Monday, 29 June 2009

Kills All Known Bugs - The Sequel

Further to Friday’s tales about washing my truck with Cillit Bang (you can tell just how exciting my life is), I am pleased to present the fruits of my labours here today. As it was a very bright and sunny day (albeit incredibly hot and humid, which I do not approve of) I was able to get some pictures of my gleaming vehicle doing the company proud at Peterborough. So here I present the before and after photos of the Iveco.

This is before ...

and this is ... you're way ahead of me.

I should also say that I was so impressed with it’s cleaning powers that I did an incredibly rare thing yesterday – I popped down to Asda and bought some. And it works just as well on bathrooms as it does on heavy goods vehicles. I’m not looking for any reward here, obviously – but if the makers of Cillit Bang would like to reward me with a lifetime supply of truck cleaner, well, it would be rude to refuse. Just thought I’d mention it.

That’s all for today, I’m too hot and drained to get

Sunday, 28 June 2009

I'm Sittin' in the Railway Station...

... Got a ticket for my destination
On a tour of one night stands
My suitcase and guitar in hand
And every stop is neatly planned
For a poet and a one man band

Homeward bound
I wish I was
Homeward bound...

You and me both, Simon! Right at that moment I wished I was homeward bound, rather than the situation I was actually in. It’s Friday night, gone midnight and I’m slumped on a hard wooden seat, having watched my train depart without me aboard due to a ticket mix up and with only a decidedly down-in-the-dumps date to keep me company. I love the joys of travel. This scenario is hardly ideal in any circumstances; even less ideal when the station is Kiev in the Ukraine and the train that was supposed to take the two of us to Kharkov, some 545 km away, was now an hour into it’s journey. I have had better Friday nights. Even in Grantham, which is saying something.

Getting to Kiev, back in chilly February, had been easy, courtesy of a new budget airline called Wizz!, who had Whizzed! me direct from Luton where I’d left the car, and I’d met Natalia as planned at Kiev Borispol Airport - she'd spent 7 hours travelling by coach, followed by another four waiting for my flight to arrive, so was feeling rather bored and tired. Who wouldn't? After a bus transfer into town, I’d dumped the suitcase with Left Luggage, so that we could take a brief look around Kiev and get some dinner before returning for our train at 22:35. So far so good.

My first view of Kiev by night, this is Independence Square. No opportunities for photos, being encumbered by luggage and desperate for food, so I borrowed this one, with the kind permission of ‘Stuck in Customs’ by Trey Ratcliffe.

Upon returning to the station, things began to unravel. Firstly, we couldn’t find Left Luggage in the cavernous basement of the station. Well, we could find one set of Left Luggage Lockers, and did so three times by ever increasingly circuitous routes of the station, but the other one appeared to have disappeared altogether. Time was ticking, and as Russian trains always leave on time, this was worrying. With ten minutes to spare, we finally found the right place, and retrieved the case. Then it was a mad dash over to the platform to find the sleeper train, which was a monster with 20 coaches. All berths are pre-booked on Russian trains, so you don’t just clamber aboard. We were in coach 2, of course, so it was quite a marathon to walk / jog the length of the train. Natalia had purchased the tickets a few days before, and handed them to the carriage attendant (called a provodnitsa) for checking. An argument in Russian then ensued, with much gesticulating and shouting; it was clear that everything was not entirely tickety-boo. That was when Natalia informed me that the tickets were actually for the previous day, and not valid on this train. Oh goody. This train was fully booked as well, as Russian trains are very well used by locals due to their reliability and cheap prices (Alistair Darling, are you taking notes?) This meant that a bung was out of the question; if there are spare seats the provodnitsas will invariably allow you to travel if you make it worth their while. Money talks in the Ukraine just as well as anywhere else. But no seats means no seats. End of.

Well, it’s not the first time my Russian travel plans had gone awry, as my previous experiences in Belarus had demonstrated a few months earlier. Natalia went into a major strop, explaining that it wasn’t her fault (of course) and wishing a thousand plagues onto the girl who’d sold her the tickets back home. All very poetic, but it wasn’t likely to get us anywhere. I suggested going to the booking office, which stays open all night, and searching for a replacement train. After 15 minutes of sulking and making absolutely sure that I understood that this cock up was not her fault (I understand, get over it) she agreed to go and look for a new train.

At the booking office, the nice lady with a scowl informed us that there were several trains to Kharkov (it is Ukraine’s second city, similar to Birmingham). The next was at 00:42, another at 03:15 or wait till morning and get the luxury express. Natalia chose the 00:42, only to be informed that it had no 1st or 2nd class compartments available, and the only option was Platzkarny, or 3rd class. I made my ‘whatever you think best, dear’, speech, but secretly, I was rather pleased in a masochistic kind of way. Luxury compartments are all very well for tourists, but platzkarny is how real Russians travel, and it was a chance to experience a slice of normal life and meet new people. Plus, it is incredibly cheap, which is something very close to my heart. Tickets for the two of us were 100 grivnas, around a tenner. Yes, that’s right, change out of a fiver, per person, to travel 545 km. Puts Virgin trains £135 (for a similar trip of say, London – Glasgow) into perspective, eh?

All this activity had taken an hour or so, including downtime for sulking (not mine) so there was only about an hour to wait. Talk about getting away lightly; really, I’ve had far bigger travel mishaps to deal with in the past. I treated myself to a ‘coffee’ from a vending machine, and waited until the appropriate moment to descend once again to the platform.

