(james benedict brown) on the road


Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 5 April, 2009

Most British city dwellers will probably recognise the engine note of a black cab. The older ones have a fruity burble, and the more recent blobby looking models have an equally gruff but distinct engine that can also be heard under the bonnet of some commercial trucks and vans.

The sound – the noise of a black cab approaching – is one filed under ‘comfort’ in my aural memory bank. No matter what time of day or night (usually the latter) the sound of a black cab indicates security and warmth. It’s even better when you’re on the inside, burbling away from a cold and wet night on the town. In Sheffield the comforting effect is particularly noticeable, since the engines have to work just that bit harder to get you up the hills that would have certainly taken forty-five minutes had you chosen to walk home instead.

In Belfast, however, it’s different. The black cab drivers there still operate with multiple occupancy on some routes, and unwritten rules about where to hail a cab or who to share with have always eluded me. When I lived there – almost four years ago now – I was much more clued into the surfeit of mini cabs that serve the city.

The two largest cab firms were – I was once reliably informed – the only ones who chose to make payments to those groups who might disrupt their business on both sides of the community lines in the city. Whether or not that is still true, I do not know. I lived in a lively and young neighbourhood that was a balanced mixed of transient protestants, catholics and non-Northern Irish folk who couldn’t understand the difference. Being surrounded by student houses, we were well connected by bus to the city and it was never hard to find a cab into or from town.

One cab firm lodged itself in my memory and my mobile phone. I’ve changed cellphone several times since leaving Belfast but I seem to have successfully transferred my phonebook each time. In Belfast this week for the first of many regular visits, I needed a cab home on just the kind of dark, cold and rainy night for which cabs were invented. I didn’t need to remember the number but it surprised me to scroll down and find it there: saved in a phone that was bought long after I moved from Northern Ireland.

The advantage of this (and many other small firms) over the two dominant companies is that although they have fewer drivers, fewer people call them first. Approaching midnight I had to wait less the five minutes for a cab to arrive outside the busy Cathedral Quarter bar I had been invited along to by a man who recognised me after four years away.

This time, the engine note of the car was not the aural comfort that subconsciously told me I was going home. If the engine of a black cab is the sign of a safe journey home in Sheffield, the illuminated geographical name on the roof of a cab is my Friday night comforter in Belfast. Waiting that short while for my cab to arrive on a bustling street corner, I filtered out the cabs belonging to other companies. I imagine I could have hopped in any one of them, but for some strange reason I stuck to my obscure loyalties. Perhaps because I wanted to know whether they still comforted me. And they do. Along the length of a narrow cobbled street I spotted a nondescript Japanese sedan approaching, its illuminated boards bearing the name of my old neighbourhood that is legible to me even before the letters come into focus.

I chatted to the driver as he pulled me away from the cold night; his car warm in temperature and temperament. I recounted my discovery of the number in my phone, and he established my credentials as an outsider, yet one who might be considered a regular. As visitors often do when in Belfast cabs, we talked about the city, about the nightlife and about the changing scene of the province. My driver referred to recent events, bemoaning the fact that much of the province’s trouble is now being caused by those too young ‘to remember when we didn’t have Tesco, when we didn’t have all this investment’.

Assuredly avoiding the Friday night traffic hot spots, we chatted in very brief syllables about the past, present and future. At some point – far before my destination – he turned off the meter and rounded it down to a very generous fare. As I stepped out of the cab, wishing him a safe night, I considered that not only were cabs much cheaper here than back home; they were also driven by much friendlier people. Not once in five years of living in Sheffield did I talk with a taxi driver.


Missing you already

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 October, 2008

Tthe University of Sheffield School of Architecture has launched its 2008 Live Projects, and the fifth and sixth year M.Arch students are currently out there shaping alternative practice in Sheffield (although checking my diary it’s possible the sixth years are huddled away polishing off dissertations this week). Out of tiny seeds are mighty trees grown… project blogs are now the norm and not the exception, and I am one of a growing number of ex-students watching this year’s projects from a distance.

This year’s M.Arch handbook (pdf) has more information about all the projects and all the design studios launching in November.

The big man

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 16 September, 2008

“Sorry for the delay, big man, as soon as the van comes in we’ll get you on the road, ok?”

Deflated smile from me, a nod of acknoweldgement and all the frustration is dissipated. I am a true Brit, useless at getting worked up or angry. It’s only half past nine in the morning, and my van was due to be ready for collection at nine. But in a parallel universe there’s probably a louder, brasher, more confident me (possibly American by birth) who would have the wherewithall to make a scene about this.

What defuses the frustration is that canny term of endearement which, so far in my life, has been found to be uniquely Glaswegian.

“Big man.”

You see, I’m not a big man. I’m not small, but I’m not big. I’m brushing six feet with my snow boots on, but I’m not big. I’m a lanky, pale, pasty half-man-half-incompletely-pubescent-teenager. It’s not a great body image, but then you can usually pull it off if you stick to the bouffant nerd look. Which I do.

In Sheffield, I got used to the various South Yorkshire terms of address, which in a single day’s shopping in that city could include “duck”, “cock”, “petal”, “flower”, “sweetheart” and (of course) “love”. It was quite entertaining to be called all these things in one afternoon. These terms reflected the warmer side of South Yorkshire lingo, and bring back fond memories of the sweet and honest friendliness that oozed from people who were glad to see you in their home or business. The first two were comfortably masculine and respectful, while the latter four were predominantly (but not exclusively) feminine or affectionate.

But “big man”?

What makes that even more poignant is that I am plainly not the biggest man in this conversation. Of course he is; he is the typical big man who runs a car and van hire franchise. It’s a busy, stressful job with lots of customer interaction and far too many vehicles crammed into a archway business unit beneath some railway tracks. He’s affable, friendly, dressed to do business, and not afraid to get his hands dirty sweeping out my van when it is eventually returned. Although I finally leave an hour after arriving, I’ve been defused and quitely sign all the documents without a fuss, despite being a good sixty miles behind my schedule for the day. Because that’s what this Glaswegian term seems to do. It’s not so much a term of respect, but a mildly patronising acknowledgement that although I am “the big man” I’m not really in control of the situation. The last time I can ever recall using the term “the big man” in a conversation it was behind the back of an employer that neither I nor the other person particularly liked.

So not a term of endearment, but not fairly a patronising name? I don’t quite know what it is, but I do that it defused the situation for long enough for me to have driven 100 miles before I remembered that I had been annoyed for getting held up in the first place.

“Everyone lives on a hill in Sheffield” – Jarvis Cocker

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 5 August, 2008

Jarvis Cocker, the boy from Intake who’s done good (and who now lives in Paris) recently produced a two part radio documentary for the BBC called Jarvis Cocker’s Musical Map of Sheffield. The programmes are being rebroadcast this week, starting yesternight and continuing tonight at midnight on BBC 6 Music. Not only is this a brilliant little trip down an increasingly nostalgic memory lane for me, it’s also a brilliant aural work, very much what I would aspire to one day produce either through the podcast or other means.

Don’t fret if you’ve missed the first episode, because both will be on the iPlayer for a week after broadcast. And don’t fret if you get interupted while listening, because the handy new version of the iPlayer remembers where you were if you accidentally close the window or if your wireless connection burps.

23 minutes more sunlight for £23.45

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 27 July, 2008

Glasgow is only about 2º north of Sheffield, but today it enjoyed 23 more minutes of daylight. One extra minute of beautiful northern light for every pound it cost me to get up here. All I need now is a job to pay for those 23 minutes… answers on a postcard, please.