It's a Guy Thing

Thumbs up…

has being risk-averse robbed us of a ride? 

Our thumbs are useful for gripping, allowing fingers to click, and acknowledging when things are OK or not so good. I also remember it being used in an elegant metaphor for night shift town center foot patrol when I was a copper in the then concrete jungle of Bracknell’s pedestrianized shopping center in the early 1980s: thumb up bum, brain in neutral. In addition to using mine as a tool of last resort for picking my nose, I have also used my thumb to save me money, to meet some weird and wonderful people, and to travel from A to B. The latter uses are all wrapped up in my distant past when I used to hitchhike and these memories have encouraged me, many years later, to question whether our distinct lack of appetite for contemporary risk has robbed us of a forgotten piece of our cultural heritage? 

I am a great advocate of personal safety but then not everyone out there wants to cause us harm, yet I acknowledge that it only takes one psychopath to extinguish our most vital possession. An internet search will undoubtedly cause a chill to shoot up your spine with the Santa Rosa (California) hitchhiker murders between February 4th 1972 and December 22nd 1973 providing a grisly example. In an attempt to provide a sobering counterbalance, there are numerous other ways to die that are significantly more likely. As a retired connoisseur of this mode of social transport, I did it regularly and thankfully never met a crazed ax murderer, or at least if I did, they must have had a day off. 

For your entertainment, I will regale you with my antics with the primary intention of making you chuckle. However, I contend that the more we have been exposed to information when arguably assessing risk should be that much easier to do, the further it has perversely robbed us of a spirit of adventure that has made many dismissive of anything that carries any degree of anxiety. I will leave that decision for you to make at the end of this rose-colored spectacles journey that began in 1979 on the outskirts of Brackley, due east of Banbury and north of Bicester. 

On the crest of an educational wave of seven ‘O’ Levels, I attended the North Oxfordshire Technical College and School of Arts in Banbury, Oxfordshire to study the wonderfully easy stable of ‘A-Levels in Pure Mathematics, Physics and, just to emphasize the agony, Applied Mathematics too. I loved Geography at School, but my Dad sold me the dream of becoming a scientist as, according to his parental logic, the country would always need experts. I was such a conformist in those days and traded my love of ox-bow lakes and the awesome 

power of glaciers for integration and differentiation. The heady days of college were pretty slow burn for a shy young man with prominent front teeth, yet I soon discovered my rebellious streak when I placed an ‘F’ at the beginning of ‘Arts’ on one of my college folders. Not exactly a rebel without a cause but nonetheless I felt pretty wicked! I then discovered alcohol, and being tall I looked a little older, thus getting served at the Horse and Jockey just around the corner from the college was easy. Then I encountered grown-up women and one in particular, Alison. With long dark brown hair, she was a couple of years older and dressed like a hippy. She was so cool that she was the hottest human being that I had ever clapped eyes on. Considering that up to this stage I had never had a real girlfriend, in a conventional manner where you at least hold hands and snog, my love gauge was somewhat deprived of actual field data. My romantic life was somewhat more promising when I was six and Maureen Sullivan, who lived across the street, promised to show me her tits every day if I eventually married her. She broke my heart when she and her family moved to Australia two years later. 