The train was another monster of around 16 coaches; its day had begun at a place called Hmelnickii at around midday, so already it had covered 358 km in around 12 hours – not spectacularly fast, but all CIS country’s trains are operated with a focus on steady reliability rather than speed – a sort of tortoise and hare syndrome. The Ukrainian coaches are painted blue with a white band, and date from, I’d guess, the fifties and sixties. A lovely aroma of a coal fire emanates from these carriages as you walk up the platform; really takes you back to Brief Encounter – at least, it does until you discover that your date buggered up the booking and you can’t get on. That never happened to Trevor and Celia; they thought it through. The interiors are dated but spotlessly clean, as each carriage has the aforementioned provodnitsas who look after it throughout the trip – these attendants are often quite fierce and parochial; do not misbehave or mess up their carriage! As well as keeping it clean and tidy, the provodnitsas also bring drinks, look after the bedding and keep a coal-fired samovar (a large boiler) bubbling away at the end of each coach to provide hot water – hence the smell of an coal fire as you pass the end of each carriage.

The station platforms are at ground level in Ukraine, so it was a steep climb up the steps to enter the coach. I perfected my technique in Belarus; you throw your case in then scramble up after it; trying to carry it up the steps with you is a recipe for disaster. I hope this titbit of information will be useful to you one day.

Given the late hour, the coach was in partial darkness and most of the occupants in deep slumber. I should explain how a platzkarny coach is designed. Each coach consists of 9 open compartments with no doors. Each compartment has four berths plus an additional two berths are located longitudinally over the corridor. At each end of the carriage is a bathroom. This diagram shows the arrangement more clearly; it is a very public and cosy affair!

During daytime, the bunks are folded up and passengers sit on the benches – and I mean benches, not seats. Overnight, the benches become the lower sleeping bunk; and you pull down a shelf above it to create the upper berth, so that four people can sleep. The windows do not open in these coaches, presumably a hangover from Soviet days to stop people leaving the train for a fag break followed by a fun-run into a neighbouring country that sold Levis and Coca Cola - many trains are international and travel considerable distances, often 2 – 3 days. Consequently, they become very hot and stuffy; and the air gets a bit foetid after a while.

We found our assigned berths; naturally the lower berths were occupied by sleeping people so we’d get the shelves. Great! I had to wake up the man at my berth, because my suitcase had to go into the luggage locker, which rather thoughtfully, can only be accessed by lifting up his bed. They thought that one through. Not. On a more practical note, a shag on a shelf was out of the question; although given that Natalia’s mood had worn a little thin, I suspected that she wasn’t planning to give it up this evening anyway. Even though I had made it abundantly clear that no, the cock up wasn’t her fault, and yes, the lady in the ticket office should indeed die a thousand deaths for this travesty.

The passenger that I awoke from deep slumber didn’t seem too perturbed by this intrusion, such is Russian train travel. As he was now awake, he decided to stay up, which gave me a good opportunity to have a chat. His name was Yuri and although he spoke no English at all, I could speak basic Russian as I’d been studying at night school for a year. Opposite Yuri was a woman called Lenka, but she didn’t say much and went back to sleep. Yuri and I were able to communicate reasonably well through my limited Russian, sign language and facial expressions. He worked on the railway as a signalman and was travelling the entire trip – 903 km from Hmelnickii to Kharkov. Inevitably, he produced a bottle of fruit flavoured vodka and opened it up to share, a great tradition on Russian trains. And I was not going to pass up drinkies! Another tradition is that once the bottle is open it must be finished, and I’m all in favour of taking local customs seriously. I also found that the more vodka I drank, the better my Russian became and the conversation really flowed.

This is the platzkarny coach configured for overnight. It resembles a troop train rather than long distance passenger express. There is no privacy whatsoever, and no segregation either between the sexes. Which can be fun in the right circumstances.

Naturally I haven’t a clue what time the vodka ran out, and it was time for bed. This is when you discover that the vodka has directional skills – my head was clear and lucid (I think) but my legs were decidedly drunk. I made Bambi on ice look like a coordinated march of the Coldstream Guards. This made climbing up onto my shelf a tricky proposition, especially as once up there, I had to make up my bed – it is customary to make up the bed before climbing up, but that all passed me by. Once I was more or less wrapped up in a sheet and duvet it was time for sleep – I had a sudden urge in the crowded carriage to announce, ‘Goodnight Jim Boy …’, but fortunately I was able to hold that thought. With all that vodka I expected to sleep all the way to Kharkov, if not Moscow, but it was not to be. The motion of the train was restful and soon lulled you off to sleep, but unfortunately no sooner did it get going than it would stop at some isolated station. Without the soothing sound of the wheels on the rails, all you could hear was snoring, a lull of occasional chatter and an annoying buzzing noise that sounded like a bluebottle had got aboard and was desperate to get off. It was unlikely to be a bluebottle, unless it had a valid ticket – the provodnitsas would see to that.

The train made 12 station stops during the trip, so sleep proved evasive. Around 07:00 the coach began to stir into life as people got up and began preparing for the new day. I was quite happy up on my shelf and decided to stay there, besides which I wasn’t sure that I had enough co-ordination to get down. But nyet! At 8, the provodnitsa came down the corridor and barked at me. Yuri explained that it would be a really good idea to get up now. I got up. Natalia had already risen, but remained obstinately silent during all of this. Thanks, pet. Shortly after that, the provodnitsa was back, and Yuri ordered me a tea, very thoughtful. He advised me to avoid railway coffee, because it tastes like shitski. Fair enough. She brought the tea and then had another rant. Now what? It turned out that once you get up, you must disassemble your bed, put the duvet cover, pillowcase and sheet into the correct plastic bag (provided) and place the duvet and pillow neatly onto the storage shelf above the upper berth. Oh yes, why didn’t I think of that? Then you take your plastic bag down to the provodnitsas compartment, where it is put with the laundry. She took my proffered bag with all the grace and charm of a health & safety officer and that was that. Back to my much-needed cup of tea, and by now Yuri and Lenka were tucking into breakfast that all passengers bring on board the trains. They generously shared everything, and I contributed my pack of chocolate Hobnobs to the feast (never leave home without them).

