehead was still scrunched up in the thinking position. “Ok, I’m going to go inside and pay. When I come out you tell me.”
“Sure thing,” I said.
He went inside and I worked it out. Then my sister called.
“Hey bro! Where are ya?”
“At a gas station about to get a lift to Bristol. The guy asked me what 52 times .36 is.”
“Haha nice! Ok cool, have fun!”
“Will do, toodles!”
The guy came back out and said “You got it?”
“Ah yeah, I did, but my sister called and now I forgot it,” I said. “Something to do with 18.72 or something.”
“6,” he corrected me.
“Yeah 76, of course,” I agreed. I dunno if he knew he was wrong.
“You’re lucky my wife isn’t here,” he said as we started driving away. “She hates it when I pick up hitch hikers. We were in Morocco and I was picking them up.”
“Yeah man, but that’s ok. You know, when I first started hitch hiking I’d get really angry at all the people just blowing by me,” I started.
“Yeah, fucking cunts.”
“But you know, some people don’t want to pick people up, and that’s fine.”
“Yeah I guess. Hey what’s your name?”
“I’m James,” I said, shaking his hand.
“Good to meet you, I’m Steph.”
Everything in Steph’s life had gone wrong. He used to be a trader “in the city”, making big money in the pit.
“Some years you take in 500 thousand, some years you lose 200 thousand. That’s how it goes. I’m burnt out now, though, man. I’m 41, I lost my company, lost my money. I’m living on 20 grand a year, you know? That’s nothing! They had to cut out half my liver, my cars broken down twice. I think my car broke down so I could pick you up today and complain about it all. I’m just sitting here cursing life, and you gotta listen to me, sorry man.”
He’d also cracked a disc in his spine when he was a teenager.
“I had to stand erect all the time. I couldn’t sit down. I had to shit erect, you know, and couldn’t wipe.”
This guy had had a hell of a life.
“When I was in the city I always did my best and worked as hard as I could. It turns out everything is about who you know, though, and nobody ever told me that.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I was always told ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’“
“Yeah, you see? Nobody ever told me that. That’s why I hate these cunts in the city that get lucky or whatever. I worked fucking hard, and I was good, and look at me now.” He called everyone cunts.
“Oh, and another thing man, is the Jews,” he said. “Before I go on, you’re not Jewish, man, are you?”
“No dude, whatever, go on.”
“Yeah man, it’s the French Jews. They control everything, man. They got all the money, seriously. All the big banks are run by the French Jews. And you know what’s interesting? Before the Second World War, they were persecuting Germans out in Austria. No First World… was it First? Nah, Second World War. They were killing Germans, and the Germans were asking them to stop. That’s why they started the war, it was self defense. They were attacked first. But you know the propaganda and news and whatever, you never hear this, right?”
“Yeah dude that’s crazy. Interesting.”
Around then we started coming into Bristol. He went through the town center and let me out. We said our goodbyes and I parted. The stuff about the Jews was pretty strange, but I like the guy. I like everyone.
It was something like 2 or 3PM and the gig wasn’t until 11. I had a date with a pizza, got lost, took a piss by a river, found my way again, and walked into the venue like 7 hours early.
“Hey can I help set up or something?” I asked.
“Uh yeah sure, you work here?”
“No no, I’m just here for the gig, I’ve just got a ticket. I’m like 7 hours early, though.”
“Hah! No, man, sorry. You know if you get hurt or something it’s a problem, right.”
“Yeah, I figured, but I thought I’d ask.”
“Where you from, kid?” said the guy as he went up some stairs and out of sight.
“Uh, well I grew up in New Jersey and..” I started to say
“Well, don’t worry about it man, it’s not your fault!”
I let out a laugh and walked back to town.
I spent 5 hours in a swaggin cafe. The coffee was good, the lady working there was very pretty (though at least twice my age), there was a barber shop in the back, and the cafe was full of cool stuff. I stayed there for hours and not single other customer came in.
