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Fear and Loathing on the M1

4 November 04 words: Howell Lovell
It started with a conversation. "It's easy," he told me. "Picking up litter on the side of the Motorway. £50 a day, no questions asked"

I've done my share of crap jobs. I'm not proud...

I've worked in warehouses; picking and packing, distribution centres; unloading parcels off Arctics in the middle of the night.  I've even delivered my local free newspaper, (my then girlfriend pretended not to know me when we bumped into each other on her lunch break). But nothing comes even close to the couple of days I spent working on the side of the M1. Taking place in a haze of drugs, it was incomparably scary and downright weird.

It started with a conversation I had in my local with an old friend, a good man at heart, though with a serious drug problem consisting of crack, heroin, cannabis and anything else he could get his hands on. "It's easy," he told me. "Picking up litter on the side of the M1. £50 a day, no questions asked. We just need a driver for the team."  I was unsure, but my work bringing cheesy cabaret to the East Midlands had temporarily dried up and I was seriously financially embarrassed. Fuck it. £50. Give it a go. 

So there I was the next morning, driving to a depot on the M1 at some God forsaken time in the morning. The rest of the team looked a little scary. They said and did very little except smoke industrial quantities of dope. One had a tattoo on his head. I caught him scrutinising me intently in my rear view mirror, a look somewhere between a sneer and a smile playing on his lips. I was beginning to get the feeling, I and my slightly pedestrian driving had yet to be fully accepted by the team. Perhaps if I had a toke with them... Bad mistake. I rolled into the depot at 8.30 in the morning, feeling stoned and paranoid.

"You have to give them a false name for the tax," Chris, the team leader told me. A man of seemingly few words, this was the most he had said all morning.  I told him my name, and he looked at me menacingly.

" Can't you do better than that? Something a bit more believable?" 

"It's my real name: I'm not on the dole," I meekly explained. I could see he wasn't impressed. This wasn't going well.

There was another problem. I had forgotten to bring my driving licence. Shit! These people would rip me apart: prevented from earning a dishonest day's crust by some poncy wanker with an unpronounceable name who didn't even bring his license.  Incredibly however, this wasn't a problem. I was asked to reverse an open backed truck into a parking space, an easy manoeuvre and that was enough: moments later we were away onto the motorway in rush hour.  I peered through the thick fug of cannabis smoke in an attempt to avoid the traffic. I wasn't going very fast.

I had been given absolutely no advice about this, nothing about safety, about working on the side of one of the busiest motorways in Britain; I hadn't even been asked to produce my licence. They didn't seem to care.  Throw them on the motorway and see what happens: they're only a bunch of dole-ites after all.

We drove to the spot of the motorway where we'd been told to begin. And did nothing. Just sat on the hard shoulder as Juggernauts roared past. It had started to rain lightly. "What are we waiting for?" I asked, although in truth I was perfectly happy to stay in the van all day. It turns out we weren't allowed to start work until after 9.30. Someone rolled another joint and we waited, listening, bizarrely, to Chopin on classic FM as the radio was permanently jammed to this frequency.

Finally it turned 9.30 and we were ready. The team started getting out of the truck. "What do you want me to do?" I asked Chris. He pondered for a moment, looking into the middle ground. Then he pointed to a spot roughly 200 yards away, just past a slip road onto the motorway. "Drive there and skin up" he ordered.

I set off slowly up the hard shoulder, feeling very light headed from the dope. I began to giggle. I was shitfaced. I stopped laughing however, when I reached the entrance onto the motorway, and the hard shoulder disappeared. I now had a stream of cars approaching fast from the slip road to my left, as well as traffic shooting past me on my right. Suddenly real life kicked back in with a vengeance. I was driving a motorway maintenance truck in busy traffic on the M1, heavily stoned and without the slightest idea of what I was supposed to be doing. The realisation sobered me up fast. I made it to the other side of the junction and began rolling. Don't want to let down the team....