Good morning, rise and shine! The first passengers have woken up,
but you can still see much of the bedding on the seats and sleeping-shelves.

The train was a lot less lively in the morning than during the night, and everyone was quiet. The view from the window was limited as they’d all steamed up during the night, so there was little to see. We chatted a little for the next hour or so, until at 10:20, after 9 hours and 40 minutes, the train pulled into the majestic Kharkov Station. What an amazing building! First task was to find the washrooms and freshen up, but for now my main thought was that I’d travelled platzkarny and survived! It was a great, if uncomfortable, experience – and whilst not one I’d repeat in a hurry, well worth doing.

Here at last, my first view of Kharkov on a chilly February morning.

The interior of the station building is magnificent, with intricate carvings all delicately handpainted to bring out the detail. Glass domes bring out the best of the bas-relief with natural lighting. After a long, uncomfortable night, this really lifts your spirits. But not as much as finding a McDonalds just outside the concourse.

The grand facade of the station is just as grand as the beautiful interior, and immediately reminded me of the imposing Twin Gates at Minsk. I stayed in Kharkov for a week and had an excellent time, but this is enough for now. Once Natalia had a good night’s sleep she changed dramatically for the better, and we had a great week exploring her home town. I returned to Kiev by express road coach, but that’s another story.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Kills All Known Bugs

Friday was a quiet day; not much on except a short trip to Worksop to collect four trade cars, including a good old fashioned Mini – a real Leyland Mini, not one of those ‘new and improved’ pretend Minis beloved by estate agents.

As I was in no rush, returned via the Ollerton country route so as to find a nice spot for lunch before trundling back to the yard. Even so, it was only about 1pm, and with nothing else to do, I decided to wash the truck.
Now, our facilities are state of the art, and our truckwash consists of a garden hose without a nozzle, a cold tap, a bucket and long handled broom. But it was a hot and humid day (again), so mucking about with a hose was no hardship. Jacko saw what I was up to, and as he was equally at a loose end, came to help.
At first Jacko sprayed the water, and I tackled the brush. The squashed flies, bugs and assorted wildlife that have glued themselves to the cab and windscreen proved impervious to this treatment, so some thought was needed. I used to wonder why these annoying insects don’t get out of the way for fast moving traffic, but then I realised that trucks are invisible to Audi drivers as well, so either they’re blind or just plain stupid. That applies to the insects, too. A bottle of Fairy Liquid was chucked into the bucket, and frothed up nicely. It made little difference to cleaning the lorry; however, I’ve never had such soft hands. An upgrade was required. In the cleaner’s cupboard we found a bottle with an unidentified pinkish liquid in it. It smelt like one of those kitchen / bathroom cleaners – I’m no expert – so in it went. This was adept at removing general dirt and road dust from the body, but useless when it came back to insect heaven and the oil stains. So, back to the cupboard, and a product called Cillit Bang. No idea what it does, but when I picked it up I thought it said ‘Clit Bang’ and I just had to give it a go. I don’t often get the chance to clit bang these days, and an opportunity to do so at work was not be missed.

Lorries - Kill all known bugs. Dead.

Well, I have to say that this stuff is an excellent lorry cleaner. By climbing onto the roof of the cab, I could pour it neat down the windscreen, allowing Jacko to give it a good scrub. The bugs just lifted off. Further tests also discovered that it shifts oil stains from the hydraulic pipes and ground in brake dust from the wheels. Half the bottle went into the bucket, and the rest of the truck was brought back to its long vanished glory. Hopefully there are no side effects, and the stuff won’t eat through the paint – I don’t want to return to bare metal on Monday morning!

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Stand and Deliver!

It a typical delivery nightmare – narrow roads, bollards, another truck making a delivery and blocking the road whilst an endless stream of impatient cars squeeze past. There’s only one thing for it; switch off, lock up and join the lads in the portacabin for a brew!

Leaving was just as much fun; last time I came down this road a car had parked on the yellow lines (it’s Leicester so they don’t apply) and blocked the entire road while he popped into the minicab office further down. You can’t go forwards, can’t back up, so out with The Sun until he reappears.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Lorry, 'cross the Mersey

Had a pleasant day out to Liverpool, which isn’t something that everyone can say. Deliver 5 brand new Kia Crapeos and bring back any 5 dogs that would start – and finding 5 cars in Liverpool that start is quite an achievement in itself. Loading takes place on the docks, which makes a nice change, because here, for once, is loads of space to do things like park up. It is also nice to have a spot of lunch with a sea view, so to speak, and this is the vista from my riverside terrace in ‘Restaurant Iveco’.

The warship is a long withdrawn frigate, HMS Plymouth, laid up because we don’t do anything pointless like invade other countries on the whim of an illiterate American President who thinks he’s in a John Wayne film. Because that would just be silly, now, wouldn’t it? So, before it gets broken up (the ship, not George Bush - ooh, now there's a thought .....) I took some pictures for posterity.

I was somewhat surprised to see that Emma from the H&S Wehrmacht, hasn’t been here – just look at that deep harbour full of deep water! And not a stick of 8 foot high palisade fencing in sight. It was very difficult driving down the exposed quayside without lots of health and safety notices, cordons and railings to keep me right. I had to rely entirely on my long dormant commonsense to understand that driving on water could be mildly dangerous and impractical, although I’m pleased to say that in strictly scientific tests, my hi-viz jacket floated beautifully – probably on it’s way to Ireland by now, where I hope it will be well received. Mind you, writing ‘If found, please return to Romania,’ might see it thrown on a fire to dry out first.

