October 26 1998
The Hard Shoulder
Just outside Newcastle Upon Tyne
It is far from fun here at my station on the Hard Shoulder Up North. Perhaps you should come along and try it sometime. We have been accommodated in a ridge pole tent – unheated – in a field just over the way and will not be returning home to London until the weekend.
Our instructions, thus far, have been to dig up specimens of mature ragwort littering (in their thousands) the grass verge alongside the motorway. And we have been equipped – perturbingly – in the sort of protective gear that one would normally associate with the nursing care of victims of Lassa fever, i.e. elbow-length rubber gloves, a plastic apron, goggles, and a face mask. Now it doesn’t take an absolute genius auntie to work out that these ragworts are mature plants and, at this time of year, they will already have shed their seeds! And, furthermore, it is virtually impossible to remove the entire root of any plant. We have been issued with buckets of rock salt to pour down the hole left by any removed plant but, frankly, this stuff is just bouncing off the tussocks. Casting a jaundiced eye over the hedge into another field positively bristling with horses – and bare patches of earth – I would have thought it might have occurred to The Government that the overstocking of pastures by munching equines could be mightily contributing to this ragwort’s establishment in any field.
And then there is the monetary issue . . . Although, on Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA), we do get an extra ‘training’ payment for such work, it is nevertheless the case that – when an hourly rate of pay is calculated – it comes to the derisory sum of £1.62 per hour. And that sum, I may add, is derived by adding the JSA to the ‘training’ payment and dividing by 40 (hours per week). It may have escaped your attention auntie, basking as you are in the MI6 retirement pension due to one of your considerable status, but the UK Minimum Wage is not due to be introduced until 1999, which is a whole 6 months from now!
Today, in any event, has proved far from boring. In The Government’s zeal to reduce the costs which go with any ‘New Deal’ such as this, they seem to have neglected to allocate enough staff to the enterprise! And each pair of supervisors has had to patrol a 50-mile length of motorway in their efforts to keep an eye on five groups of 20 reluctant conscripts. Having been told that we shouldn’t leave any wilting ragwort on the verges (it is apparently more palatable to horses in this state) one ‘bright spark’ in our group decided to light a bonfire and reduce it to ash. Well auntie, the upshot of this was that voluminous clouds of thick black smoke then blew across the motorway and occluded any possibility of anyone driving safely along it. In fact, I do believe that when an apparent fire bomb lit up the sky at around 4pm, it must have been due to a combustible petrol tanker, plus load, hitting that copse of pine trees on the bend!
Yours, slightly singed,