Alison drank wine. How classy was that? And smoked too! I mean she really knew how to handle a cigarette in that she inhaled the smoke and expelled it through her mouth and nose! Why was this impressive? Well, I tried to act all grown up but if I attempted to inhale those ghastly fumes I would end up coughing uncontrollably. My solution was to take a drag on my Marlboro, hold it in my mouth for a short time, then blow it out with a confident swagger. When Alison and her friend suggested one day that we go drinking in Brackley, about 12 miles away, who was I to disagree? I was willing to bunk off treble maths too. As I recall she summoned a nerdy guy who had a car and lived that way to give us all a lift there. The afternoon then comprised of drinking, laughing, looking into her eyes from a distance, and drinking some more. The local beer was allegedly brewed with the nearby canal water and the potency led me to the conclusion that they had not bothered to filter out the barge diesel and mud. Come late afternoon we were merry and penniless. The two girls then announced that they would be hitching home. What the fuck was that? Wasn’t the nerdy guy coming back with his wheels to finish the commitment? The panic was clearly visible on my face and my fair lady asked if I had done this peculiar act before? I had done some pretty hazardous stuff thus far in my life like traveling on the London Underground on my own and had eaten a Vesta beef curry that my Mum had prepared from a packet without kicking up too much of a fuss but cadging a lift home was in a different league! I didn’t even have a ten-pence piece to ring my Mum and ask her to pick me up, yet if this had been possible I figured that Alison would have disappeared from my life forever. Then I reassured myself that the three of us, with Alison at the helm, would be home shortly. The gravity of the situation was of blackhole proportions when the girls shooed me away from their kerbside pitch understandably stating the obvious that no motorist in the history of hitchhiking had ever stopped and picked up three people, unless, I suspect, the party was wholly female. Gingerly holding my thumb out in the classic pose, I waited, waited, and waited some more. Then a car slowed, and my heart missed a beat, just maybe I would get home in time for tea. As I turned to make for the passenger side door the vehicle kept on going and pulled into the layby where the girls were smiling broadly. I don’t know what came over me but like Usain Bolt, I made up the distance, grabbed the rear door handle and I was in along with my much prettier college chums. I had, like the famous Susan Jeffers quote, faced the fear and done it! From then on in for the next four years, I was a hitching junkie, thumbing to several far-flung parts of the country to visit friends and follow my football team Notts County. The following accounts are probably not in chronological order albeit collectively they illustrate the variety of people I met, the scrapes I got into, the ones I avoided but more importantly how a relatively bashful adolescent was exposed to life in an era that didn’t seem to rely on a continual reckoning of the inherent threats or vulnerability. 

‘Ash can man’ picked me up in Bagshot, Surrey en route to Bristol to see an old school friend in a flatbed lorry, dropping me at Membury Services between junctions 14 and 15 on the M4 motorway. A pretty ugly-looking chap, he took great delight in talking about his exploits with numerous women and his preference for the ‘Ash can’. My own hitching etiquette required me to nod enthusiastically to whatever my purveyor of a free ride was chuntering on an about even if I didn’t actually grasp the full meaning. When it dawned on me that he was describing putting his “you know what” in the not so usual “you know where”, I was incredibly grateful to see the signs for the petrol station and restaurant. Funny how losing my virginity some years later (with my Julie in Mayrhofen, Austria) encouraged a more libertarian perspective on such matters. 

Cocker Spaniel lady was quintessentially British and spoke gracefully about her dogs and how she bred them albeit not as obliquely or crudely as my earlier ride. This was altogether a more pleasant experience and she offered me lemon sherbets along the way. As she bid me farewell at a busy roundabout (the ideal hitching point) she reminded me that her favorite canine was sweet-tempered, intelligent, and easy to train and I should seriously consider having one. I affirmed that I would although forty-one years later I haven’t got round to fulfilling this particular promise. 

The big juggernauts were the best. Climbing up the metal ladder to the cab after the hissing of the hydraulics had brought those kings of the road to a shuddering standstill was pure theatre. The height afforded the best view ever, but the inside was just as captivating. Many had purpose-built cabins with a TV and single bed and the magic of the open road coupled with the freedom to set up camp virtually anywhere was, for a short time, a compelling career choice. My all-time favorite was a mega truck that had around eighteen gears that the driver magisterially played like a church organ. The only thing I regretted was never eating a Yorkie bar when aboard one of these incredible workhorses. 

Hitching a ride to Luton Town football club was relatively easy and I arrived hours before the 3pm kick-off. Chatting to some of the County fans resulted in being offered a lift on the supporters club to the Northampton turn off on the M1. The day got progressively better as we thrashed the Hatters 1-0 before I gladly climbed aboard a comfortable coach that was surprisingly surrounded by a posse of police motorcyclists. As we left, the bricks started to bounce off the large coach windows as several home supporters bade us farewell. This was 1980 and football hooliganism was still at its peak. I was dropped off and managed to get a connecting lift into Northampton also known as the Bermuda Triangle of hitchhiking. I must have been stranded there on at least four occasions, once getting so weary that I entered a local police station and asked to spend a night in the cells where I was told in no uncertain terms by the officer at the desk to Foxtrot Oscar. 