My health and safety file doesn’t float, and in the interests of health and safety, I couldn’t jump in to retrieve it. I can’t walk on water; that’s the preserve of health and safety officials – so they can go and get the bloody thing back.

Shortly after commencing his stag night party piece,
Jesus had to return to the shore for his high-visibility jacket.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Road to Hull - Well, Nearly

As it was a fairly quiet day at work, I was despatched up to Beverley in East Yorkshire to the RCB dealers to collect some trade cars. This is a pleasant run, as it involves crossing the Humber Bridge. No matter how may times I see this bridge, I always find it an amazing piece of engineering, (at my age I don’t get out much), and the view on a clear day is fantastic. Today was crystal clear, and the tide was at low ebb so the Humber looked as still as a sheet of glass. Unfortunately the local constabulary take a dim view of HGV drivers parking up to take pictures, so I carried on to the toll booths to pay the outrageous £10.90 that they charge a rigid lorry to cross. The bridge is superb – but not that superb. Still, the company was paying, so never mind. As I couldn’t stop for pictures, I took this one on a previous visit when I travelled by car and could visit the viewing point. It was a much colder and windy day on that occasion!

North of the Humber the trip to Beverley is slow, due to the need for a roundabout every 25 yards. I don’t quite know what the need for a roundabout every 25 yards could possibly be; probably something to do with left over Council Tax that must be wasted before the end of the fiscal year. That’s what they do in Grantham, so I assume Beverley isn’t that much different.

Upon arriving at RCB, I was somewhat surprised to see that it was no longer RCB. The forecourt and showroom were abandoned, and a brand new 8 foot high palisade fence surrounded the complex. Oh goody, I like a challenge. Fortunately the company had had the foresight to erect a ‘We have moved’ sign – pity they didn’t have the foresight to telephone their transportation company and tell us, though. The address was given, so I made a mental note and carried on until I could stop in a layby and look it up. Everything seemed straightforward enough, it was a simple matter of finding somewhere to turnaround and backtrack past the showroom formerly known as RCB. The new site was nearby on an industrial estate. I found it easily enough, and was surprised to find that it was HGV friendly – space to turnaround, and space to load up. Is it Christmas already?

The cars were all ready for loading – okay, it is definitely Christmas – and they all started on the key with no jumpstarts, kicking or swearing required. So it’s Christmas, New Year and National Goldfish Memorial Day all rolled in one. So, no need to rush, and I was even able to stop off for a spot of lunch on the way back, after admiring the Humber Bridge for a second (expensive) time in one day. Everyday should be like this.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Fitting a Quart into a Pintpot

My challenge at work today was an afternoon trip to deliver 5 cars to a new customer in Loughborough. The words New Customer always fill me with dread. I didn't put the address in Tom-Tom; I just told it to find a really, really stupidly moronic place to put a car dealership and make sure there was no access for anything larger than a frog with a backpack. Then I typed in the address, and sure enough, they matched. One of the problems these days is that many new car dealers have sprung up who aren’t actually car dealers at all; they buy a handful cars from the auction and sell them from their house. Great - just tell us that before we send a lorry down your cul-de-sac!

Getting into Loughborough was the first problem, on account of every road ending up at the Midland Mainline Railway, which had obviously been designed by an engineer who was a midget and hoped the idea might catch on. Bridges? I've seen bigger culverts. After a lengthy diversion, which took in two more low bridges, I finally found a layby, cunningly disguised as a Bus Stop. I was therefore able to stop and plan a route via the only bridge that actually goes over the railway, and was of course, the official diversionary route. This was why it went through a village the size of Emmerdale, had a 7.5 ton weight limit (except for loading or vehicles over 12'6 - which is everything). Once in Loughborough, the fun really began. I couldn't turn left to access the road that would eventually lead to his street on account of a large Sprinter van casually parked slap-bang on the corner unloading rolls of carpet. The road looked do-able, with a lot of caution, thanks to the narrow roadway being flanked by two rows of casually abandoned cars – what the residents fondly imagine to be ‘parking.’ Yeah, right, it looked like Basra marketplace 10 minutes after a bomb had gone off.

In order to ascertain how close I could get to my intended destination, I parked up at a designated car transporter holding bay (yellow lines) and rang him. Naturally, he didn't answer. I figured on carrying on until I found a roundabout, which, everywhere else in Leicestershire, occur at 50-yard intervals. Well, you don’t need me to tell you that there wasn't a roundabout between me and Little Snot in the Intestine, so after six fruitless miles I turned round in a school entrance which was the only place I could get in without hitting anything solid (kids aren't solid and don't scratch the paint ). I performed one of my best ever 3-point turns (play to your audience), and headed back to hell. On the way the customer rang me back, and told me how I might be able to get in. The word 'might' really inspires confidence. Well, I was able to execute a right-hand turn and avoid the carpet-carrying Sprinter van that was still there, although they’d finished unloading the carpets and had decided that now would be a really great place to stop for a cuppa. Nice one. So I slowly threaded my way down between the dumped cars. It was tight – enough room for me and a gnat each side, as long as the gnat didn’t have a hard-on. Eventually I got in to the cul-de-sac at the bottom, but it took a 19-point shunt and then I blocked the road to unload because I couldn't get into the ‘dealership’ on account of it being the domestic garage at his house. Of course. So I dropped all 5 cars off and left him to sort them out himself.

Then I had to get back out; this was easier than I thought because I just clipped the corner and drove over the path, but it was either that or a parked Audi - (Oh Lord, lead me not into temptation.....) and I threaded my way out back onto the main road. Whereupon I promptly missed my exit from Loughborough, and found myself heading back to the low bridges. Oh joy, oh bliss, can today get any better? Only alternative – divert through the town centre and head for Leicester (i.e., the opposite direction) until I found the A46 and was back on familiar territory, heading for the first layby and a well earned cup of coffee.