By mid morning the weather had brightened up and I seemed to have got the hang of the job. I drop off our team, drive up the motorway a little way, and then walk back to meet them, and then start picking up rubbish with a gripping stick and deposit it into a bin bag, working my way back to the truck. I began to enjoy myself. Despite being on the side of a busy motorway, I was, after all, in the Nottinghamshire country on a glorious day. I found myself pleasantly surprised by the views, quite striking really, full of rolling hills and valleys, something I can't say I've noticed before.

The rubbish deposited on the side of the motorway is stunning in its diversity. It is perhaps a little snapshot of Britain, albeit it a weird, unflattering one. We picked up the usual crisp, chocolate, plastic bottles and fag packets. But also used condoms, (do people have sex on the hard shoulder? Apparently so.) a headless doll, a broken plastic trophy and a porn mag. It was as if there was another world out there, one secretive and slightly seedy. I was afraid I might come across a masturbating dwarf or a body part in the thicker undergrowth. Jesus.

The team leader Chris and his sidekick Jabber, he of the tattooed head, were veterans of moonlighting on the motorway. For them though, this work was nothing to shout about. They regarded picking up litter as beneath them, a little suspect: unmanly even. For them the real work was closing off lanes on the motorway for maintenance, a job which involved hanging off the back of a truck and dropping off weighty warning signs. Or picking up the signs, which they assured me were extremely heavy, and heaving them back onto the truck. There was also plenty of running back and forth across the motorway. They told me about this with evident pride and obviously regarded this as real work. I remember thinking I'd stick to picking up rubbish on the hard shoulder: I'd found my level.

The next day, the team's regular driver, Anthony was back and I was relegated to an everyday refuse collector. Anthony was another of few words. Unlike the others in the team who used silence as a sort of wary defence mechanism and opened up gradually, Anthony was silent simply because he had nothing to say about anything.

He also had great difficulty driving at any speed less then 60 mph. Thus, as he took us to our designated spot on the motorway in the morning rush hour, he undertook standing lines of traffic by cutting onto the hard shoulder which he rocketed down at speed. Not much fun as there tended to be large obstacles such as shredded lorry tyres in the way. We followed a recurring pattern. Anthony drove at an ever-increasing speed, terrorising us all, (although none of us was going to admit it), until Chris finally snapped "Will you slow fucking down?" Anthony then started at about 30 mph but couldn't resist steadily increasing the speed again we were back up to 55 and still accelerating. We suddenly came across a large piece of shredded lorry tyre and Anthony was forced to swerve onto the slow lane just missing a juggernaut which honked angrily. I was white with fear. Anthony, however, was unmoved, impassively chewing on a piece of gum.

The day proceeded much like the last one, consisting mostly of smoking dope and leisurely filling our bin bags with the paraphernalia of Britain's motorists. This time, however, Chris had a brainwave. Our work rate was measured by the number of bin bags we had managed to fill and he was a little concerned at our leisurely rate of progress. He therefore ordered us to only half fill our bags thereby creating the illusion that we had done twice the amount of work. Brilliant. A true leader.

It was now 4.30 in the afternoon and Chris showed more cunning leadership. If we knocked off then, and drove extremely slowly, it would be five by the time we covered the ten miles or so back to the depot. You had to admire the man.

Things started off to plan with Anthony keeping a steady 20mph for all of at least a minute. However, driving at this speed was clearly not in his nature and almost immediately the speedometer started to rise: 30, 40, 50. He moved off the hard shoulder into the slow lane. At this point there was a blaring of horns and the car behind flashed us.

We swivelled round to see rubbish spread all over the motorway and chaos as cars swerve to avoid it. At that moment another half filled bin bag flew gracefully of the back of the van and exploded under the tyres of the following vehicle. We had spent all day collecting rubbish of the periphery of the motorway in order to re-position it in its centre. We started to giggle. Chris didn't look pleased. Anthony looked on unmoved, still chewing.

So next time you're cruising down the motorway and you see a group of fluorescent jacketed motorway maintenance men on the hard shoulder, just don't assume they have the faintest idea what they're doing. If you need some drugs however....

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