A distant relative had visited my parents. I can’t recall his name or how he was actually related to me, but I do remember that he was a gob shite Preston North End supporter. On the positive side, he had picked up on my desire to holiday with my mates and suggested that we stay in his caravan just outside Blackpool, offering to give my best mate Robert and I, a free lift all the way. Having learned not to look a gift horse in the mouth I readily accepted and in no time at all we were holed up in a shitty little number on the driveway of this enormous fuck off house. Being joined by a friend from Hereford, who had played it safe with a return train ticket, the Enid Blyton parody of ‘3 drunks fill the chemical loo’ lasted shy of our anticipated ten-day stint since we ran out of money. Beer and chips were aplenty and I happened to lose a few coins on the Golden Mile on the penny slots and the Big Dipper at Blackpool pleasure beach when gravity pushed my ass into my mouth and my pockets full of change scattered across the concourse below. I had done the no money gig before and getting home, with Robert in tow and two suitcases was going to be a doddle. Echo chamber mouth kindly dropped us off somewhere on the M6 where we promptly hid our baggage behind a road sign and stuck out our thumbs. When the mini stopped we both felt that this may have to be a gracious spurn but give the guy credit he strapped everything in, and we were off. As we edged home and passed the signs for Northampton I breathed a sigh of relief. 

I always said that if I ever got picked up in a Rolls Royce I would metaphorically hang up my hitching thumb for good. In Adderbury, just south of Banbury my World Cup winners medal was presented when a gleaming white old-style Roller pulled up and I climbed aboard. It was like entering my Grandma’s lounge after she had paid top dollar on a new suite of furniture from Owen Owen, except this had a steering wheel ably caressed by a charming old gentleman donning a cravat. I felt compelled to wipe my feet and hang my coat up although just as disorienting was the noise or the distinct lack of it. My Dad’s cars in keeping with most others of the day had engines that didn’t shirk from dominating the airwaves and our first car, a Ford Anglia, sounded like Godzilla when it was pumped into action with its choke extending beyond the rear bumper on a cold winters day. This incredible piece of machinery glided like a ballerina executing the most exquisite routine from Swan Lake. On reflection, I think the owner was lonely as before dropping me off at college he stopped at a pub, and he bought me a beer as we continued our conversation about cricket, a sport I know fuck all about. 

It is only fitting to conclude with a couple of near misses where I performed the hitchhikers equivalent of a goal-line clearance both of which started in very mundane circumstances. The battered old Land Rover came to a screeching halt as the evening was drawing in and the yeti of a driver reached over and flung the door open. A few pleasantries followed as he crunched the gears and tried to light his cigarette. At one point I thought his beard was more likely to catch fire but in fairness, he juggled the huge steering wheel, that ought to have been attached to a boat, with igniting his roll-up. Then, without warning, he dropped a gear, killed the lights, and drove straight over a roundabout with such velocity that I instantly pictured the Roger Moore barrel role over a river in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. Only did I briefly see the blue lights behind in the wing mirror just prior to the thud of the vehicle hitting tarmacadam on the opposite side causing my wisdom teeth to protrude from my ears. He then calmly negotiated some nearby country roads, turning left and right and left again before pulling over and apologizing. His crime? Oh, nothing to sweat the small stuff about, he was simply disqualified from driving. 

As I approached the outskirts of Oxford on my way back home to Bicester I gleefully told my temporary chauffeur that any roundabout on the ring road would be fine. He then calmly stated that if the circumstances were right he would take me all the way, coincidentally rubbing his crotch as he did so. Goodness he must have had one hell of an itch as his manipulation of this region of his body became almost industrial in scale. Once the penny dropped and all of my lemons lined up in the fruit machine of my mind, the realization of what ‘all the way’ actually meant encouraged me to complete my first bailout as traffic flow conveniently slowed. 

When I bought my first car in 1982 I did return the favor although I was frankly disappointed with the lack of conversation. I always believed that it was simply manners to engage with the person who had stopped to give me a free ride. On joining the police and having the discipline code forced down my throat I guess I felt less inclined to risk my career should I inadvertently pick up the next Boston Strangler, and so my hitchhiking days fizzled out. 

Today I always take a peek at a potential slip road, roundabout configuration, or layby just to carry out a scene recce although I haven’t seen an extended thumb in years. Am I right in my initial assertion that life has got that more risk-averse? Do the majority of us still adhere to the five-second rule when food is accidentally dropped onto the floor? Does anyone walk onto a pebbly beach nowadays without Crocs on? When sitting in the back of a car do kids still wind down the window when Mum or Dad is driving at 60 mph to inflate their mouths like giant toads? If not what the hell has happened to the human race and perhaps most importantly of all, whatever became of you my sweet Alison? 

© Ian Kirke 2022 / @ianjkirke