"It didn't look very big parked up in your yard."

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Steep Learning Curve

My induction into the world of HGV driving took place in early 2007. I had my HGV tuition course booked a week ahead up in York with Tockwith Training, so decided in one of my rare moments of wisdom that a bit of familiarisation might help. So, I signed up with an agency and requested some 7.5-ton work, which I could undertake on my existing car licence that I’d held for some time.

After a couple of days, the agency offered me some work, a 3-day trip from Rutland to the south coast delivering gas and electric fires plus assorted accessories. There was a mix of domestic customers and shops, so lots of variety and the chance to try my hand at nights out. It was too good an experience to pass up, so I readily accepted and the following morning presented myself at the depot in Oakham at 06:00 on an extremely chilly February morning. The friendly transport manager showed me the vehicle, an Iveco Cargo box truck on a 53 plate, which looked reasonable, for an Iveco. While it warmed up we had a coffee and warmed ourselves up, whilst going over the route that was a sprint down the M1 to the M25 (oh joy), then start a rash of deliveries in the Slough / Maidenhead / Reading area. Once these were done, head down to Woking and Guildford before continuing to Portsmouth, Southampton and Bournemouth. Return via Winchester, Newbury and some final drops in the Oxford area. Everything seemed fine, and the load itself was straightforward – gas and electric fires, plus various surrounds and add-ons. What could go wrong?

I set off with some trepidation, as this was the largest vehicle I’d ever driven at that point, and boy, did it suddenly feel enormous! (Why do my girlfriends never tell me that?) En route to the M1, I familiarised myself with the various controls and became more comfortable with the handling. As daylight grudgingly emerged things improved, and the run down the M1 was uneventful, although it took ages to figure out how to flash the headlights (it turns out to be a button underneath the indicator stalk, which I like now, but was frustrating then).

The real work commenced in Marlow, with my first customer being in an Old Folks Home. She was a very pleasant lady, once I finally found her down miles and miles of anonymous corridors and very heavy fire doors. She also had ordered an imitation marble surround, which weighed a ton and was a joy to lug down said corridors. The following few drops were all domestic, which was an interesting experience at manoeuvring the lorry in and out of estates, cul-de-sacs and back lanes. It was a lot harder than I’d imagined. Maidenhead proved a real killer. I had to go down one of those residential streets flanked by blocks of flats, so cars were dumped everywhere. Progress was further impeded by more cars trying to drive up the street and refusing to pull into spaces to let me past. They could see me coming and could have waited, but no! They have to get there first – except, of course, that they get stuck and end up going nowhere. Well done. One car was determined to get past me no matter what, so I decided to let him have a go. He lost his door mirror in the process, as the box body stuck out further than the cab. Now if he’d waited ….

I had a few deliveries in Maidenhead, all of which were in ludicrous places (well, I thought they were ludicrous then as it was my first time. Now they are just an occupational hazard). Once they were done, I could head for my next drop, an industrial estate near Taplow. Unlike most of my addresses, which were quite clear, this one just had the name of the estate and Taplow. No problem, I thought, head for Taplow and ask. Yeah, right – asking somebody in the south for directions is like asking an MP for a straight and honest answer. No one knew, or pretended not to know, which was annoying. Eventually, I got an answer, so headed down the appropriate road, only to be confronted with a sign warning of a 12’9 bridge half a mile ahead. Marvellous – I was in a 12’10 truck. Rather than go down and get stuck, I thought I could either reverse – not ideal – or try doing a left turn into a tight side street that curved round in a sort of horse shoe and would bring me back out half a mile down the road. That seemed my best option, so after a couple of shunts I got in. This was clearly a well-to-do area; on the left the houses were those quaint olde-worlde black timbered and white wall style places that front directly onto the road with no garden. On the right were palatial modern bungalows, each set in several acres of rolling countryside. The cheapest car to be seen was a Porsche. This was not a good road to practise manoeuvring!

Well, I was committed, so I ventured down, but soon found that the road was blocked by parked cars – and not the sort of car you'd wish to hit, either. These clearly belonged to stockbrokers, hedge fund managers and other jobs handled by men called Charles or Spencer who play golf and do little else – apart from bugger up the economy of the country, but that was a couple of years away at the time. They’re probably working in Burger King now. But I digress. Further progress was impossible. I was now in quite a predicament. I got out to have a look and assess the situation. From where the lorry was, I reckoned I could reverse into a drive for one of the bungalows, and with a couple of shunts get myself back out the way I came. Okay, give it a go. So, into reverse, and gingerly backed into the drive. Then the truck came to a jarring halt. What the f…? There was nothing in the mirrors, and I knew the drive was clear of cars as Spencer was at the 15th hole by now. Maybe one of the wheels had hit a kerb or something. So I powered up, had another go and again, the truck ground to a halt. I got out for a look. At the rear of the lorry I found the problem. The drive sloped upwards, but quite gently. And the vertical supports for the tail-lift had gouged two ravines into the tarmac. Oh shite. Damage to property was the last thing I wanted; this was my first job and I was trying to make an impression. Well, I had achieved that alright. This now meant that the lorry was straddling the road and pretty much wedged in. Not an ideal situation in this well-heeled part of the country. As my options were now severely limited, and decreasing every minute, I took stock of my unpleasant situation. There was absolutely no way I could shunt my way out of here, without causing considerable damage to the drive. So turning round was out. I had to go forwards, and try and squeeze down the road. Which is what I did - holding my breath, stomach churning, and proceeded down the impossible road at the speed of a slug that accidentally trod in some superglue. And I made it, without clipping a single expensive wing mirror on the assembled line of Mercs, BMW’s, Porsche and Audis (admittedly no one gives a toss about clipping an Audi).