On the shelf next to me was “Our Island Story”, by H. E. Marshall. It was a narrative history of England for kids, written in 1905. I learned that a very long time ago, Neptune was looking for an island to give to his favorite son, Albion. Many people came from different islands to ask that Albion come to theirs, but none of the islands were good enough for him. But then a little mermaid come before Neptune and spoke:
“O Father Neptune,” she said, “let Albion come to my island. It is a beautiful little island. It lies like a gem in the bluest of waters. There the trees and the grass are green, the cliffs are white and the sands are golden. There the sun shines and the birds sing. It is a land of beauty. Mountains and valleys, broad lakes and swift-flowing rivers, all are there. Let Albion come to my island.”
It turned out she was talking about England. Man, salespeople.
I read on: “Now the people of the little island possess lands all over the world. These lands form the empire of Greater Britain.” I chuckled to myself.
In the same sitting I read Terry Pratchett’s idea: “I think we got our Empire because of the weather. Anything was better than staying home in the rain. I’m pretty certain people looked out of the window and rushed off to discover India and Africa.” – Daphne, Nation.
The day was cold and overcast, the Kenyan had spoke about the decline on England, Steph had lost all his money, the amazing café had no customers, I wasn’t allowed to help at the gig because of health and safety laws, and I was fleeing London to party with a lot of drunk people. The gloom of England was everywhere.
The show finally rolled around, and I had a blast. At the beginning I was the only guy up at the front, holding onto the railing and dancing like mad. There was like a two meter radius from me to the crowd, I don’t know why. I checked to make sure I smelled ok and that no one had cut a massive hole out of my pants or something.
Then at some point I turned around again and the whole room was completely filled, and it was crowded, and everyone was dancing around me. Coldcut were laying down a lesson in dub, reggae, breaks and bass, and it was sweet.
Some girl came up to me and said something.
“What?” I shouted.
“What?” she shouted.
“Exactly!” I shouted
“What?” she shouted.
I can’t be bothered with girls in clubs, I was just there to dance. I regret that a bit, cuz she was pretty, and all the other girls that approached me that night were not. Even the one making out with another girl next to me. Several times.
Shadow came at 1:30AM and was pretty banging. He played all kinds of trap and juke and sweet weird music that everybody enjoyed. It was so cutting edge that nobody could really work out how to dance to it, but we all went wild anyway. About halfway through his set my nipples started burning like crazy. I kept dancing, Rick Ross woke up in a new Bugatti, and at the end of the set Giorgio Moroder donated his organs to give the sound so much body.
Shadow finished up at about 2:30AM, and I went outside to hold up my sign for London. There was pretty much no chance that would work. What kind of moron would drive to Bristol just for a bassy club night, not drink, and then drive home at 3 in the morning? What kind of moron would hitchhike there 7 hours early, not sort out a place to stay and then try to hitchhike back in the middle of the night? Me, apparently, and I also thought it was a good idea to keep buying snow cones until I couldn’t afford any more.
I lost all my remaining money in an arm wrestle, hung out with a girl until she ditched me in a crowd, and then headed to the train station with a random guy who asked me if I’d go with him. He said the club was closing at 4, even though the girl had told me it would be open till 10. I followed him anyway, and we shared a very difficult 40 minutes of conversation. He was a lower class Brit who’d lived his whole life in the area around Bristol. He gardened for a living, but didn’t even seem to have anything to say about gardening. He didn’t have very much to say at all. I did my one good deed for that day and bought him a train ticket, then fled.
I found myself at the road again at 5AM. I found the spot that hitchwiki.org suggested and stood holding my sign to the cars in the road, waiting for one to beep at me and pull into the gas station next to me. It was so cold and windy that I had to go into the gas station every twenty or thirty minutes just warm my body up. When I was outside I was jogging in place to try to warm up. I passed three hours in the fashion, and slowly began to feel very, very weary.
Coaches with big signs saying “040 London” were passing by me, and at 8AM I decided to give up. I was cold and tired, my nipples were still burning and I had a pain in my back. With great relief, I hobbled over to the coach station, paid my £20 fine for giving up, got on a bus, and closed my eyes. I was cold to my bones the rest of that day, and decided to spend the week wrapped up in blankets working on my website.
And that was that.
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