This whole sorry manoeuvre had cost me the best part of half an hour, and I was by now really wishing I’d decided to take lessons before signing up for work. But, no time to dwell on my lack of foresight; press on. I got back on the lane, and headed down to the main road, and almost immediately discovered a sign for the Viking Industrial Estate. Whaaattt?!!! I’d driven right past it! So, I drove straight in, and couldn’t find the shop. Oh, for Gawd’s sake. I asked in an office, and the helpful receptionist told me that whilst I was technically in the right place, recent gales had blown down a building or a wall or something – thus cutting the complex in two halves. And yes, I was in the wrong half. Great. So I had to reverse back out into the lane, totally blind, which was un-nerving but at least nobody drove into the side of me. Proceed to the main road; hang left; left again and finally left once again into the correct place.

After that, things picked up a bit, and deliveries around the region went well, apart from one customer in Slough who had died the previous day, so when I pitched up with the gas fire he’d ordered, it did make for an uncomfortable moment on the doorstep, although his daughter was very pleasant about it. It’s one of those truly awkward moments, especially as I was being extra friendly to the domestic customers, as I know what it’s like to be greeted at the door by those delivery types that just chuck stuff at you and walk off.

I had various drops around Woking, including a shop that had a large order of fires. Because of all the messing about in Taplow, I was late and they’d gone home. No worries, I decided to find a layby, park up, and recommence early doors.

I’d passed a layby on the way in, so figured I could continue down the road for a mile, spin round at the roundabout and return. No problem. Except that it was a problem, because it was a mini roundabout and there was absolutely no way I could get round in one go. Nowadays, of course, with the benefit of experience, I’d just go anyway and do a shunt, or keep on going to a larger roundabout. But I was very green, and the large amount of rush-hour traffic was intimidating. I had a choice of going left, right, or straight over, which was a pub with a sign for ‘car park at rear.’ In my infinite, but unreliable, wisdom, I decided to go down the side of the pub, spin round in the car park and emerge again without causing any congestion on the roundabout. This would have worked extremely well had it not been for one of those ridiculous height barriers blocking the carpark, which of course I didn’t encounter until I got there. It wasn’t as if I could even try to squeeze in either; it was set at a height that only a limbo-dancing pygmy could negotiate. My options were now limited. Obviously I couldn’t go forwards, and reversing out would mean hitting the roundabout, and everything on it, in the dark. Not good. But then I spied a small residents car park out of the cab window on my side. Ah ha! I could reverse in there and then drive back out. But I wasn’t taking any chances after the days adventures so far, oh no! It was unlit, and consisted of two sets of parking bays either side of a narrow access slip. None of the cars protruded too far forwards, so with care I should be able to reverse into here and pull out.

Once again I found myself reversing slowly and very carefully between the cars; it was tight but not unduly so. I was almost all the way in when ‘CRUMP!’, and the truck stopped. Shit, shit, shit, now what? Jumping out, I could see all the cars on my side were fine, so round to the nearside – no problems. I made my way into the darkness at the rear of the lorry, where the problem manifested itself. A wooden fence was leaning drunkenly at an angle I’m sure it wasn’t at before. I’d been concentrating on the cars so much that I hadn’t given much consideration as to what lay beyond them.

Well, there was nothing much I could do, and as all the expensive cars were unscathed I returned to the truck, completely fed up, and departed. I parked up for the night and spent a chilly evening in the cab, as I couldn’t get the night heater to function. I managed to nod off for an hour eventually by virtue of wrapping everything I had around my sleeping bag, but the freezing cold seeped in and it was a very uncomfortable night. When I woke in the wee small hours I thought I had rigor mortis I was so stiff.

I decided that today could not possibly as bad as yesterday. It had been a steep learning curve, but by putting those lessons into practise I reckoned that things could only get better – or at least, not hit anything. My first drop was close by, so I arrived first thing and unloaded the stock they’d ordered. Then into Guildford for another shop, which was relatively easy considering the traffic, before I could join the A31 and then A3 to my next area. I joined the slip onto the A31, a dual carriageway on a hill, and noticed that the truck was losing power. I assumed it was just cold and dropped a cog and booted it. Nothing happened, the power dropped as quickly as the speed and 100 yards up the hill the lorry ground to a halt with the thick acrid aroma of a burning clutch wafting into the cab. So now I was really in the shit, well and truly. Hazards on and call base. Not the sort of call you want to be making on your second day in a new job!

Well, base took the news calmly and said that a rescue would be arranged, so sit tight by the phone. By now a long line of traffic had built up behind me, and I had my first ever mention on Radio 2’s traffic news. Hello Lynn! Inevitably the Police turned up in a Range Rover, and I have to say they were extremely helpful and friendly considering the chaos I’d caused. I had to be moved, so they hitched the lorry to their Range Rover and towed me up the hill, dumping the truck in the Little Chef carpark. Mama, I’m home.

With nothing else to do, I updated the company and went and treated myself to a breakfast plus numerous coffees while I awaited the recovery truck. This took five hours as there was the usual behind-the-scenes wrangling about who would pay for what. But eventually an 8-wheeler DAF CF turned up, hitched up the Iveco and off we went. The trip was steady, apart from a fire on the rear axle of the Iveco, which had to be extinguished on the hard shoulder of the M25. Further up the motorway traffic was grinding to a halt as a DAF artic had come to a complete stand in the middle lane, and traffic was darting around it in a manner that would surely lead to a crash before long. The driver of the DAF looked totally fed up as we crawled past – I thought I had problems! Arrival back at Oakham was well after 7 pm, so it had been a long day and I was glad it was all over. Overall, though, it was a useful first experience, and didn’t put me off. There had been some interesting moments, times of abject horror and I’d sweated my own bodyweight in places – but nevertheless, got through it and I was ready for more! But first, I’d go and get some professional tuition …..

Saturday, 20 June 2009

What Your Car Says About You. . .

We all know that certain cars attract certain stereotypes, but as I’ve been driving around lately I’ve been thinking about what the manufacturers might be thinking when they coin a name. This is just a bit of fun; don’t go getting your big end overheated!

The top ten cars are …… in no particular order:

RENAULT – Reliability Envisaged Never Achieved Unbelievable Lack of Technology

ROVER – Retired Old Veterans Endlessly Regurgitating

AUDI – Always Unnecessarily Driven Insanely

FORD – Fairly Ordinary Respectable Drivers

FOCUS – on what you’re bloody doing at the wheel

FREELANDER – Fiona Regularly Expects Exceptionally Loutish And Nervous Drivers Entering Rochester

SKODA – Slovakians Know Old Duds Alright

ALFA ROMEO – Although Loud & Fast Assume Racing Often Means Engine Overheats

LEXUS – Large Expensive Xcessive Usually Speeding (Apologies for the liberty taken there)

PORSCHE – Penis Obviously Rather Small Car His Enhancement

SEAT – What you sit on to drive a normal car

Life's a Beach - If You're a Headteacher

My local newspaper, the Grantham Journal, had a couple of interesting tales in it, apart from the front page leader, which is all about a one of our local primary school headmasters going off on a jolly boys outing, sorry, a conference that “deliberated for three days on the essential skills for living, learning and working in an era of globalisation.” Oh no, I was right first time – it was a jolly boys outing. This jaunt was held in Mauritius, because the skills essential for life would appear to be exotic beach huts, swimming pools, palm trees, glorious sunshine, and beach babes. Nice work if you can get it, I say. Bring it on.

After three days of intense deliberating, the strain of the conference was beginning to show.

Inside I read up on the ‘Journal Goes To ..’ section, which is when people go on holiday and take the Grantham Journal with them. Not me. Ryanair baggage limits are so restrictive that by the time I’ve got my razor, toothbrush and multipack of condoms (live in hope), there just isn’t room for an old newspaper as well. Still, some people do take it, and send their picture in afterwards. And this week we had the headline, ‘Couple miss outbreak of swine flu.’ Really? Should have tried harder then.

The final pick of this week’s stories is that a man walked out of Asda with a flat screen TV worth £450, put it in his car and drove off. The local plod leapt into action and caught up with the thief on the way to Nottingham. Later in court, his defence brief said that his client had only gone into Asda for something to eat, but decided steal the Samsung TV for his ill friend waiting in the car. Now, I wish I had friends like that. All get if I’m ill is ‘Get over it,’ or maybe a bag of grapes. So next time a dose of man-flu heads my way, I’ll be expecting a home cinema system at the very least.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Car in Front Doesn't Work

Oh joy, oh bliss – the CD player in my ageing Avensis packed in today, adding to the list of expensive woes that are occurring on this vehicle of late. The air-conditioning packed up when we had the first warm day of summer, followed by the airbag light that won’t go out on the dashboard. In my own cost-cutting-for-the-recession manner, I have fixed these various problems in the style of Blue Peter.
Aircon – I open the windows.
Airbags – Covered the annoying red light on the dash up with black electricians tape.
CD Player – I take my MP3 player into the car with a set of portable speakers. It’s a bit cumbersome, and I don’t know if it works yet, but naturally I’ll pass any useful tips on when it comes to ultra-cheap car servicing.
The car in front may well be a Toyota, but if the car behind me has nice cool air wafting over the functioning airbags while I listen to Dire Straits, then count me in. Unless, of course, if it’s an Audi, in which case I’d rather have my gonads hammered into the hard shoulder of the M62.

Fully functioning aircon and even the radio works.

Stig of The Safe Working Conditions Dump

Well, the next instalment of health & safety garbage comes sooner than I expected (see yesterday, below). It looks as though Emma has been moonlighting down at Brighton in her spare time, as this latest H&S diktat is certainly worthy of her particular brand of pettiness and gross stupidity. A 45 year old man named Hilaire Purbrick has inhabited a seven-foot cave he dug on his plot and dined off the land for the past 16 years.
Brighton and Hove City Council got particularly bored with their busy days of 'sitting' and decided it did not have enough FIRE EXITS and sought an injunction banning him from entering it. This really does take H&S crassness to a whole new level – there you were yesterday thinking, ‘no, he’s making this up, they couldn’t be that petty.’ It is just as well cave dwellers in eons gone by didn’t have some idiot from H&S wandering around in a hi-viz bearskin; they’d have made the entire country homeless overnight, which would have resulted in everybody freezing to death outside in winter; thus ending civilisation at a stroke. A sobering thought, until you realise that it would also have prevented the birth of the whole H&S fascist movement many thousands of years later.
This ruling also explains why the dinosaurs died out. Health & Safety banned them from their habitat because there was a risk of them hitting their heads on overhanging tree branches. So they were all sent on a safety awareness course to Ruislip, where they couldn’t cope with the English weather. The dinosaurs duly became extinct, until the 21st century or so when a new species particular to Great Britain was born: the arseholiusofficiusosarus.

"And I'm telling you, Mr Ugg, you are not entering that cave until you have installed a second fire escape, smoke detector and Freeview. End of."

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

How Safe Is Your Sex?

Most of this morning at work was taken up with a health and safety meeting. There’s 3 hours of my life I won’t get back. I don’t recall much of what Emma was banging on her about (not her real name, which is Samantha, but to protect the guilty etc, etc) because my mind went off into a limbo sometime in between high visibility jackets and safety goggles.

My thoughts turned to what might happen if I ever had the misfortune to date one of these self-styled Waffen Schutzstaffel officials, who deem every single facet of life to be impractical and unsafe. I’m convinced that their goal is to make every employee carry a handbell, and walk around droning, “unsafe, unsafe …” as in medieval times.

Naturally, the question of sex is impossible with a Health & Safety Official (or bastard, as I prefer to think of them). For a start, if you were to even contemplate shagging Emma then you’d need to be well tanked up on a few John Smiths with Tequila Slammers to follow. At which point, any further progress would be met with, “You may not operate any moving parts under the influence of alcohol.” There is something in this; there is a decidedly likely risk of crushing injury if you operate Emma incorrectly …

So, you’ve remained sober and made it to the bedroom. Before commencing foreplay, you need to do a 17-page risk assessment of all the bedroom furniture and ensure that it is safe for purpose. If you intend to jump off the wardrobe then you must only climb onto it via a pair of authorised stepladders, and even then only if you’ve passed the ‘Ladder & Stairway Awareness Course’ and have another 2 people holding onto it. Should you intend to impress your paramour by leaping from the wardrobe via a Tarzan style swing from the chandelier (or lamp flex if you live in Bradford) then boy, do you need to do some planning. Firstly, your chandelier must be load tested, and have the maximum load weight clearly labelled on a yellow sticker. Secondly, it must not be above head height. Thirdly, you may only ascend to the chandelier by an authorised stepladder with a fully trained Stepladder & Stairways assessor present, and then once at your destination, you must wear an approved safety harness. You may then descend in a safe and orderly manner to the bed.

Emma will now be lying there ready for you to start, assuming she’s filled in her risk assessment of Bonking & Bouncing correctly (Form 317/125 P6 sub para 16 if you need one). If you’re thinking about going down, then ensure that you're wearing your hard hat (not to be confused in this example with your hard helmet, which I can assure you is something very different), as you’ll be working in a confined area with likely risk of head contact. Should Emma decide to return the favour, then ensure she’s wearing her safety goggles against any chance of sudden splashes into her eyes.

Ready for a night of passion, Health & Safety style.

You can now get down to business, having donned your high visibility jacket so that others can see you and steer clear. You must also don your PPE (penis protection equipment) to avoid a rash of unwanted health and safety officials being born nine months down the line. You may also be required to wear ear defenders should Emma make sufficient noise to warrant ear protection, although I can assure you that she usually sends everyone to sleep, and the only equipment required is a good alarm clock. Speaking of which, my own alarm clock is buzzing loudly and waking me from my health and safety reverie, so at last I can go and do some work - and actually make some money for the company, so that we can spend it on useless H&S equipment. Hope we can still afford to be in business for the next exciting health and safety meeting!

Safe Sex, as approved by the Health & Safety Executive

Monday, 15 June 2009

Your Won't Get Me On That!

It takes an awful lot to get Old Grumpy into a theme park, but free tickets always help, and so it was yesterday that I found myself at Drayton Manor with a work’s outing from PAS who I worked for some years ago. With Dawid, Kasia and Peter, I made up a small group, which worked well as most rides are designed around groups of four. And we went on everything – and I mean everything (apart from Maelstrom which was knackered. Sorry, closed for maintenance). Now, I wasn’t overly keen about these rides, given my age and death threshold, but the young ‘uns need to know that some of us oldies can still rock. As a result, if it revolved, rotated, catapulted, bungeed, rocked, rolled, corkscrewed, twisted, dropped you into a pit or soaked you – we rode it. In one case, Apocalypse, three times. We also experienced 4D-cinema, which was great. The rides are a heady mix of anticipation, suspense, fear and an amazing adrenaline rush. It’s an incredible feeling, impossible to put in to words. All the scary rides take pictures of you at a critical point; these are displayed at the end of the ride when you get off in case you wish to buy one – and I’m pleased to say that Old Grumpy didn’t let the side down with tightly closed eyes on any of them – in most cases I was too busy screaming ‘Who’s the daddy now, then?,” at the crucial moment.

The best ride was Apocalypse. You are strapped in a harness, which proceeds up to the top of a tower. Then the brakes are released, and you plummet down to the pit at the bottom. You have a choice on this ride; one side has four seats; one side is standing on a small floor, and for the real lunatics, like us, try the standing no-floor version. We went twice on this side, and returned later to try the seated version - thinking it would be quite tame after our earlier experience. The reason you're seated is that is goes even faster than the standing one; and it's as if you are in a Tom & Jerry cartoon - the seat suddenly disappears and your arse spends the rest of the trip trying to catch up with it. Amazing.

It was a grand day out. Haven’t had such a rush since … actually, I discovered that I hadn’t actually experienced such a rush. It certainly puts sorting out my sock drawer into perspective.

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Saturday, 13 June 2009

Feel The Fear, We're Maniacs

It can only be St Trinians:

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Let's Hear it for Eurovision!

I always watch Eurovision. There, I've said it. This year's contest was good, but I really missed the nutty element of previous years. Having now discovered how to upload You-Tube on here (thanks Andy), I can now share my favourite acts.

Blogging World

I've really hit the motherlode with this blogging business. Finally, a chance to offer my unsolicited opinions on the state of the world to anybody who cares to read it. I've been amazed at just how easy it is to create these blogs; in 3 days I've been able to create three seperate blogs, all with a different look, atmosphere and feel. This particular blog is a hotchpotch of things that take my fancy, views that need airing and general 'stuff' that is of interest.

Having had a good chat with Andy this morning, I've also discovered how to upload video, You-Tube clips and alter various settings to create a good look. I hope.

So, don't expect any earth shattering revelations from this blog, it's simply the ramblings of a Grumpy Old Man with a little too much time on his hands.

What a Monster!

This was my first attempt at taking a video clip on my camera. It shows a Monster Truck at the recent Truckfest North East at Croft Circuit in Yorkshire. So I thought I'd share it.

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